Homeless kid who won a New York chess championship now has a place to live

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Tanitoluwa (Tani) Adewumi is only 8 years old, but he’s already a chess champion.

The Nigerian refugee learned to play the challenging strategy game just a year ago at school, but that was more than enough time for him to master it — despite the fact that Tani and his family were living in a homeless shelter.

News of his chess success quickly spread, and things started to change fairly quickly for the young boy. Here’s his incredible story.

Tani Grew Up In Nigeria

Tani and his family are from northern Nigeria. He and his father, Kayode, his mother, Oluwatoyin, and his older brother, Austin, fled their country in 2017 to avoid violence from Boko Haram, a militant terrorist group.

“I don’t want to lose any loved ones,” Kayode Adewumi told the New York Times of his motivation to leave his home country of Nigeria for New York City.

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Boko Haram Has Been A Deadly Force In Nigeria For A Decade

Over the past decade, the extremist group has killed more than 27,000 people in the northeast part of Nigeria, and 1.8 million remain displaced from their homes, like the Adewumis. Boko Haram, which translates to, “Western education is forbidden,” seeks to implement Sharia law. As recently as April 10, 2019, more than 2,000 people were forced to evacuate the northeastern Nigerian city of Maiduguri in preparation of an offensive against Boko Haram by Nigerian troops.

boko haram photo
Getty Images | Handout

Thousands Of People Seek Asylum In The United States

In fiscal year 2016, nearly 20,500 people were granted asylum in the United States, which is about 28% of the more than 73,000 individuals who applied. In order to be considered an asylee, a person must meet the international definition of a refugee, which includes people who fear persecution due to their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group, or people who are fleeing war or violence in their home country. After receiving asylum, an asylee can apply for permanent resident status (green card) and, after that, to become a U.S. citizen.

united states asylum photo
Getty Images | David McNew

The Adewumis Have Been Living In A Homeless Shelter

When the Adewumis fled to the United States, they landed at a homeless shelter in Manhattan. Tani began attending school at P.S. 116. It was at his school where Tani was first introduced to the game of chess by a part-time teacher.

homeless shelter new york city photo
Getty Images | Drew Angerer

Tani Was A Natural From The Start

When Tani expressed interest in the game, his mom contacted the school to see if he could join the chess club, despite the fact that they were unable to afford the associated fees. Luckily, the fees were waived and Tani joined the club. In just a little over a year, he has gone from a complete novice to a rising star, raising his rating from 105, which was the lowest of any participant in his first tournament, to 1534.

chess tournament photo
Getty Images | Salah Malkawi

He Gets Lots Of Practice

To hone his skills, Tani goes to a three-hour free practice session every Saturday in Harlem. He also practices on his dad’s laptop at night.

“He is so driven,” Shawn Martinez, his chess teacher at school, told the New York Times. “He does 10 times more chess puzzles than the average kid. He just wants to be better.”


He Became State Champion

After steadily rising up the ranks, on March 9 and 10, 2019, Tani participated in the New York State Scholastic Primary Championship tournament and earned first place in his age group. Naturally, Tani’s family and his school could not be prouder of his success.

“It’s an inspiring example of how life’s challenges do not define a person,” Jane Hsu, principal of P.S. 116, told the New York Times of Tani’s amazing dedication.

Here he is beaming with his trophy that’s bigger than he is.

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Tani’s Coach Is Amazed By His Progress

Russell Makofsky is Tani’s chess coach, and he has loved watching his talent and skill blossom.

“I think it’s tremendous,” Makofsky told Newsday. “I’ve been around kids and chess for a very long time in New York City and I have never seen a kid who did not even know how to play the game a year ago winning a state championship.”

Here’s Makofsky proudly posing with Tani’s dad and a copy of the New York Times’ story about him:

Chess Can Be Great For Kids’ Brain Development

Multiple studies have shown the positive effect that playing chess can have on kids’ problem-solving skills as well as their test scores. And if you think Tani’s young, some experts think that kids can start learning the game by age 4.

“I believe the younger the child, the greater the impact,” Dr. Robert Ferguson, executive director of the American Chess School in Bradford, Penn., told Parents. “These kids have brains like sponges.”

kids chess photo
Getty Images | Joe Raedle

Chess Is For All Ages

It’s not just kids that can benefit from chess, though. The U.S. Senior Championship was created by the U.S. Chess Executive Board in January 2019, and the inaugural tournament for players ages 50 and up will be held in July 2019. It will have a $50,000 prize fund.

chess seniors photo
Getty Images | VCG

Hard Work Runs In The Family

While living in a homeless shelter, Kayode Adewumi works two jobs to support his family and improve their situation. He’s an Uber driver as well as a licensed real estate salesman. Tani’s mom, Oluwatoyin, recently passed a test to become a home health aide and has been offered a job.

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Tani’s Story Captivated The Nation

In the wake of Nicholas Kristof’s opinion piece in the New York Times detailing Tani’s incredible story, support for the family began to pour into a GoFundMe account, originally created to help them secure a home. It has now raised $256,008. Nearly 5,000 individuals donated over a period of 23 days.

