Tanitoluwa Adewumi, who lives with his family in a shelter in New York City, went from chess novice to chess champion in little over a year.
In a homeless shelter in Manhattan, an 8-year-old boy is walking to his room, carrying an awkward load in his arms, unfazed by screams from a troubled resident. The boy is a Nigerian refugee with an uncertain future, but he is beaming.
He can’t stop grinning because the awkward load is a huge trophy, almost as big as he is. This homeless third grader has just won his category
Recall the news of the last week has focused on wealthy families buying access to great universities, either illegally through bribes or at the donations. There is no question that America is a tilted playing field that gives wealthy children huge advantages.
So we should all grin along with Tanitoluwa Adewumi, the newly crowned chess champion for kindergarten through third grade. He went undefeated at the state tournament last weekend, outwitting children from elite private schools with private chess tutors.
What’s even more extraordinary is that Tani, as he is known, learned chess only a bit more than a year ago. His play has skyrocketed month by month, and he now has seven trophies by his bed in the homeless shelter.
“I want to be the youngest grandmaster,” he said
So Tani, his parents
Tani enjoyed the game and prodded his mom, Oluwatoyin Adewumi, to ask if he could join the chess club.
“He is interested in the chess program, which he will like to be participating in,” Mrs. Adewumi, who is working hard to master American English, emailed the club. She explained that she could not pay the fees for the program because the family was living in a shelter.
Russell Makofsky, who oversees the P.S. 116 chess program, waived the fees, and a year ago the boy took part in his first tournament with the lowest rating of any participant, 105.
His rating is now 1587 and rising fast. (By comparison, the world’s best player, Magnus Carlsen, stands at 2845.)
Tani has an aggressive style of play, and in the state tournament the coaches, watching from the sidelines, were shocked when he sacrificed a bishop for a lowly pawn. Alarmed, they fed the move into a computer and it agreed with Tani, recognizing that the gambit would improve his position several moves later.
“It’s an inspiring example of how life’s challenges do not define a person,” said Jane Hsu, the principal of P.S. 116, which held a pep rally to celebrate Tani’s victory. Hsu noted that while Tani lacks a home, he
Tani’s mom can’t play chess but takes him every Saturday to a three-hour
It is sometimes tough for Tani. His parents say that he once came home from school crying after classmates teased him for being homeless. And at an immigration hearing last fall, he burst into tears when he misunderstood the judge to say that the family would be deported.
“I feel American,” he explained. In fact, the family’s asylum request is dragging on, with the next hearing scheduled for August.
Tani tries to put that out of his mind. He lies on the floor of the shelter and practices chess for hours each evening — now preparing for the elementary national championship in May.
“He is so driven,” said his school chess teacher, Shawn Martinez. “He does 10 times more chess puzzles than the average kid. He just wants to be better.”
Makofsky shook his head wonderingly. “One year to get to this level, to climb a mountain and be the best of the best, without family resources,” he said. “I’ve never seen it.”
Tani is a reminder that refugees enrich the American nation — and that talent is universal, even if