ESPN the Magazine has a story in the current issue about a young chess player from Uganda named Phiona Mutesi. The story is titled â€œGame of Her Lifeâ€ with a smaller headline, â€œFor 14-year-old chess prodigy Phiona Mutesi, chess is a lifeline.â€
Written by Tim Crothers, the article tells the story of how Phiona went to play in the Chess Olympiad in Khanty-Mansiysk, Russia, last year, and about her impoverished upbringing. It is a touching story, full of vivid detail.
Crothers spent time with Phiona in Uganda and at the Olympiad and he interviewed her opponents in the competition, including Dina Kagramanov, the Canadian champion, who was generous in her assessment of Phiona’s skill, saying, â€œAnybody can be taught moves and how to react to those moves, but to reason like she does at her age is a gift that gives her the potential for greatness.â€
But will Phiona achieve greatness? Is she a prodigy? One potential issue is her age.
In the article, she is said to be 14, though the World Chess Federation’s Web site shows her birth year as 1993 on her player card, making her 17.
In a telephone interview, Crothers said that Phiona’s birth year was listed as 1993 on her passport, but that that was an invention of the man who applied for her. â€œNothing is documented,â€ Crothers said. He said he believed that she was 14 based on conversations with her mother who did not know, but traced Phiona’s birth to the same time as events in her own life that took place in 1996.
Setting aside the question of Phiona’s age, a more fundamental question is what is a prodigy? Is it a child who has potential to be great? Or is it a child who has already accomplished something remarkable?
Crothers believes it is the former. In an e-mail, he wrote, â€œAfter having double-checked the definition, I think the word describes Phiona.â€
That is not an uncommon feeling, particularly in the chess world, where breathless pronouncements are often made about the current ability or future potential of some child. Sometimes these predictions turn out to be true, but, not surprisingly, many turn out to be false because the children lose focus or develop other interests â€” or they just turn out not to be as good as advertised.
These days, the usual rule-of-thumb is that a child is a chess prodigy if he or she is a grandmaster by age 13 or 14, such as Illya Nyzhnyk of Ukraine, or a master by the age of 9, like Samuel Sevian of California.
Women’s chess actually has the perfect example of a prodigy: Hou Yifan of China. She became the women’s world champion last month at 16 â€” the youngest champion in history. She has been among the world’s top 10 women players since she was 12.
Some might say that it is unfair to compare Phiona to Hou, who has received support and coaching from the Chinese government since she was little. On the basis of whether they have had the same opportunities, that is clearly true. But, on the basis of accomplishment, there is no comparison.
At one point, Crothers writes about Phiona, â€œShe succeeds because she possesses that precious chess gene that allows her to envision the board many moves ahead, â€¦ â€ Unfortunately, that is an oversimplification of what it takes to play chess well. The skills that set the best chess players apart from others are knowledge and pattern recognition; merely calculating moves is not sufficient.
Developing the skills to be a great chess player takes many years of practice and training. While Crothers mentions that Phiona has a coach, Robert Katende, who started the project where Phiona learned to play, he writes, â€œhe didn’t even know all of the rules until he was given Chess for Beginners shortly after starting the project.â€ Katende seemingly lacks the knowledge to shape Phiona into a top-notch player.
Given Phiona’s poverty, she also does not have access to computer programs that can be used for training, or to the Internet where Web sites make it possible to find skilled opponents to practice against, day or night. It is the availability of such tools that have made it possible for some children to become elite players at young ages.
(According to Crothers, the Ugandan team was able to attend last year’s Olympiad because the president of the World Chess Federation, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, paid for the trip.)
Crothers ends the article by writing about her one victory at the Olympiad against Haregeweyn Abera, a teenager from Ethiopia who, like Phiona, had not competed in an international competition before. Against the five women that Phiona played who had rankings from the World Chess Federation, she lost four games and drew one. By comparison, Haregeweyn, whose birth year is listed as 1996 on the federation’s Web site, lost all her games against ranked women.
Though Crothers portrays the games that Phiona lost as hard fought, he said he really had no idea how well she played. â€œI have been a sports reporter for 25 years,â€ he said, â€œbut I had never watched any other sporting event where the game was half over and I could not tell who was winning.â€