In a homeless shelter in Manhattan, an 8-year-old boy is walking to his room, carrying an awkward load in his arms, unfazed by screams from a troubled resident. The boy is a Nigerian refugee with an uncertain future, but he is beaming. He can’t stop grinning because the awkward load is a huge trophy, almost as big as he is. This homeless third grader has just won his category at the New York State chess championship. Much of the news of the last week has focused on wealthy families buying access to great universities, either illegally through bribes or legally through donations. There is no question that America is a tilted playing field that gives wealthy children huge advantages. So we should all grin along with Tanitoluwa Adewumi, the newly crowned chess champion for kindergarten through third grade.
He went undefeated at the state tournament last weekend outwitting children from elite private schools with private chess tutors. What’s even more extraordinary is that Tani, as he is known, learned chess only a bit more than a year ago. His play has skyrocketed month by month, and he now has seven trophies by his bed in the homeless shelter.
“I want to be the youngest grandmaster,” he told me. Tani’s family fled northern Nigeria in 2017, fearing attacks by Boko Haram terrorists on Christians such as themselves. “I don’t want to lose any loved ones,” his father, Kayode Adewumi, told me. So Tani, his parents and his older brother arrived in New York City a bit more than a year ago, and a pastor helped steer them to a homeless shelter. Tani began attending the local elementary school, P.S. 116, which has a part-time chess teacher who taught Tani’s class how to play. Tani enjoyed the game and prodded his mom, Oluwatoyin Adewumi, to ask if he could join the chess club.
“He is interested in the chess program, which he will like to be participating in,” Mrs. Adewumi, who is working hard to master American English, emailed the club. She explained that she could not pay the fees for the program because the family was living in a shelter. Russell Makofsky, who oversees the P.S. 116 chess program, waived the fees, and a year ago the boy took part in his first tournament with the lowest rating of any participant, 105. His rating is now 1587 and rising fast. (By comparison, the world’s best player, Magnus Carlsen, Stands at 2845). 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.
“It’s an inspiring example of how life’s challenges do not define a person,” said Jane Hsu, the principal of P.S. 116, which held a pep rally to celebrate Tani’s victory. Hsu noted that while Tani lacks a home, he has enormously supportive parents dedicated to seeing him succeed. Tani’s mom can’t play chess but takes him every Saturday to a three- hour free practice session in Harlem, and she attends his tournaments. His dad lets Tani use his laptop each evening to practice. And although religion is extremely important to the family, the parents let Tani miss church when necessary to attend a tournament.
“Tani is rich beyond measure,” in the strength, love and support of his family, Makofsky told me. Tani’s dad has two jobs: He rents a car that he uses to drive for Uber, and he has also become a licensed real estate salesman. Tani’s mom has passed a course to become a home health aide. Meeting them, it’s easy to see where Tani’s scrappy diligence came from. It is sometimes tough for Tani. His parents say that he once came home from school crying after classmates teased him for being homeless. And at an immigration hearing last fall, he burst into tears when he misunderstood the judge to say that the family would be deported. “I feel American,” he explained. In fact, the family’s asylum request is dragging on, with the next hearing scheduled for August. Tani tries to put that out of his mind. He lies on the floor of the shelter and practices chess for hours each evening — now preparing for the elementary national championship in May.
“He is so driven,” said his school chess teacher, Shawn Martinez. “He does 10 times more chess puzzles than the average kid. He just wants to be better.”Makofsky shook his head wonderingly. “One year to get to this level, to climb a mountain and be the best of the best, without family resources,” he said. “I’ve never seen it.”
Tani is a reminder that refugees enrich this nation — and that talent is universal, even if opportunity is not. Back in Nigeria, his parents say, his brilliance at chess would never have had an outlet. “The U.S. is a dream country,” his dad told me. “Thank God I live in the greatest city in the world, which is New York, New York.”