Sunday, January 30, 2011
One night in 1960, author and chess fan Frank Brady sat down for dinner in a Greenwich Village tavern.
Across the table from him was Bobby Fischer, just a teenager but already a grand master of the game. Fischer was never without his pocket chessboard, and as they lingered over dinner, he pulled it out and began to rehearse for an upcoming match. His eyes glazed, his fingers flew over the little board, and he seemed completely unaware of his surroundings as he whispered to himself about possible moves.
Brady found that in the presence of Fischer's chess genius, his eyes were full of tears.
He describes the scene in his new book, Endgame: Bobby Fischer's Remarkable Rise and Fall — From America's Brightest Prodigy to the Edge of Madness.
Fischer was a troubled genius. He dropped out of sight after winning the 1972 World Championship against Boris Spassky of the Soviet Union. Today, he's better known as a paranoid recluse whose frequent anti-Semitic and anti-American rants drove away friends and angered the U.S. government.
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Wednesday, January 5, 2011
* This story appears in the January 10, 2011, issue of ESPN The Magazine.
SHE FLIES TO Siberia in late September with nine teammates, all in their 20s, much older than she is. When she won the match that put her on this plane she had no idea what it meant. Nobody had told her what was at stake, so she just played, like always. She had no idea that she'd qualified for the Olympiad; no idea what the Olympiad was. She had no idea that her win would send her to the city of Khanty-Mansiysk, in remote Russia; no idea where Russia was. When she learned all this, she asked just one question: "Is it cold there?"
But here she is, journeying with her countrymen 27 hours across the globe. And though she has known many of them for a few years, they have no idea where she is from or where she aspires to go, because Phiona Mutesi is from a place where girls like her don't talk about that.
AGAPE CHURCH COULD collapse at any moment. It is a ramshackle structure that lists alarmingly to one side, held together by scrap wood, rope, a few nails and faith. It is rickety, like everything else around it. At the church on this Saturday morning in September are 37 children whose lives are equally fragile. They wander in to play a game none had heard of before they met Coach Robert, a game so foreign that there's no word for it in Luganda, their native language.
When they walk through the door, grins crease their faces. This is home as much as any place, a refuge, the only community they know. These are their friends, their brothers and sisters of chess, and there is relative safety and comfort here. Inside Agape church it is almost possible to forget the chaos outside, in Katwe, the largest of eight slums in Kampala, Uganda, and one of the worst places on earth.
There are only seven chessboards at the church, and chess pieces are so scarce that sometimes an orphan pawn must stand in for a king. A child sits on each end of a wobbly pew, both straddling the board between their knobby knees, with captured pieces guarded in their laps. A 5-year-old kid in a threadbare Denver Broncos No. 7 jersey competes against an 11-year-old in a frayed T-shirt that reads "J'Adore Paris." Most of the kids are barefoot. Some wear flip-flops. One has on black wing tips with no laces.
It is rapid-fire street chess. When more than a few seconds elapse without a move, there is a palpable restlessness. It is remarkably quiet except for the thud of one piece slaying another and the occasional dispute over the location of a piece on a chessboard so faded that the dark spaces are barely distinguishable from the light ones. Surrender is signaled by a clattering of captured pieces on the board. A new match begins immediately without the slightest celebration.
Coach Robert Katende is here. So are Benjamin and Ivan and Brian. And up near the pulpit sits Phiona. One of two girls in the room, Phiona is juggling three matches at once and dominating them with her aggressive style, checkmating her young opponents while drawing a flower in the dirt on the floor with her toe. Phiona is 14, and her stone face gives no sign that the next day she will travel to Siberia to compete against the very best chess players in the world.
ICE? THE OPENING CEREMONIES at the 2010 Chess Olympiad take place in an ice arena. Phiona has never seen ice. There are also lasers and dancers inside bubbles and people costumed as chess pieces marching around on a giant chessboard. Phiona watches it all with her hands cupping her cheeks, as if in a wonderland. She asks if this happens every night in this place, and she is told by her coach no, the arena normally serves as a home for hockey, concerts and the circus. Phiona has never heard of those things.
She returns to the hotel, which at 15 floors is the tallest building Phiona has ever entered. She rides the elevator with trepidation. She stares out of her room window amazed by how people on the ground look so tiny from the sixth floor. She takes a long shower, washing away the slum.
PHIONA MUTESI IS the ultimate underdog. To be African is to be an underdog in the world. To be Ugandan is to be an underdog in Africa. To be from Katwe is to be an underdog in Uganda. And finally, to be female is to be an underdog in Katwe.
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