He was new to the school. He was new to the country. He was still fairly new to the world, really.
Tanitoluwa Adewumi was a 7-year-old Nigerian refugee living in New York, searching for something to satisfy his seemingly endless curiosity. Flyers filled the halls of P.S. 116 in Manhattan, offering recommendations. Two caught his attention.
Tae Kwon Do cost about $1,000 to join. The chess club sought $330. The lower price point made chess even more attractive.
“It was like, ‘Why not?’” Tani says now. “I didn’t have anything to do.”
Tani brought the flyer home to his mother. He was smart enough to know he’d have better luck selling the cheaper option, but young enough to not fully comprehend how difficult it was for his parents to cobble together $330. Tani didn’t realize how many dishes his father would have to wash before he could play with pawns. He didn’t know how many apartments his parents would have to clean so that he could enjoy this afterschool activity.
In Nigeria, his mother, Oluwatoyin, worked as a bank manager. His father, Kayode, owned a print shop. In America, their experience was irrelevant. The only jobs available offered little pay and little respect — and it was worth it.
In America, they were free of fear. They left their native land — their family, friends, home and careers — after their lives were threatened by Boko Haram terrorists.
When Tani’s mother informed school officials about the family’s circumstances, the chess club fee was waived. The exceptionally bright boy entered a competitive world his more privileged peers had inhabited since preschool.
“I still remember his first day in class when he had zero clue about the game,” said his former chess teacher, Shawn Martinez. “He was the only kid who didn’t know how to play.”
The lowest rating in chess is 100. Tani was at 105 when he entered his first tournament.
“I lost all my games — 10 in a row,” Tani said. “I was trash.”
Less than one year later, Tani traveled to Saratoga Springs for the New York State Scholastic Championship. He returned to Manhattan as a state champion. He placed his oversized trophy beside his bed at the homeless shelter where his family lived. On that floor, the prodigy practiced several hours every day. He discovered a gift that could have remained hidden his entire life. He dreamed he could become the youngest grandmaster in chess history.
In less than three months, it may come true.
“It just started coming to me,” Tani said. “It’s like a magnet sticking to metal. It’s like when a tennis ball comes to a tennis racquet, you just have to hit it back.”
Her husband was at a business meeting. Her children were asleep. Her life was out of her hands.
Terrorists were tearing apart her home.
“They put a gun to my head and put me down and told me that they want to use me as a message for my husband,” Oluwatoyin said. “I [thought], ‘Please, God, don’t let them go into the [bed]room. Those are my kids.’”
She recounts the horror from her living room on Long Island, sitting beside her two sons. Across the street, Elmo balloons sway at a young child’s birthday party. Next door, a neighbor leaves a bicycle unattended on the front lawn.
Upon entering the family’s ranch-style house in Port Jefferson Station, a large TV quickly captures your attention. It’s tuned to a religious sermon. Kayode turns to CNN. A familiar headline is transmitted across the Atlantic.
“Today, [Boko Haram] killed more than 40 people in one Catholic church and they kidnapped the priest. Today!” said Kayode, whose family left Nigeria nearly six years ago. “There are still a lot of these things going on in the country.”
Boko Haram has committed countless atrocities over the past two decades. Members of the group have bombed churches and crowded marketplaces. They have shot up schools. They have abducted thousands of children, forcing some into slavery. They have coerced kids to carry out suicide bombings.
“When I was in my office, there was a bomb [outside],” Oluwatoyin said. “Sometimes you’d feel like, ‘I don’t want to go to work today,’ because you don’t know what’s going to happen. Even to go to the market, you’d be scared. You see them make videos of the people they kidnap. Everyone is living in fear, but you are managing yourself. You just do your normal thing.”
Life was normal until 2015, when four men entered Kayode’s print shop in the Nigerian capital of Abuja. They wanted to place an order for 25,000 posters. Kayode excitedly inserted their flash drive into his computer, then saw the message they wanted to spread: “Kill All Christians … No to Western Education.”
Kayode, a devout Catholic, had a large crucifix hanging on his office wall. He didn’t know if they saw it. He didn’t wait to find out. He said that his computer was broken and returned their flash drive before slipping out the back door.
“What I saw was unbearable,” Kayode said. “Against my religion, against the government. When I returned their flash, they said I already knew their secrets. I escaped, but two weeks later they came to my home.”
Terrorists searched for him and his computer. They found neither. They encountered a mother and wife, pleading to save her family. Oluwatoyin was raised Muslim. She told them so and begged them to leave. The men complied, but danger remained. The family fled to Akure, 260 miles southwest of their home. It wasn’t far enough to feel safe.
A better escape route awaited. Oluwatoyin’s uncle lived in Dallas.
“Thank God we had our visas already,” said Kayode, who had been planning an international trip for the family. “It could have taken nine months. We had to use the opportunity that we had. It was between life and death.”
