From homeless refugee to chess prodigy, 9-year-old dreams of becoming the youngest grandmaster
IT’S 9 P.M., and 8-year-old Tani Adewumi is wired like he’d just swallowed a bag of sugar. He had played chess all day, but he wanted to play more, at least until midnight. The first day of the 2019 New York State Scholastic Chess Championship had just ended, and he finished with three wins in as many matches, surprising a former champion and two other seeded players. He was heading into Day 2 — the final day of the tournament — in the lead, and he wanted to keep up the momentum when he returned to the huge Airbnb he was sharing with his family, his coach, and a few other coaches in Saratoga Springs.
“If you want to win tomorrow, you better get your butt to sleep like the rest of the champions are right now,” his coach, Shawn Martinez, told him. And so, reluctantly, Tani went to bed, and as soon as he closed his eyes, he fell asleep. Already in his young life, Tani had spent nights in fear — fear for his own life, fear for the lives of his parents. Nerves over a chess match weren’t about to cause a single lost z.
The next day, Tani won his fourth match, no sweat. In the semifinal, Tani did something unorthodox: He purposely sacrificed his bishop for a pawn.
Why did you do that? Martinez wondered. I wouldn’t have made such a risky move.
It appeared to be a blunder, but Tani knew exactly what he was doing. He remembered studying a 19th-century chess game played by the legendary Paul Morphy, and he knew if he could bait his opponent into taking his bishop, he could win the game.
His opponent gave him a wry smile as he realized — too late — why Tani had made that move, the one that would send him to the championship match with a perfect record.
Incredulous, Martinez plugged all of the moves up until the sacrifice of the bishop into an automated chess program on his laptop. After the match, he showed the results to Tani: The strongest move Tani could have made at that point was to sacrifice his bishop. It was aggressive, bold, and brave. It was a move most chess players wouldn’t even consider.
But Tani is no ordinary chess player. And his journey isn’t ordinary, either. Fifteen months earlier, his family had settled into a New York City homeless shelter after fleeing Nigeria. Thirteen months earlier, he couldn’t tell a rook from a pawn. That March day, after drawing in the final, he was crowned a state champion. They didn’t know it then, but Tani’s 8-year-old brain and its ability to think 20 moves ahead on an 8-by-8 chessboard were about to change the Adewumis’ lives forever.
“That moment was everything,” Martinez says. “I knew then he was meant for greatness.”
ON A DREARY December 2016 afternoon, Tani’s father, Kayode Adewumi, sat in his dining room chair in Abuja, the capital of Nigeria, with his palms on his head, staring at his computer. A poster with the words “No to Western education” and “Kill all Christians” screamed at him from the screen. But what was more terrifying was the logo that accompanied the words — a logo he could recognize in his sleep. It was Boko Haram.
Four men had come into his printing shop earlier that afternoon and, after handing him a thumb drive, asked him to print 25,000 copies of the poster saved on the drive. Kayode didn’t think much about it until this moment, back in his house, with his wife, Oluwatoyin, looking at him, her eyes narrowed and worry smeared across her forehead.
Accepting the business meant he had to work for Boko Haram, a terrorist organization, and that, as a Christian, and a human being, he couldn’t bring himself to do. But refusing essentially meant a death sentence for him and his family, especially now that he’s seen what the poster says and can identify the four men.
He could hear Tani, 6, and his older brother, Austin, playing with friends out in the front yard, arguing about who gets to kick the soccer ball, and a fresh wave of fear went through his body.
What are we going to do? Where are we going to go?
Even before that threat, the Adewumis noticed their country changing under the attack of Boko Haram. Ever since the 2014 abduction of 276 girls from a northern Nigerian high school, Boko Haram’s attacks on civilians had only increased. In 2015, a bomb blast occurred so close to Oluwatoyin’s office that she could feel the heat as security escorted her out of her office. The day before the Boko Haram men came into Kayode’s print shop, Tani and Austin had come home from school early — they were evacuated after Boko Haram sent a message threatening another attack on a school in Abuja. Tani had peppered his parents with questions. “Why were we let off early?” “Who is Boko Haram?” “What is religious extremism?” All the while, his parents were able to shield him. They didn’t know how much longer they could keep doing that.
