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Refugee To National Chess Master: Tanitoluwani Adewumi

Tanitoluwani Adewumi

Tanitoluwa Adewumi is one of the world’s fastest rising chess stars.

Tanitoluwani Adewumi
Ever smiling Tanitoluwani Adewumi with his trophy.

Tani discovered the game of chess in a homeless shelter in New York, after his family fled from the violence in Nigeria. They now live in the United States as asylum seekers, while Tani pursues his chess career.

Tanitoluwani Adewumi and his family fled Nigeria in 2017 after the extremist group Boko Haram demanded that his father, Kayode, produce posters for their network at his print shop, which he refused. He was well aware that the family’s safety would be jeopardized if they stayed.

Tani with his family

The family flew to Dallas and then to New York City, where they were connected with a homeless shelter by a local pastor. That was where Tani go to see a chessboard for the first time.

I liked the way the pieces moved, and how anything can happen at any moment.

Tanitoluwa Adewumi

His success has enabled his family to accomplish things they could only have imagined when they first arrived in the United States.


They’ve met famous chess players, and Tani has received recognition from world leaders. In their living room, there is a large photograph of the family with Bill Clinton.

In his determination to inspire others, he co-wrote a book about his experience with author Craig Borlase. My Name Is Tani… and ‘I Believe In Miracles’ is the title of the book. This incredible story is sure to inspire and is currently being optioned for a film.

“I believe in miracles because what happened to my family is 100 per cent a miracle.”

Tanitoluwani Adewumi

Comedian Trevor Noah and Paramount Pictures bought the movie rights and a script by Steven Conrad are in the works, there is a possibility Tani could act as himself in the movie.

Tani and his family have moved out of the homeless shelter and into a home on Long Island, New York.

Tani was playing chess at school after learning the game at the shelter when a teacher and part-time chess coach noticed his enthusiasm for the game and sent a note to Tani’s mother informing her that the school had a chess club. Tani’s mother agreed because it would help him grow. However, the $360 fee was prohibitively expensive for the family at the time.

Tani’s chess coach intervened, requesting a waiver, which the school accepted and waived the fee.

Young Tani with the white pieces during a game of chess.

Tani’s chess success did not come easily. He didn’t win anything in his first few tournaments.
Tani began attending training sessions every Thursday after school. There were improvements, and within six months, his elementary school teachers began to notice.

Tanitoluwani Adewumi is now adorned with numerous awards and accolades.

The Nigerian Senior Special Assistant to the President on Foreign Affairs and Diaspora, Abike Dabiri-Erewa, described Tani’s success in the United States as a source of pride for the country for the New York State Scholastics Chess Championship he won at the age of eight in 2019.

Tani was also honoured by the Consulate-General of Nigeria in New York at an event in which he was recognised for his outstanding efforts and achievements.

Tani’s bedroom is adorned with gleaming trophies. The large, tiered trophy from the 2019 K-3 (kindergarten to grade three) New York State chess championship, which he won at the age of eight, less than a year after starting to play chess, is his favorite.
Tani continued to practise despite his isolation as the pandemic struck; he did not stop improving his game. He has gracefully learned chess, explaining that one must lose in order to learn.

“Because you have to make a mistake to lose that game when you lose. So you learn from that mistake, and you learn [over all]”, he explained to NPR.

Tani attributes his success to his “aggressive” playing style.

Tani looking focused on the chess board

I’m very competitive,” Tani said. “When there is something on the line, I am 100 per cent”.

Tanitoluwani Adewumi became the 28th youngest person to achieve the status of national master in the US. The current top-ranked American player and second-ranked player in the world, Fabiano Caruana became a master at 10 years 11 months, and 29 days.

“We believe [Tanitoluwani Adewumi] is one of the fastest to reach the rank of master ever,” said Daniel Lucas, a spokesperson for US Chess, the official International Chess Federation (FIDE) member of the United States. “Most who become masters start playing at the age of five or six, so this just speaks to his prodigy level and natural skill he has”, he continued.

Before every game, Tani takes 20 deep breaths and calms himself so he can be laser-focused on the game ahead. Tani has played a broad spectrum of chess players, from old to young to unrated to international grandmasters.  

Hard work beats talent,” Tani said. “Don’t judge a book by its cover. If you see an unrated person, that should worry you because there’s no way to know if they are good or bad. So play your best.

“Hard work beats talent.” 

Tanitoluwani Adewumi
Tanitoluwani Adewumi, “the boy who believes in miracle”

As a master, Tani is in the top one per cent of chess players. As a grandmaster, he would be in the top tenth of a per cent. He hopes to become the youngest grandmaster ever – a title held by Abhimanyu Mishra, who reached that level this past June at the age of 12 years, four months and 25 days old. Tani, with a rating of 2305, is a few hundred points away from achieving his goal.

The ever-smiling Nigerian boy who made headlines a little more than three years ago is still climbing the rating ladder. Tani recently earned his first IM norm at the New York Spring Invitational. He finished undefeated and with 127.6 rating points after scoring 7 out of 9 to obtain the coveted norm. A remarkable performance by a remarkable learner!

Incredibly, Tani moved from a total newbie in chess to a FIDE Chess Master within a short time frame.

Once a refugee escaping a terrorist group, he is now a household name in the chess world.

Tani, on the other hand, faces unique challenges as an asylum seeker. While many other chess players can easily travel to compete internationally, Tani’s family believes he should stay in the United States. Even though they could apply to travel outside the country, they prefer to remain in the country while their asylum case is heard in court.

READ ALSO: The Chess World Reacts To The War Between Russia And Ukraine, Karjakin Blacklisted

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