Tani, 11, considers himself an American. He has no memories of Nigeria. He stands in the narrow hallway between the bathroom and the bedroom he shares with his brother, Austin, standing on a skateboard, wearing a Stephen Curry shirt.
His parents shielded him from the reason for their exodus for as long as possible. He never knew their fear. His parents haven’t felt it, either, since their first night in the States.
“We could close our eyes and sleep,” Kayode said. “There was peace.”
After a few months in Texas, Kayode connected with a childhood friend who lived in New York and introduced them to Pastor Phillip Falayi, a Nigerian immigrant who let the family stay in his basement before connecting them with a homeless shelter on Park Avenue.
They remained there for 15 months. With no kitchen available for them to use, Oluwatoyin traveled to Queens via bus and subway to use a church cooking area, then returned to Manhattan with traditional Nigerian dishes.
“We didn’t have a fridge in the room, so when it snowed, we opened our window and put it on the snow,” Kayode said. “We couldn’t be going to Queens [to cook] every day.”
Kayode took a job washing dishes at a Bronx restaurant. The couple also cleaned apartments together. Later, Kayode rented a car to work as an Uber driver while he studied for a real estate license. Oluwatoyin became a home health aide.
“We are here and we are safe and sound, and we can have a life,” Oluwatoyin said. “When you’re alive, there is hope. Whatever we were doing, we knew we were doing it for us. And tomorrow is going to get better.”
My daughter turns 4 next month. Tani says she should start playing chess then. Greatness can be fostered that early.
He wishes he had known that. The homemade chess board his older brother constructed with Play-Doh in Africa was used for other games.
“We don’t know much about chess in our country,” Tani said. “They don’t play much. They play football.”
Tani sits in his kitchen, across the board from a new opponent. He poses for photos, making moves without looking at the board. He captures a piece the instant an opposing one is placed down. It is like watching an algorithm in action, programmed with charm, enthusiasm, sincerity and maturity. The game ends in under 60 seconds. He spends most of the minute watching his prey needlessly debate between moves that would inevitably lead to checkmate.
Tani estimates he can see roughly 20 moves in advance. It depends on the game, depends on the opponent. Multiple boards fill his head, demonstrating the domino effect of any move.
“After four moves are played, there are like 300 million ways the game could end,” Tani said. “It’s like war, Garry Kasparov said, but unlike war, chess has rules. So many things you can do, so many things to experiment. It’s very interesting.
“You have to practice and you have to have the mentality to learn. [Legendary chess player] Jose Casablanca said, ‘You’re gonna have to lose hundreds, maybe thousands of games before you become a good chess player.’ It just depends on how long you stick with it.”
After Tani joined the chess club, Oluwatoyin spent $5 on Tani’s first set. He did chess puzzles on her phone. He practiced on his dad’s computer. He memorized famous games. His mother took him to Harlem every Saturday for free three-hour practice sessions. He spent as much as 10 hours per day playing, practicing or reading about the game.
“He had such curiosity and such ambition to learn and catch up to everyone else,” Martinez said. “He’s really in love with the game. You don’t have to tell him to practice. You don’t have to tell him to play chess. It’s something he’s really hungry for.
“There is a special factor, but aside from that special gift, Tani works extremely hard. He’s not gonna put chess to the side for almost anything else in life. If it’s not church or school, it’s chess. It takes that kind of dedication to excel this fast and this far.”
In March 2019, Tani went head-to-head with kids raised with silver spoons and private tutors, and went undefeated in the K-3 division of the New York State Scholastic Chess Championships.
“When I won, it was unreal,” Tani said. “It was amazing. I don’t know how to explain it.”
That December, he went to a national championship tournament in Orlando, Fla., and won six of seven matches, finishing tied for second place. In 12 months, his rating jumped from 105 to 1587. At 10 years, 7 months and 28 days, Tani became the 28th-youngest person to become a national master, according to the U.S. Chess Federation. He won the under-12 division of the North American Youth Chess Championships and a trophy roughly his height, which now sits next to the living-room TV.
He currently holds a rating of 2364. He would achieve grandmaster status at 2500. The most famous American chess player of all time, Bobby Fischer, became the youngest grandmaster at 15 years, 6 months and one day in 1968. Most recently, the record was set last June by Abhimanyu Mishra of New Jersey, at 12 years, 4 months and 25 days. Tani turned 12 on Sept. 3.
Grandmaster status can never be stripped. It is yours for life.
“The goal for Tani is still possible, but what I tell him all the time is you will still be one of the youngest grandmasters if you don’t break this record,” said Martinez, who connected Tani with his current coach, grandmaster Giorgi Kacheishvili. “You will be one of the greatest players in the world.”
