Homeless Eight-Year Old Immigrant Becomes Chess Phenom

In recent weeks, the news cycle was dominated by the revelation of a scandal involving dozens of wealthy and powerful parents who illegally bribed elite colleges and universities to admit their children, potentially taking the spots of more qualified applicants. The transgressions of privileged elites using their affluence to give their children unfair advantages at the expense of the less fortunate runs counter to the story of the fabled “American dream.” Isn’t this supposed to be a country of meritocracy – one that strives to provide opportunity to all, and not just those lucky enough to be born into a rich, powerful family?  

Fortunately, a juxtaposing story that confirms our nation’s limitless possibilities materialized in the form of an eight-year-old Nigerian refugee living in New York City with his family. Tanitoluwa Adewumi is a third grader at his local elementary school, P.S. 116, and he was just named his age group’s champion in a state chess championship. Perhaps even more impressive than his undefeated record in the competition is the fact that Tani, as he is known, was only introduced to the game of chess a year ago. Since then, he has earned seven trophies and a skyrocketing rating on the national chess circuit. And he has accomplished all this while living in a homeless shelter.

As devout Christians, Tani’s family felt increasingly threatened by the presence of Boko Haram terrorists in their native Nigeria, so they sought refuge in the United States in 2017. While his father, Kayote, works two jobs and his mother, Oluwatoyin, recently passed a course to become a home health aide, the family has still struggled to make ends meet and find a home of their own in New York City. And with an immigration hearing looming in August that will determine whether the family’s asylum request will be granted, Tani’s future is uncertain. His resolve to strengthen his chess skills in the face of such extreme adversity has earned the acclaim of his mentors. Russell Makofsky, who heads the chess program at Tani’s elementary school, recently explained to The New York Times that his talent is unlike anything he’s ever witnessed. “One year to get to this level, to climb a mountain and be the best of the best, without family resources … I’ve never seen it.”

Fortunately, the family is homeless no more. The media attention Tani received in the wake of his chess victory led supporters to set up a GoFundMe page to help them secure a home. The fundraising campaign was a raving success, pulling in more than a quarter-of-a-million dollars within a matter of weeks! Tani’s response? “I think I am still dreaming, I hope I don’t wake up.”

Despite the past struggles Tani and his family faced, he explained to The New York Times that he “feel[s] American,” and remains focused on becoming the youngest chess grandmaster in history. And it seems, now more than ever, that we need immigrants like Tani to remind us that the spirit of self-determination is still alive in America. [See This 8 Year Old Chess Champion Will Make You Smile by Nicholas Kristof, The New York Times, 16.Mar.2019.]


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