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Formerly homeless Nigerian refugee is now a chess national master at the age of 10

"When you lose, you have made a mistake, and that can help you learn," the chess prodigy said. "I never lose. I learn."

Formerly homeless Nigerian refugee is now a chess national master at the age of 10
Image Source: GoFundMe

Just three years ago, Tanitoluwa Adewumi was a 7-year-old Nigerian refugee with very little knowledge of chess living in a homeless shelter in Manhattan. Today, the fifth-grader has a home to call his own and the prestigious title of a national chess master. According to The New York Times, Tani became the 28th-youngest person ever to become a chess master in the United States at 10 years 7 months and 28 days of age after cruising through an in-person tournament in Connecticut this month. Winning every game in the tournament—which was open to advanced players of all ages—the youngster emerged with an impressive chess rating of 2223. 


Tani's exponential rise to national chess master is the stuff of Hollywood biographical sports dramas. After fleeing northern Nigeria with his family in 2017 over the fear of attacks by Boko Haram terrorists on Christians such as themselves, Tani began attending P.S. 116—a local elementary school in New York City which has a part-time chess teacher. After learning the basics of the game, the young boy realized that he really enjoyed playing and prodded his mom, Oluwatoyin Adewumi, to ask if he could join the chess club. In an email to the club, Oluwatoyin put forth her son's interest while explaining that she could not pay the fees for the program because the family was living in a homeless shelter at the time.


Russell Makofsky, who oversees the P.S. 116 chess program, waived the fees, began training Tani. Not long after, the boy took part in his first tournament with the lowest rating of any participant, 105. His play skyrocketed month by month and a little over a year after he first began learning chess, Tani was crowned the New York State chess champion for kindergarten through third grade. "One year to get to this level, to climb a mountain and be the best of the best, without family resources," Makofsky told The New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof at the time. "I've never seen it."


News of a homeless third-grader outwitting children from elite private schools with private chess tutors gained national attention, opening up a flood of support for the hard-working Adewumi family. While a GoFundMe drive raised over $254k for Tani, his parents, and his brother, top private schools offered full scholarships, immigration lawyers reached out with pro bono assistance offers, and many well-wishers extended housing—ranging from modest to palatial—for the family.


The family ultimately settled on one of the more modest and practical housing offers, a two-bedroom apartment near P.S. 116, for which an anonymous donor paid a year’s rent. Although the amount raised through GoFundMe could've transformed their life overnight, the Adewumis decided not to spend a cent on themselves and to instead take out a 10 percent tithe and donate it to their church—which helped them while they were homeless—and use the rest to help African immigrants who are struggling in the United States.

Image Source: GoFundMe

"Anybody who is coming from Africa who is in the position we were in, we will help them," Tani's dad, Kayode Adewumi, said. "I'm a hardworking guy," he added, explaining why they chose not to spend the money on themselves. As for Tani, when asked if he was okay with seeing the $200,000 disappear, the boy shrugged and said: "I want to help other kids. I don't mind." At age 10, Tani has his sight set on bigger things. "I want to be the youngest grandmaster," he told Kristof this month. "I want to have it when I'm 11 or 12." The youngest person ever to become a grandmaster was Sergey Karjakin, who achieved that honor at 12 years and 7 months of age.


"We look back and see where we came from and where we are today, and where we hope we're going — and every time we look back we give thanks to God," said Tani's mother, Oluwatoyin, who has just qualified as a patient care technician and is looking for work. The Adewumis sure have a lot to look forward to as a book Tani and his parents wrote about their journey has been optioned for a feature film by Paramount Pictures with Steven Conrad (who wrote The Pursuit of Happyness) handling the script and Trevor Noah set to produce.


The Adewumis now live on Long Island, and like countless others have seen their fair share of struggles during the pandemic. When Tani needed a top chess coach to develop, the family scrimped and hired a grandmaster, Giorgi Kacheishvili, to coach the youngster three times a week. "When the money is too much, I reduce it to two times a week," Kayode said. However, Tani is unfazed by the struggle. When asked how he feels when he loses, he said: "When you lose, you have made a mistake, and that can help you learn. I never lose. I learn."

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