When Tani won the state title, several prestigious private schools offered full scholarships to the then 8-year-old boy living in a homeless shelter. The family declined, keeping Tani at P.S. 116 in Murray Hill.
“That was his school,” Oluwatoyin said. “They saw the potential in him.”
He is curious who will play him in the movie.
Tani and his parents authored a book about their journey, “My Name is Tani … And I Believe in Miracles.” It was optioned by Paramount Pictures. The film is being produced by Trevor Noah’s production company and is being written by Steven Conrad, whose screenwriting credits include “The Pursuit of Happyness.”
It will feel like fiction to the uninformed.
After Tani’s state title victory, Russell Makofsky, the head of the chess program at P.S. 116, established a GoFundMe account for the Adewumi family, hoping to capitalize on the media attention to help the family move out of the homeless shelter. A goal of $50,000 was set. In less than a week, more than $200,000 poured in. It eventually surpassed $257,000.
They were given furniture, a TV, kitchen equipment and a brand new 2019 Honda CR-V.
Donors also provided one free year of housing in a two-bedroom apartment in Stuyvesant Town in Manhattan.
“I said to my wife, ‘Are we in this world? Are we dreaming?’” Kayode recalled.
The family had its own home. They didn’t need much more. They chose to donate every dollar intended for them. They tithed to the church in Queens that helped them when they moved to New York, and established the Tanitoluwa Adewumi Foundation to disburse the rest of the donations. The foundation helps families like its founders — the homeless, immigrants, refugees and underprivileged children.
“We want people to know our foundation, so we can do more and help people,” Kayode said. “We met a lot of people like us in the city in the shelter. We had so much given to us. We have to give back to the needy. Anybody that has a low income, we put our energy into helping. We want to encourage people. He wouldn’t be where he is today [without help].”
The family was permitted to stay in the States after petitioning the federal government for asylum, but their future in the country remained cloudy after years of immigration hearings ended inconclusively. Tani was forced to decline invitations to numerous international tournaments — limiting his opportunities to improve his ranking against elite competition — fearing the family would not be permitted to re-enter the country if they exit.
At a Sept. 22 immigration hearing, the family was finally granted asylum. They are now on the path to U.S. citizenship.
“The United States is the best country in the world,” Kayode said. “No doubt about it.”
They are New Yorkers. They are discussing traffic patterns on the Long Island Expressway.
After three years in Manhattan, the family has spent the past 22 months in their own home in Suffolk County, purchased with the proceeds from selling their book and movie rights.
The home is located deep in suburbia, several serene and winding turns off the nearest main road. The space between homes is ample. The streets are wide. Peace appears impenetrable.
“When you’re in the right place, you can think, but when you’re in a crazy area, you cannot,” Kayode said. “There is no fear. I can go to church in this great country. We are really blessed to find ourselves here.”
The house is filled with joy. The laughter has unusually long lifespans, coming easily to each member of the family. They are friendly, though they remain foreign to their neighbors. No one nearby knows their remarkable story.
“They’re excellent people, but normally everyone minds their own business,” Kayode said. “They don’t check on you. You travel for two weeks, nobody cares. We’re not used to that. In Nigeria, it’s like everybody is family”
A sign promoting “Peace” adorns the front door. A kitchen placard says, “When prayers go up, blessings go down.” A sign in the bathroom reads, “Thankful for every moment.”
An oversized photo of the family meeting Bill Clinton in his Harlem office hangs just past the front door. Letters from President Clinton and President Biden are framed above the living-room TV. Tani is in an adjacent room, competing on Chess.com. His training includes daily reading of books by world champions, as well as physical activity such as playing basketball and skipping rope.
“When I play a game, it still really matters to me,” Tani said. “I don’t do this for people. I do it for myself and my family.”
Kayode is an agent with Douglas Elliman Real Estate, and he recently received a degree from Nassau Community College. Oluwatoyin is a certified patient care technician. Austin, 18, attends Suffolk County Community College, where he is studying marine engineering.
Tani spent the past two years learning remotely due to the pandemic. He recently resumed in-person education as a seventh grader at John F. Kennedy Middle School. He’s looking forward to making new friends. He’s lost touch with most of his friends from Manhattan because their school email addresses are no longer active. He doesn’t have a phone. He won’t get one for another six years.
“There’s no reason to have one,” Tani said.
Tani stands in the driveway, alternating between dribbling a soccer ball and riding his skateboard down the slope. He stops to point out a small hive fixed to the top of the garage door. He says a bee usually emerges around 3 p.m.. He wonders how many live inside.
His father overhears the conversation, noticing the intruders for the first time. He grabs a stick and knocks the beehive loose, sweeping it from the driveway. A bee appears, flying rapidly and erratically. Tani watches until it zips out of view. He looks up and around for a few seconds, trying to locate it, before accepting it is gone. He turns and asks:
“Where do you think he’s going to go?”
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