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He Appeared On The ‘Today’ Show

Tani’s success brought him all the way to NBC’s “Today.” During his appearance, he even showed the hosts of a few of his moves. Tani conceded that while he may be the phenom in the family, his older brother is a decent chess player as well.

today show photo
Getty Images | Drew Angerer

They Are No Longer Homeless

Several donors offered to house the Adewumis completely free of charge. They ended up taking an offer from an anonymous donor for a year’s rent on a two-bedroom apartment near P.S. 116. The family is thrilled with their new home.

new york city apartment photo
Getty Images | Drew Angerer

The Adewumis Are Paying It Forward

Despite their good fortune, the Adewumis remain humble and plan to donate back all of the money raised by the GoFundMe campaign. They are donating 10 percent to their church, and the rest of the funds will go directly to the Tanitoluwa Adewumi Foundation, which was created for African immigrants in need, just like they were.
“We are only a small piece of the worldwide work of caring for less privileged and empowering them to be the best they can, but we believe that together, and with God — all things are possible!” they wrote.

They Look Forward To Making The United States Their Permanent Home

The Adewumis are proud to be New Yorkers, and they are in the process of legally seeking asylum in the United States.

“The U.S. is a dream country,” Kayode told the New York Times. “Thank God I live in the greatest city in the world, which is New York, New York.”

new york city skyline photo
Getty Images | Eduardo Munoz Alvarez

An Attorney Has Taken On Their Asylum Case Pro Bono

Applying for asylum in the United States can be a long and arduous process. It takes, on average, six months. The process includes a lot of paperwork as well as interviews. A lawyer contacted CBS News to let the outlet know they would represent the Adewumis in their asylum case pro bono.

asylum attorney photo
Getty Images | David McNew

Tani Has Big Goals

Despite his current title of state champion, Tani does not plan to rest on his laurels. He still has a long way to go to further hone his chess skills, according to him, but he wants to become a master.

chess grandmaster photo
Getty Images | Uriel Sinai

He Will Continue To Be A Student At P.S. 116

Despite offers for scholarships to elite private institutions, Tani plans to continue attending the New York City public school where he first discovered his love of chess.

“This school showed confidence in Tanitoluwa,” Oluwatoyin explained to the school’s principal of the family’s decision to keep Tani enrolled there. “So we return the confidence.”

new york school photo
Getty Images | Mario Tama

Chess Is More Popular Than Ever In The United States

If Tani hopes to continue to dominate the chess world in the United States, he’s come to the right place. Garry Kasparov, who holds the record for becoming the youngest world champion in chess at age 22 in 1985, says that our nation is currently in a “golden age” for the game. He cites the U.S. team’s gold medal in the 2016 Chess Olympiad, in which 175 countries competed, as proof of American prowess in the pursuit.

Kasparov Versus Deep Junior
Getty Images | Mario Tama

Tani Loves The Challenge Of Chess

Widely considered an intense game of strategy that takes considerable talent and hard work to learn to play, let alone master, Tani is taking it all in stride. Besides long hours of practice and innate talent, Tani clearly loves playing.

“It’s deep thinking,” the third-grader told CBS News. “You have to, like, understand a lot of stuff.”

chess photo
Getty Images | Dan Kitwood

He Has Short-Term Goals, Too

Although world domination is his ultimate goal for now, Tani must focus on the next challenge. Next up, he will compete in the National Elementary Championship. The tournament will take place in Nashville, Tennessee, between May 10 and 12.

U.S. Chess Federation

People Can’t Enough Of Tani’s Incredible Story

The comments on Tani’s GoFundMe page indicate that his story of perseverance is really resonating with people from all walks of life.

“I am making a second donation,” wrote donor Cameron Barry. “It is so wonderful to know that there are people like you in the world. Although you have faced many challenges in your lives, your focus is on helping others. I wish you much love, luck, and success with your mission.”

refugee charity photo
Getty Images | Andreas Gebert

Tani Is So Grateful For His Success

Despite his incredible success and subsequent media attention, Tani has remained incredibly humble and grateful for the opportunity he has been given. He called the support he and his family have received from complete strangers, “exciting, amazing and beautiful.”

“Thank you very much,” he told News 4 New York. “You are really supportive.”

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Tani Caught The Attention Of President Bill Clinton

Tani’s story has touched people far and wide, including former United States President Bill Clinton, who invited Tani to his office in New York City via Twitter.

“You should all stop by my office in Harlem,” Clinton wrote. “I’d love to meet you.”

bill clinton photo
Getty Images | Slaven Vlasic

Tani’s Classmates Are Cheering For Him, Too

In addition to the support of his family, his teachers and complete strangers, Tani’s classmates at P.S. 116 are helping him on his journey as well. A fellow student gifted him a chess clock, and a pep rally was held in his honor to celebrate his championship.

chess clock photo
Getty Images | John Gichigi

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About the Author
Kate Streit
Kate Streit lives in Chicago. She enjoys stand-up comedy, mystery novels, memoirs, summer and pumpkin spice anything. Visit Scripps News to see more of Kate's work.

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