Former Westmont coach Russ Carr (above) is featured in <i>The Queen of Katwe</i>, sports writer Tim Crothers’s new book about an unlikely Ugandan chess champ.
Paul Wellman

Tim Crothers was intrigued but skeptical when he heard about Phiona Mutesi. “My first thought was: ‘Is this possibly true?’” said Crothers, an East Coast sports writer on the lookout for a good story. A newsletter from the Sports Outreach Institute described how Phiona, a 13-year-old waif from Uganda, scored an astonishing triumph in an international chess tournament while playing on instinct rather than experience.

Crothers was dispatched by ESPN to Kampala, the sprawling capital of Uganda, to find out more about this girl. There was a permanent stench around her ramshackle residence in Katwe, a slum that Crothers describes as “one of the worst places on earth.” It’s a place where one could easily feel defeated, but the introduction of chess had given Phiona a reason to dream about a better life.

She was good at chess, really good. Crothers dared to play her. “She destroyed me,” he said. He followed her to the 2010 Olympiad, a tournament in Russia with 1,000 players from 149 countries. He wrote an article that appeared in the January 10, 2011, issue of ESPN The Magazine. But there was much more to Phiona’s story than could fit in a few pages, and Crothers went to work on a book.

The Queen of Katwe (Simon & Schuster) was published this month. Crothers was busy signing copies last weekend at Savoy Café & Deli on Figueroa Street. His appearance in Santa Barbara was purposeful. It was here that Russ Carr grew up with a spiritual zeal that would eventually bless the children of Katwe.

Carr was a hardnosed football player at Santa Barbara High. He captained the baseball team at Westmont College. He graduated from Westmont in 1956 and returned to the college in 1966 as a staff member. Fortuitously, he became head coach of soccer, a sport he never played, but one that would help him reach out to the world.

The Warriors won the 1972 NAIA national championship under Carr’s guidance. They scheduled NCAA schools such as UCLA and Washington. “We slept on floors when we traveled,” Carr said. But the austerity of his soccer program was nothing compared to the destitution Carr witnessed when he took a Christian all-star team to Central America. “I saw traumatized children living in cardboard slums,” he said. “I wanted to do something for them.”

Ostensibly, it was economics that prompted Carr to leave Westmont in May 1983. “We had trouble making it in Santa Barbara,” he said. “I bought a farm in Virginia.” He was not content to settle into pastoral bliss. He got involved in ministries overseas. In one such program, he joined a sports delegation that went to Uganda, among the most beleaguered African countries, in 1987. “I’ve been going there ever since,” Carr said.

He founded the Sports Outreach Institute, which provides food to starving children, engages them in sports, and shares the Christian faith. The primary sport is soccer, but Carr also helped start a baseball movement that came to fruition this year when a Ugandan team reached the Little League World Series.

Robert Katende, a point man for Sports Outreach’s soccer program, was concerned for the children who stayed on the sidelines. With Carr’s support, he started the chess project in Katwe. Meanwhile, Carr groomed a Virginia pastor, Rodney Suddith, to take over as director of Sports Outreach. Carr, who’s approaching 80, remains on the organization’s board while he pursues another venture, an online sports ministry.

Suddith has seen firsthand the progress of Phiona Mutesi. “The first time I saw her, she was a shy girl, she was dirty, she didn’t look at you, but she was curious about chess,” Suddith said. “Now, she’s a motivated young woman with confidence, she looks you squarely in the eye, and every day, she teaches others the game.”

Norm and Tricia Popp, a Santa Barbara couple who knew Carr through their church, met Phiona before she embarked to the Olympiad two years ago. She is one of 900 African children who benefit from the Andrew Popp Memorial Scholarship, established by the Popps in honor of their son, a bright, compassionate but tragically troubled young man who took his own life in 2005. That was the same year Phiona took up chess. She did not know how to read or write, but the scholarship enables her to get the schooling she needs. Now 16, Phiona recently competed in the 2012 Olympiad at Istanbul, Turkey, and took steps toward her dream of becoming a chess grandmaster.

Another link in Santa Barbara’s connection to the children of the slums will be forged on Saturday, October 20. The third annual Santa Barbara Century bicycle ride will attract hundreds of riders, and the sum of their entry fees — which exceeded $80,000 the last two years — will be donated to charities; among them is the Popp scholarship.


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