Tanitoluwa Adewumi, or “Tani,” is 8 years old. A photo showing the young man grinning widely while sitting beside an impressive trophy the size of his torso proves that he’s also a newly crowned chess champion. Despite this, Tani resides in a homeless shelter in Manhattan with his family, awaiting a pending application for asylum: he is a Nigerian refugee.
Tani started learning chess in early 2018. He took to the game like a duck to water and already has seven trophies in pride of place beside his bed at the shelter. “I want to be the youngest grandmaster,” he told Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times. And at the rate he is progressing, it is not beyond the realm of possibility.
Tani’s family, God-fearing Christians, fled northern Nigeria in 2017 after Boko Haram terrorists threatened followers of their faith. Arriving in the United States, a New York City pastor helped Tani, his parents, and his older brother seek refuge in a homeless shelter. Tani’s father found two jobs and his mother qualified as a home health aide. Tani registered at the local elementary school, P.S. 116.
Fortuitously, P.S. 116 has a part-time chess teacher. Tani found his calling.
Registering her son’s burgeoning passion, Tani’s mom, Oluwatoyin Adewumi, agreed to let him join the chess club but first contacted the club directly to explain the family’s financial circumstances. Chess program officiator Russell Makofsky waived the fees. “Tani is rich beyond measure,” he said, referring not to the 8-year-old’s socio-economic circumstances but rather to his supportive, loving parents.
At Tani’s first tournament, his rating was the lowest of all participants: 105. Twelve months later and his rating has risen to an extraordinary 1587 and counting. For the less chess-savvy among us, Kristof offers context: “By comparison, the world’s best player, Magnus Carlsen, stands at 2845.”
School principal Jane Hsu has been touched and impressed by Tani’s journey. “It’s an inspiring example of how life’s challenges do not define a person,” she commented, crediting Tani’s parents in particular for their diligence and support. Tani’s mom accompanies her son to a three-hour free practice session in Harlem every weekend. His dad allows Tani to perfect his chess moves using his laptop. And both parents recognize the truth in the mantra “practice makes perfect”—sometimes, Tani is even allowed to miss church on Sundays.
The ambitious young man’s parents revealed that their son has been teased for being homeless by his classmates, sometimes even coming home in tears. And he has struggled to cope with the family’s as yet unreconciled request for asylum. Tani has found his home, both geographically and figuratively: “I feel American,” he said.
Chess, for Tani, provides both a focus and a meaningful distraction from the contingencies of everyday life.
Tani’s chess teacher, Shawn Martinez, is full of admiration for his student’s unique work ethic: “He does 10 times more chess puzzles than the average kid,” he shared. Makofsky shares Martinez’s admiration. “One year to get to this level,” he exclaimed, “to climb a mountain and be the best of the best, without family resources … I’ve never seen it.”
Since Tani’s story was first covered by the media, a GoFundMe account has been set up in response to public requests to help support the young aspirant and his family. The account succeeded its target of $50,000 in just two days. “The U.S. is a dream country,” Tani’s dad shared, speaking to The New York Times. “Thank God I live in the greatest city in the world.”
The 8-year-old chess champ’s parents agree that if they had stayed in Nigeria, Tani’s talent would likely never have been realized.