Kayode came up with a plan. When the men come for their posters the next day, he’ll tell them he couldn’t do the job because his printing press had broken the previous evening. He’ll then hand them the flash drive and tell them he hadn’t looked at it because he hadn’t needed to. Clean lie. He prayed they’d bite and leave his family alone.
They didn’t believe him. A week later, when only Oluwatoyin was home and the children were asleep, they showed up at the Adewumis’ house looking for Kayode’s laptop. They assumed Kayode had seen the poster and saved it to use against them. Let’s use Oluwatoyin to send Kayode a message, Oluwatoyin heard them whisper to each other in Arabic.
What they didn’t know was this: Oluwatoyin was raised Muslim and spoke Arabic growing up. When she heard this, she knew they were going to kill her or rape her. So she did the one thing she could still do: She knelt and began to pray. Atuasal iilayk — I’m begging you. She said the Arabic phrase over and over. “Are you a Muslim?” they asked her. “Yes,” she whispered, as tears fell down her cheeks. Silence followed her response. They looked at each other, and without saying another word, they exited the house.
A few weeks later, Kayode asked Oluwatoyin to pack a small bag of necessities. Without informing anybody, the family moved to Akure in rural Nigeria, to a house with a tall fence. They hid there, using their savings to get by, hoping Boko Haram would lose track of them so they could eventually go back to living a normal life in that small town.
A few months into their life in Akure, when they were getting ready to go to bed, they heard a noise — like somebody was shaking their fence. Boko Haram, they realized, had found them. “You’ve been escaping us for far too long, but we know you are inside, and we know that today you will go to heaven,” they heard the group of men yelling from outside. Kayode asked Oluwatoyin to go to their kids’ bedroom and pray hard because nothing short of a miracle could save them now.
Kayode knew it would take a while for them to knock down the fence, but a back door attached to the fence led directly to the kitchen. If they found the back door, they’d get inside within minutes. He came up with a plan: He would push open the kitchen door and announce himself. They’d follow him and leave his family alone. It worked — even if by accident. When they heard him, Kayode believes they mistook him for the police and yelled, “It’s the police, let’s go,” and jumped into a car and fled. Kayode stayed outside the kitchen door all night, waiting to see whether they’d come back.
As daylight broke, Kayode wearily walked back into the house to find Oluwatoyin calling him frantically. The kids, who were asleep before, were now awake, fear etched on their faces.
Their faces confirmed the one thing he’d been thinking over and over in his head. They had to leave the country for good — and they had to do it now.
TANI IS SEATED in his second-grade classroom in PS 116 in Manhattan on a cold February 2018 day. The school dedicated one period a week — every Thursday — to a special chess class taught by Martinez. Kids break off into pairs, getting ready to play games monitored by Martinez. That day, Tani sits across from Martinez and learns the rules of chess, asking questions throughout the match. Martinez sees Tani pick up the game at a remarkably fast rate, his eyes twinkling as he moves the pieces. At the end of class, Martinez asks the children to finish 50 puzzles — online chess matches — by the next class. He hopes to spend more time with Tani in subsequent weeks to get him up to speed. But at the end of the week, Tani would come to him with 500 puzzles. “I loved it, so I kept going,” he said.
Tani loved the challenge. He loved that no two games looked the same. He loved that he had a set number of pieces he could control. He loved that he could attack, and if he did it well, he could win.
“He was in love,” Martinez says. “It was like watching a flower sprout in front of my eyes.”
Martinez was astonished by Tani’s learning curve and invited him to his chess club. But there was one problem: The Adewumis couldn’t afford the club fees.
The night Boko Haram tried to break into his family’s house in Akure in June 2017 was the night Kayode decided to leave for the United States. They had previously applied for and received visitors visas to see family in Dallas. I just wanted to visit my family, but now I have to flee to the land of the dreams, Kayode thought. The kids were cautiously excited, America was the promised land, according to the movies and TV shows they’d watched. Maybe it is a land of the future too, a future where they’re free and not scared to go to sleep.
