KATWE, Uganda — Seventeen-year-old Richard Buyinza stared at the chessboard in front of him, plotting what he hoped would be his killer move. Around him in the cramped, dimly lit room, more than a dozen youngsters were hunched on wooden benches, equally intent on strategy.
Outside, small rivers of runoff and sewage scarred the dirt alley, turned to mud from a recent rain.
The room was silent except for the tapping of plastic chess pieces being moved. Finally, Buyinza and his opponent reached a stalemate. Without a word, they reset their board and prepared for a new game.
Nearly every day for a decade, Buyinza has come to play chess in this room in a squat concrete housing block in Katwe, a crime-ridden slum on the outskirts of Uganda’s capital, Kampala. His companion for much of that time was his older sister, Phiona Mutesi, a chess prodigy whose story has been adapted for the Disney film “Queen of Katwe,” which opened nationwide in the United States last Friday.
Chess transformed Mutesi’s life, taking her from destitution to foreign cities and red-carpet appearances with movie stars. Now 20, she has moved out of the slum into a Kampala boarding school, where she is in her final year. She dreams of becoming a pediatrician.
The teenagers and younger children who show up here day after day hope the game will change their lives, too.
“She gives courage to each and every young boy or girl you see there,” said Buyinza, who serves as a mentor at the Katwe school, part of the Som Chess Academy.
The academy is a Christian mission project founded by Robert Katende, played in “Queen of Katwe” by actor David Oyelowo. Katende fled Uganda’s civil war as a child, was later orphaned and, as an adult, found a job with Sports Outreach, a nonprofit Virginia-based group that uses sports to spread Christianity.
He organized soccer matches in Katwe, and would offer his players bowls of porridge afterward. To get children on the sidelines involved, he started teaching them chess.
None of them had heard of the game, and many thought at first that he was telling them to play chase. They were puzzled when he pulled out a board and delicate black and white plastic pieces.
Mutesi stumbled upon the chess games 11 years ago when she tagged along after an older brother, hoping for a bowl of porridge. As the movie depicts, she discovered an innate talent and went on to become one of the best players in Uganda, capable of competing on an international level.
The academy started in 2004, still serving porridge along with chess lessons, in a clapboard church down the road from its current home. Centers have also been set up in four other Kampala slums, as well as in two communities in Uganda’s north and east.
Every day from noon to 5 p.m., between a dozen and 50 children gather at the Katwe school to play chess, gossip and listen to preaching.
At the end of each day, “we gather together and then we have some talk about life skills,” said Richard Tugume, a self-assured 24-year-old who has been coming to the chess games for 13 years and leads the daily sessions. “Then we share the word.”
The students come from extremely impoverished conditions. They rarely have enough to eat. Some are orphans or were abandoned by their parents.
The chess academy offers them a daily meal, which was enough to attract Mutesi at first. It provides a safe space where parents can send their children without worrying they’ll be exposed to crime or drugs. And it pays to put some of the youngsters through school, an impossibility for families that earn just a few dollars each week.
It also offers the dream of a path out of the slums.
There are no international sports or entertainment stars from Uganda. The world’s most famous living Ugandan is probably Joseph Kony, a militant warlord whose brutal militia, the Lord’s Resistance Army, was the subject of a viral video four years ago.
Now, thanks to Phiona Mutesi, there is at least one model of a Ugandan rags-to-riches story.
“In Africa, if you concentrate at football, it cannot take you anywhere,” Buyinza said. “Those players even at the national level who are playing football, you can’t get anything. But if you are playing chess, the chances are many for travel, to go to big places.”
When Katende first tried to sell the children on chess, “he talked of winning trophies,” Tugume said. “We had never won any trophy.”
Som’s chess players match up against well-educated, well-heeled professionals, which can mean connections to Uganda’s upper crust.
“Educated people, they play chess — like doctors,” said Buyinza, who also wants a career in medicine. “Most of the chess players, they have been able to get jobs, because they have competed with those guys in big posts.”
The first generation of Som players can attest that the game has changed their lives, if not to the same extent as Mutesi’s. Many work for the ministry as coaches, and some are studying at nearby universities, an unthinkable leap for a slum youngster just a few years ago.
Juliet Kirabo is a self-possessed 12-year-old who plays at one of the newer chess centers in Kawempe, a slightly more rural slum north of Kampala.
Playing chess helps her focus at school, she said.
“It teaches me that you have to give sacrifices and you have to be confident,” she said. “Like when you are moving a piece, you have to be confident that it is protected.”
Mutesi’s success inspires her to keep playing, she said: “I really want to be like her.”
“I am like a pawn, because I am still young,” added Zachariah Ekirapa, a 17-year-old who also plays in Kawempe. “But I know that in the future I will be something useful.”
The academy’s membership has exploded in the wake of the Disney film.
Director Mira Nair, best known for “Monsoon Wedding,” runs a film school in Kampala. She lives there for part of the year with her Ugandan husband and made an effort to incorporate the city into her film.
Stars Oyelowo and Lupita Nyong’o, who plays Mutesi’s mother, came to Katwe last spring to film much of the movie, causing a sensation. Many of the slum children were cast as extras. Some of the chess players got speaking roles, and others helped with the crew.
Sixteen-year-old Madina Nalwanga, who plays Mutesi, grew up poor in Kampala and was discovered in a dance class. “Queen of Katwe” is her first film.
Tugume, who helped with casting of local children, said he still gets calls asking whether there are roles that need filling.
“It’s like everyone was changed,” he chuckled.