Heads turned when the Northwest University Intercollegiate Chess Team, led by college chess star Phiona Mutesi (better known as the “Queen of Katwe”), arrived at this year’s Pan-American Intercollegiate Chess Championships. The attention moved to center stage when the Northwest University chess club won the trophy for the Top Small College Team category in its first season of competition.
Northwest clinched the trophy with its 4-0 sweep of defending champion Oberlin College, which had taken the trophy in each of the previous four years. The Northwest team faced stiff competition to earn the trophy, playing opposite college chess clubs from Columbia University, Arizona State University, Tecnológico Nacional de México, University of Maryland-Baltimore County, Oberlin College, and University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. Small college chess teams like Northwest played against teams from all divisions and earned the trophy by earning the most points in its division. First-year student Phiona Mutesi, featured in the 2016 Disney film, “Queen of Katwe,” played on Board 2 and won three matches while drawing in another. Ben Mukumbya, her Uganda countryman and fellow freshman, earned three wins on Board 1. Teammates Andrew Uptain (first-year transfer) and freshman Walter Borbridge also contributed wins to the team’s success. Articles featuring the outstanding new team appeared in Chess Life Online Magazine, Chess Base Online, and USChess.org (United States Chess Federation).
Northwest’s coach, National Master Elliott Neff, was recognized immediately by the organizers of the tournament, as he serves as CEO and Founder of Chess4Life, one of America’s largest chess teaching companies. The chess education tools offered by Chess4Life are industry leading and key in the rapid development of the Northwest University chess team’s skill. Neff played an instrumental role in bringing the team into being when he called Dr. Joseph Castleberry, President of Northwest University, to ask whether the university would consider offering a scholarship to Mutesi. When she visited Northwest, Dr. Castleberry not only offered her a scholarship, but also extended the same opportunity to her Ugandan teammate, Benjamin Mukumbya. With two strong players approaching Master ratings, Dr. Castleberry decided it would be possible for the University to compete in world-class intercollegiate tournaments.
The Pan-American Intercollegiate Chess Championships include university teams from Canada to South America. Perennial leaders such as Webster University, and University of Texas-Dallas field multiple teams made up entirely of grandmasters on full-ride scholarships. More than 85 Master level and above players competed on the various college teams with dozens bearing the International Grandmaster Title. Northwest University plans to make a long-term commitment to intercollegiate chess, building on this year’s success.