It took third grader Tanitoluwa Adewumi a little over a year to learn to play chess and become the New York State Primary Chess Champion (Top Players K – 3rd Grade) after debuting at the New York State chess championship this month.
Tani, as he is affectionately called, and his older brother and parents arrived in the United States after they escaped Boko Haram in northern Nigeria in 2017, and have never looked back as they show resilience in their new life as refugees and through their immigration hearings to stay in the country legally.
Their story, which is one of the many experiences of African immigrants, was made known to the public by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof who visited them in a homeless shelter in Manhattan where they lived.
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“I want to be the youngest grandmaster,” said Tani who has won over half a dozen trophies in the few months he started playing chess with the help of a part-time chess teacher at his local elementary school, P.S. 116, who taught his class how to play.
Tami’s interest in joining the chess club forced his mother, Oluwatoyin Adewumi who is preparing to become a home health aide, to get him enrolled after explaining to the programme’s patron, Russell Makofsky, about their financial woes. Tami’s fees were waived by Makofsky and he won in his first tournament last year with the lowest rating of 105.
With a current rating of 1587 nearing that of the world’s best player, Magnus Carlsen who stands at 2845, Tami is touted to succeed despite the three-hour free practice sessions he attends in Harlem every Saturday and regular practice on his father’s laptop every evening.
“One year to get to this level, to climb a mountain and be the best of the best, without family resources. I’ve never seen it,” said Makofsky. His chess teacher Shawn Martinez also said, “He is so driven. He does 10 times more chess puzzles than the average kid. He just wants to be better.”
“Tani has an aggressive style of play, and in the state tournament the coaches, watching from the sidelines, were shocked when he sacrificed a bishop for a lowly pawn. Alarmed, they fed the move into a computer and it agreed with Tani, recognizing that the gambit would improve his position several moves later,” writes Nicholas Kristof in his NYT column.
The principal of Tani’s school Jane Hsu said the whiz kid is “an inspiring example of how life’s challenges do not define a person.” His parents are supportive despite being new to the game.
Tani’s father, Kayode Adewumi, works two jobs as a licensed real estate salesman and drives an Uber by renting cars. Mr Adewumi is awaiting the family’s asylum request as their next immigration hearing is scheduled for August.
“The U.S. is a dream country. Thank God I live in the greatest city in the world, which is New York, New York,” he told Kristof after acknowledging that his son’s talents would have died in Nigeria if they had stayed.
Tani’s parents said he has faced his fair share of discrimination including his classmates teasing him for being poor. However, he continues to practice chess every evening as he prepares for the elementary national championship in May.
The story of Tanitoluwa Adewumi and his family has received a lot of attention from New York Times readers who have set up a GoFundMe account to support the family. In two days, the account created by Russell Makofsky has raised $74,724 of the $50,000 goal.