Chess Champion Tani Adewumi Is 'Not Scared Of Anything On That Board' Tani Adewumi's family fled Nigeria after being threatened by Boko Haram. They were living in a homeless shelter when Tani won the primary division at the New York State Scholastic Chess Championship.

This Young Chess Champion Is 'Not Scared Of Anything On That Board'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/813699921/815097921" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

One event canceled because of coronavirus is the New York state scholastic chess championship. Nine-year-old Tani Adewumi had hoped to defend his title there this weekend. His win last year in the primary school division became international news when people learned that he and his family were homeless. Today, the Adewumis' lives are very different, as they recount in a book about their journey to be published next month. NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: Tani Adewumi says he almost lost his final chess game at the big tournament last year. He says he was winning but then made a bad move, a blunder that could have given his opponent the win. But he saw a way out.

TANI ADEWUMI: I offered a draw, and he took it.

BLAIR: Tani is obsessed with chess. He reads books about it, studies famous masters, plays it online, even his coaches like playing him.

TANI: I think you're getting into trouble.

SHAWN MARTINEZ: You got something up your sleeve.

BLAIR: Tani had only been playing for a year when he won the New York championship last year. Shawn Martinez is one of the chess coaches at Tani's elementary school in New York City.

MARTINEZ: He has an incredible memory, and he's very interested in what he's learning because, usually, when you are really interested in learning something, you don't forget it very quickly.

BLAIR: Tani does not remember much about his early years in Nigeria. In 2017, the Adewumis fled the country when Tani's parents were threatened by members of the terror network Boko Haram. In New York, a Nigerian pastor let them stay in his basement and connected them with the state's Department of Homeless Services. They were given housing in a shelter located above a hotel in Manhattan. Tani's mother, Oluwatoyin Adewumi, says she and her husband were in a room on one floor; Tani and his older brother were on another.

OLUWATOYIN ADEWUMI: Well, we thank God we were able to find somewhere to put our heads.

BLAIR: What was it like living in the shelter?

TANI: You had to go upstairs to meet your parents, come back down. Like, in a home, you can just go straight there - you see your parents.

BLAIR: Tani and his brother enrolled in a nearby public school that had an active chess club that Tani wanted to join. When his mother told the coaches they were living in a shelter and couldn't pay the $330 fee, they waived it. The coaches were wildly impressed with Tani and wanted to help him and his family. When he won the championship, they reached out to the media, telling journalists about this young chess prodigy whose family was homeless. Nicholas Kristof wrote an op-ed piece about Tani in The New York Times.

NICHOLAS KRISTOF: Almost as soon as it went online, there was a huge response, and I was kind of taken aback by it. Fortunately, the chess coaches were way ahead of me, and they had set up a GoFundMe, I think with an initial goal of $10,000.

BLAIR: Tani's father, Kayode Adewumi, says they were inundated with requests for interviews from around the world.

KAYODE ADEWUMI: The CNN, BBC, CBS.

BLAIR: The GoFundMe page raised more than $250,000 within 10 days. An anonymous donor offered to pay their rent on an apartment for one year. Tani's story was optioned for a movie, and the family co-wrote a book with a bestselling author that comes out in April.

MARTINEZ: I mean, it's an absolutely, like, beautiful story, I mean, how the journey is turning out in such a positive direction.

BLAIR: Coach Shawn Martinez has seen chess help a lot of young people through adversity, but it's not easy. He says chess is a game that honors intelligence, character and how much you invest in it. He says Tani has it all.

MARTINEZ: He's not scared of anything on that board, and that's what it takes to beat the best of the best.

BLAIR: Oluwatoyin Adewumi is amazed at how her son's passion for chess has transformed their lives. She doesn't play herself but remember something Coach Shawn once said about strategy - when you put pawns together, there's no stopping them. She says in many ways, the teachers, pastors and fellow immigrants who came together to help them are also pawns.

O ADEWUMI: You might see them looking so small, but they are very powerful.

BLAIR: Meantime, Tani's chess rating keeps climbing, getting him closer to his goal of becoming a master.

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MURRAY HEAD'S "ENDGAME")

Copyright © 2020 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.