In search of a checkmate

Lela Nargi

THE WASHINGTON POST – Nine-year-old Tani Adewumi doesn’t remember being interested in many games for the first few years of his life. That changed when his older brother, Austin, showed him how to play chess.

“I liked it because he taught me,” Tani said of Austin, who is now 16.

Playing on a homemade board at their house in the West African country of Nigeria, with cut-out paper pieces, Tani and Austin’s games may not have met official chess regulations. But they paved the way for Tani to become a chess champion.

In 2017, Tani and his brother and their parents fled their home country. A terrorist group called Boko Haram was threatening the family. The Adewumis eventually wound up in New York City, where they lived in a homeless shelter. It was safe there, but their rooms were small and dark, and the shelter had a lot of rules.

There was a bright spot to all this, though. PS 116, Tani’s new school, offered chess lessons. Tani wasn’t too excited about them at first; they weren’t like the chess he played with Austin.

Tani Adewumi, whose family fled Nigeria, became a competitive chess player after his family moved to New York, United States (US). PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

“You might lose when you start and think, ‘This game is bad,’” Tani said. “But if you focus, you will start to understand and stick with it.”

Tani stuck with it long enough to be invited to join a chess club. He then got good enough to compete at tournaments. In 2019, he beat 73 other young players in his division to win the New York State chess championship. As cool as that was, the championship also got people interested in his story.

After Tani was interviewed for the New York Times about his win, people started donating money to help his parents. Soon they moved into their own apartment. And in April, Tani’s book about his life, called My Name Is Tani… and I Believe in Miracles, will be published.

Tani now has a chess rating of 2,059; that means he’s getting close to the master rating of about 2,200. To get there, he’ll continue to play chess seven days a week, for as many as 3.5 hours a day. He can do a lot of his practice on a computer or by reading books. So having to stay home from school and chess club because of the coronavirus pandemic isn’t slowing him down.

What does he like to do aside from play chess?

“Sleep,” Tani said.

He also likes to read Geronimo Stilton books and play Word Search on his mom’s smartphone. He likes Nigerian food most, especially the country’s national dish, jollof rice, which is made with tomatoes and spices. But while living in New York, he’s become a fan of Chinese fried rice.

“It’s not like jollof rice at all, but it tastes good,” he said.

Tani is happy to report that he and Austin still play chess – although a few things have changed. They now have a real board and pieces. And Austin almost always loses to his little brother.