A few weeks later, Kayode bought their plane tickets and fearfully peered out the window on their ride to the airport, making sure they weren’t being followed. All clear. They boarded the plane and within hours were flying across the Atlantic, all the while looking out the window to take one last look at their country, not knowing when they’d return, if ever.
They spent their first few months living with family in Dallas, but things turned sour and they made the painful decision to move again. Oluwatoyin had a childhood friend in the Bronx who said he’d give the Adewumis a jump start in the city. They bought four bus tickets, packed up, and headed north. It took them 40 hours to get from Dallas to New York City in December 2017. After hopping from the childhood friend’s home to the basement of their church’s pastor, Phillip Falayi, they made their way to an intake center run by the Department of Homeless Services. They needed something more stable for Tani and Austin, and getting help from the government seemed like the best plan. Prevention Assistance and Temporary Housing (PATH) offered them accommodation in a shelter in Manhattan.
They didn’t have much (Kayode had to go back to Nigeria for a few days to sell his printing machinery and bring back money for his family), but they were thankful for a roof over their heads and three meals a day. Tani and Austin enrolled in schools, and Kayode found a job as a night cleaner in a restaurant in the Bronx, working from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. for $6 an hour. He was the CEO of his company in Nigeria, but this would have to do for now. He had a family to take care of.
In less than a year, they’d moved five times, and every time, Tani packed up his bags, not uttering a single word of complaint. Things can only get better from here, right? he thought to himself, every time.
And the sixth time, he was right. Because it was the move that brought chess into his life.
The chess club needed fees that the Adewumis couldn’t afford. So Martinez, after a conversation with the club director, had the fees waived. Within weeks, Tani was studying 100-year-old matches, spending hours poring over chess openings and combinations. Martinez recalls Tani memorizing an entire game played by Morphy — one of Martinez’s favorite chess players — from the 1850s. Tani started playing in local tournaments on Saturdays. On Sundays, he begged his mom to let him out of church early so he could attend more tournaments. Sometimes Martinez accompanied him, other times his mom did. When a tournament required an entry fee — usually around $50 — Martinez spoke to the organizers and got it waived. Between February 2018 and March 2019, after promising performances in the New York City Mayor’s Cup and the city championship, Tani had risen to 1,200 rating points (read: He would checkmate you in eight moves) — a feat that was incredibly hard to achieve even for children playing since they were 3 or 4 years old.
“Most chess players hit a halt in their rankings when they get to that point, and they have to train more intensely to get over that peak,” Martinez says. “But Tani kept progressing steadily from the beginning.”
For a while, Tani kept chess to himself. Even his class teacher, Kyrie Gilmore, had no idea that he could play, let alone that he was getting so good that people were starting to call him a prodigy. After Martinez told her during a regular chat, she approached Tani and asked him how he felt about the pressure he was suddenly facing from the chess community. “I feel fine. I play because I love chess,” he said to her. Even then, “he wasn’t scared of losing, and that gave him a level of confidence to become an attacking player,” Gilmore says. “Plus, he has a charming personality.”
For a lot of children his age, even the ranked ones, chess is fun, chess is engaging. But for Tani, chess represented what he found in America: control.
“Tani used chess as a teddy bear when he first started, you know?” Martinez says. “He found it, and he held on tight.”
But who would ever believe that a teddy bear could save his family?
IT’S APRIL 2020, and the Adewumis are sheltering in place during the coronavirus pandemic. Through FaceTime, they’re giving me a virtual tour of their Lower West Side apartment. There’s a chessboard in every corner, one on a side table near the living room window, one on the coffee table, and one roll-up chess sheet on the living room floor.
“People from all over the world keep sending Tani chessboards,” Kayode says.
The walls are adorned with framed awards Tani has received over the past year, and Oluwatoyin points to the wall near the TV, where a picture of a smiling Tani from a New York Times article hangs.
After a full day of online Zoom classes, Tani is in front of his computer in the living room, playing a game of chess before the e-tournament he participates in every evening. His older brother, Austin, is sitting adjacent to him in front of another computer, finishing up his homework for the day. Kayode, a real estate agent now, has been working remotely since mid-March, and Oluwatoyin, a home health care aide, has been asked to stay home.
