Have you heard of Tanitoluwa Adewumi? He’s like the girl from the popular Netflix series “The Queen’s Gambit,” except Tani is a 10-year-old boy. Also, he’s Nigerian, a Christian refugee—Boko Haram threatened his family—and he’s on his way to becoming the chess world’s youngest grandmaster.
Adewumi gained international attention in 2019 when he swept the 52nd Annual New York State Scholastic Championships in the kindergarten through third grade division, defeating 73 competitors. At the time, he was just eight years old and had only been playing chess for a little over a year. He credits his older brother, Adesina Austin Adewumi, with giving him a taste of what the game could be like when he taught him how to play a similar, homemade version.
The circumstances of Adewumi’s victory were featured in a New York Times article by Nicholas Kristof titled “This 8-Year-Old Chess Champion Will Make You Smile.” In the article, Kirstoff detailed how Adewumi and his family were homeless and living in a Manhattan shelter at the time.
A year prior, they were forced to flee their home and comfortable life in Abuja, Nigeria, after experiencing up-close-and-personal encounters with Boko Haram terrorists. Known as the Islamic State in West Africa, the jihadist terror group is notorious for kidnapping and killing Christians. The United Nations estimates that the insurgents have displaced more than 2 million people in the West African country since 2014.
Well-dressed terrorists from the group had visited Kayode Adewumi’s print business and requested a large number of posters to be produced bearing—as the shop owner later learned—the slogans “No to Western education” and “Kill all Christians” along with the Boko Haram logo. As Mr. Adewumi told Faithfully Magazine, there was no way that he, a Christian, could provide such a service. The men didn’t take his refusal kindly and decided that he was a threat that needed to be eliminated. When his attempt to avoid the terrorists by relocating to another area failed, Mr. Adewumi decided his family had no choice but to seek refuge in the United States. That was in 2017, and about a year before Tani fell in love with the game of chess. Since then, his story has traveled widely, being told via books and, eventually, will be told via film.
While many expressed admiration for Adewumi’s abilities and fierce determination, at least one media watchdog questioned why much of the chess champ’s initial mainstream coverage neglected to delve into the reality of homelessness, which impacts about one in 10 NYC public school students. However, as word of Adewumi’s accomplishments and dire circumstances spread, a GoFundMe campaign materialized and a kind donor offered to pay rent on an apartment for the family for one year.
In our exclusive interview with Tani and his parents, Kayode and Oluwatoyin Adewumi, the family discusses his surprising successes, building a new life in America, and their hopes for the future. The youngest Adewumi—thoughtful, intelligent, and confident—also gives some insight into his preferences in chess and music. His brother, Adesina Austin, was at school during the interview and unable to participate.
We spoke with Tani on the occasion of the release of his new book, Tani’s New Home: A Refugee Finds Hope and Kindness in America, a kid-friendly version of his story thus far (there’s also a young reader’s version of his initial release, My Name Is Tani . . . and I Believe in Miracles: The Amazing True Story of One Boy’s Journey from Refugee to Chess Champion).
Watch our interview with the Adewumi family: