Child Chess Champion’s Family Tells Their Story of Miracles

April 7, 2020 Updated: April 16, 2020

Tani Adewumi was just in first grade when Boko Haram knocked on his father’s door and turned their lives upside down. A couple years later, the story of this son of a Nigerian prince turned homeless refugee turned prodigy chess champion warmed hearts the world over, and since then, the miracles have only continued.

The family tells their story in detail in the book “My Name Is Tani … and I Believe in Miracles” written with author Craig Borlase, which hits shelves April 14, along with a young reader’s version. A movie adaptation of Tani’s life is in the works at Paramount.

Last year, the 9-year-old Tani had only been playing chess for one year when he won the New York State Chess Championship. Tani, his parents, and his brother, Austin, were living in a homeless shelter at the time, and his chess coach reached out to a reporter with their story. It went viral, and goodwill started pouring in: a car, an apartment, prayers, and more than $250,000 raised in an online fundraiser the family then put into a foundation to pay it forward.

tani adewumi plays chess
Nine-year-old Tani Adewumi had only been playing chess for one year when he won the New York State Chess Championship, in his age group, last year. (Courtesy of HarperCollins)

In truth, during those night visits from Boko Haram, Tani said, he was asleep for much of the time. But in the process of writing the book and hearing the full story from the perspectives of his parents, as they escaped the terrorists and created a new life in America, Tani was in awe.

His father, Kayode Adewumi, and mother, Oluwatoyin Adewumi, continue to count their blessings and pay it forward.

“Life has changed tremendously,” Kayode said. “The gravity of what has happened is still going on. At times, when I look on Google, it’s like the news came out yesterday. After that year has gone, what God has done has continued. God has already changed our life completely for good.”

Leaving Home in Fear

Kayode says the miracles began the day he set eyes on his wife—not his wife yet, as they hadn’t even been introduced, in fact. But he spotted her across the street in a beautiful headscarf and greeted her, and told her one day they would get married. She laughed.

In December 2015, schools in Abuja, Nigeria, had sent children home because Boko Haram attacks were growing in frequency and intensity. Kayode was the CEO of a successful printing business, until he got an order for 25,000 copies of something on a flash drive.

It was a poster with a logo of guns, and the words in Arabic reading “Kill all Christians. Death to Western education.”

Kayode realized they were Boko Haram, and tried to return the drive and turn down the order.

But they didn’t let Kayode go easily—though their sons, Tani and Austin, knew little of what was going on at the time, Kayode and Oluwatoyin faced four heart-stopping visits from Boko Haram that drove them out of town, and then out of the country.

Each time, the only thing that stood against them was a single door, and prayer.

But after the fourth time, it became clear this was no way to raise their children. A tourist visa to the United States they had applied for months ago turned out to be a huge blessing, and the family moved to Dallas to stay with Oluwatoyin’s uncle. Obstacles of a different sort arose in Dallas, and the family moved to New York for a fresh start, determined to reach self-sufficiency through hard work and humility, while honoring their roots and where they came from.

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Tani says playing chess teaches you about life, from how to deal with losing to changing strategies and being flexible. (Micah Kandros)

Discovering Chess and Perspective

Tani, an inquisitive and passionate child, was introduced to chess by his older brother, Austin. Austin had seen the game played by others, and though he didn’t know the rules, created a makeshift chessboard in order to play with and pass time with his brother.

The two of them are best friends, Kayode said, and are always playing together.

Once Tani started school in New York, he took a chess class, where he learned the real rules of the game. His curious mind took to the puzzles immediately, and his interest only kept growing as he discovered the strategies of past and present chess legends, and how to develop his own style.

Through hard work, a lot of passion, and what Kayode says he “can only call genius,” Tani became an overnight champion. His coaches Russ and Shawn helped Tani with scholarships to attend chess camp and tournaments, and the young player now has a rating of 2,000, up from 1,500 when he won the state championships.

In chess, there is a rating system based on performance against other players, and the U.S. Chess Federation ranks Class A at 1800–1999; Experts are 2000–2199, a National Master is 2200–2399, and Senior Masters are 2400 and up.

“I’m improving a lot,” Tani said. His interest in chess hasn’t waned a bit, and he says there isn’t anything he doesn’t like about chess—even losing has its lessons.

“Three and a half hours a day; I play, play, play, play, I don’t stop. It’s a very good game,” Tani said. “I’m focusing on improving my endgame, open space endgames are very hard.”

“Chess teaches you about life,” Tani said. How to deal with losing, changing strategy, being flexible, and moving in your desired direction are things that apply both to the game and in a broader sense, he explained. “I think chess teaches you different strategies.”

tani adewumi book
“My Name Is Tani … and I Believe in Miracles” by Tani Adewumi with Craig Borlase. (Courtesy of HarperCollins)

Little Things Add Up

Life in New York was difficult at the beginning, but Kayode and Oluwatoyin said they were able to make ongoing sacrifices as they focused on family and faith. They had made all their big decisions by considering what would be best for their sons’ futures, and Kayode said it has led to a wonderful life in the country the whole world looks to, by the grace of God.

Kayode says he hopes that if their story serves as inspiration, it will be so also to parents, to remind them to be dedicated to their children, to focus on them as the future, and not just have faith themselves, but teach their children faith as well.

“If we did not come together in support of Tani, we might not be where we are today,” Oluwatoyin added. Even though the Adewumis were pressed for time and money, and had no idea the levels at which chess is played when Tani started playing, she went out of her way to take him to trainings and accompanying him to competitions because of his passion.

People often remark to Oluwatoyin how well-behaved her sons are, and she reminds us it’s important to mind the details. In raising their sons, she never fails to remind them to thank God for their blessings, and to remember who they are and go through life with dignity, humility, warmth, and good manners.

When the online fundraiser went live, and thousands upon thousands of dollars poured in, it was through small donations of $5 or $10 from countless strangers. Many were anonymous, including the person who gifted the Adewumis a car, and they may never be able to thank them personally. But the little things added up and turned into life-changing miracles.

“So many different people came together in ways we could not even imagine; we believe it is God-sent,” Oluwatoyin said. “In all these little things that we don’t think counts, God can make a way. I want everybody to know that God can make a way when you think there is no way.”