Oluwatoyin flashes the view outside their apartment. A basketball court sits empty. A lone person, wearing a mask, walks a dog. “That basketball court is usually packed, but I haven’t seen a single soul in weeks,” Oluwatoyin says.
Tani has been obsessively reading the Pee Wee Scouts series, a children’s literary collection by Judy Delton, and will launch into stories every day. Tani misses playing soccer outside and playing chess face-to-face, because the “way you move, the way you react after a piece, says a lot about how you’re doing on the board,” he says.
Oluwatoyin points out that they’ve been through worse, now it’s all about staying healthy. “We’re thankful we can order groceries online and it gets delivered to us.”
They moved into the apartment a few days after Tani won the New York championship in March 2019. When Tani woke up the next morning and saw his face in the New York Times for Kids, he was tickled. He cut out the article, took it to school and read it in front of his class. His class had been reading NYT Kids all year long, so to see Tani’s face on it was exciting. “It was this really tangible thing, like, ‘Hey, we read this all the time, now this is happening to our classmate,’ so it made it a real-life learning experience in a beautiful way,” Gilmore says.
The story was read by millions of people, and a GoFundMe page was established with the hope to raise money — $10,000 — to move the Adewumis out of the homeless shelter. Seemingly every time they refreshed the page, they’d received another $1,000. Within the first few days, they’d made $100,000. And then NBC wanted them on the “Today” show and the total soared to nearly $260,000. Then two anonymous donors came forward — one who offered to pay a year’s worth of rent (which has now ended) for their new house and one who wanted to buy them a car.
The entire family showed up to their leasing agent’s office to sign their first lease in America.
The family’s story reached the ears of former President Bill Clinton, who sent a note inviting them to meet with him in New York. And Tani, like always, peppered Clinton with questions — about the presidency and his life afterward. The chess prodigy also was invited to the 2019 U.S. Championships in St. Louis, where he played against world No. 2 Fabiano Caruana during a private event.
“At the end of the day, he is still a 9-year-old kid who smiles a lot, finishes his homework on time and spends time with his friends,” Gilmore says. “Fame just became something he was a recipient of. He still was the same curious, happy person that he was before that.”
The Adewumis’ asylum request is still pending — the next hearing is scheduled for June 2022 — but it feels as if they’ve finally found firm footing. With their rent also taken care of, they wanted to do more with the quarter-million dollars they had received. So they set up the Tanitoluwa Adewumi Foundation, a nonprofit to help immigrant families in need. “Even when they didn’t have a lot, they’d come to church every Sunday and give away food they cooked or bags, pencil kits and books for kids — that’s the kind of people they were,” Pastor Falayi says.
Soon, Tani will see his story come to life on the big screen. Paramount and South African comedian Trevor Noah are making a movie based on the Adewumis’ story and his recently published book, “My Name Is Tani … And I Believe in Miracles.”
“This is all so strange, but it feels wonderfully great to have a movie made out of [my] life,” Tani says.
Even through the pandemic, Tani has been improving at chess, and a few weeks ago he reached 2,200 rating points, pushing him to the master level. He can’t go to the club or compete at tournaments, but he’s been participating in online tournaments, including one organized by Martinez in which 60 chess players across the city compete for an hour every evening. Martinez admits that Tani beats him more often than he beats Tani.
“Coach, you ready to lose to me today?” Tani says before one of their matches begins. Martinez smiles and says, “Oh, you are on!”
Growing up, fear and upheaval were Tani’s constant companions. Chess changed that. With his indefatigable curiosity and his aggressive style of play, he has given his family stable footing. Now he wants more. “I want to become the youngest grandmaster in the world,” he says.
He has just under three years to achieve that (the record is held by Russia’s Sergey Karjakin at 12 years and 7 months). And if he does — which he very much is on pace to do — he would become not only the youngest grandmaster but also the fourth black grandmaster (among a pool of about 1,300 grandmasters) and the second African American to accomplish the feat.
“In chess, it doesn’t matter if you’re black or white; if you attack and defend well, you have an equal chance of winning — and that’s what’s so beautiful about it,” Tani says and smiles.