SEATTLE – From the speed at which he sets the pieces to his mastery his knowledge of the board, Elliott Neff has earned his title as a chess National Master.
"I spent hundreds of hours, thousands of hours,” Neff said. “In fact, I would say the 10,000 hour rule does apply."
Now, he applies those thousands of hours to paying it forward.
Neff founded Bellevue-based Chess4Life, an academy dedicated to teaching kids life skills through the game.
"Today, Chess4Life reaches thousands of kids on a weekly basis,” he said. "We have five locations, and are opening another one up next week in Bothell."
But it’s one of his international students who became the subject Disney’s latest movie.
Queen of Katwe is based on the true story of Phiona Mutesi, who rose from the slums of Uganda to become a chess champion.
Neff first met the young player during her trip to the U.S. in 2014.
"I said I'd be happy to help, if I can. She was like, ‘Really, would you?!’” he recalled, laughing.
Neff spent time coaching her, and she had an inspirational meeting with local students at Chess4Life.
"Telling the kids, you can succeed if you focus on what you have rather than what you don't have,” Neff said. “Because here's a girl who had nothing, really literally nothing, was sleeping on the streets."
Since then, Neff has traveled to Africa to continue working with Phiona, who hopes to become the first woman Grand Master from Uganda.
Neff believes the film version of her remarkable underdog story will do more than just sell tickets.
"Chess itself has these benefits of teaching life skills, of thinking ahead, of consequences for your choices, so imagine what would happen if this movie were to inspire a million Phiona stories,” he said.
Queen of Katwe is rated PG and opens September 23.