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On March 10, 2019, eight-year-old Tanitoluwa "Tani" Adewumi defeated 73 young competitors to win the New York State Scholastic Chess Championship in his age category — kindergarten to third grade — with five wins and one draw. While the achievement is remarkable in itself, what is even more so is that the youngster, who was homeless at the time, began learning the game less than a year ago.
Tani and his family arrived in New York City from Nigeria in 2017, seeking religious asylum due to the persecution of Christians by Boko Haram terrorists. A church pastor helped find the family of four space in a homeless shelter in Manhattan and, soon after, Tani was enrolled at the local elementary school, P.S. 116. It was here that the young prodigy was first introduced to the basics of chess by a part-time teacher. Intrigued by the game, the then seven-year-old begged his mother, Oluwatoyin, to allow him to join the school's chess club. Concerned the family would be unable to afford the fees and expenses, which add up to thousands of dollars due to travel and chess competition admissions, Oluwatoyin emailed chess instructor Russell Makofsky, who ran the club. To her surprise and delight, Makofsky agreed to waive all costs for young Tani. The rest, as they say, is history. The young boy, who has garnered seven trophies in less than a year, currently ranks #27 in America in his age category.
Though the chess club certainly helps, Tani's success can be largely attributed to his dedication to the game. The chess whiz practices the game for several hours a day either hunched on the floor with his board, or online, using his dad's laptop. Every Saturday, Tani and his mother head to Harlem for a free 3-hour class to help further sharpen his game skills.
Not surprisingly, Tani's incredible story, first reported by The New York Times, has resulted in a tremendous outpouring of support from the American public. Shortly after the young boy won the New York State Championship, Makofsky began a GoFundMe campaign for Tani and his family to "secure a home where he can continue on his journey." It has raised $200,000 in just ten days, far surpassing the original goal of $50,000, and the funds keep coming.
In addition, Tani's father, who used to rent a car to drive for Uber, now has a vehicle of his own from a generous donor, and his mother, a health aide, has received a job offer from a local hospital. Best of all, several New York Times readers extended offers to provide the family with free housing. While among them was a palatial home, the Adewumis chose to move into a more modest two-bedroom apartment near Tani's school.
Tani has also received scholarship offers from three prestigious New York City private schools. However, the Adewumis have gracefully declined all of them and instead chosen to continue Tani's education at P.S. 116. “This school showed confidence in Tanitoluwa,” his mom, Oluwatoyin, told P.S. 116 principal Jane Hsu. “So we return the confidence.”
The young boy's story even caught the eye of former US President Bill Clinton, who tweeted, “Refugees enrich our nation and talent is universal, even if opportunity is not. This story made me smile. Tanitoluwa, you exemplify a winning spirit – in chess and in life. And kudos to your hardworking parents. You all should stop by my office in Harlem; I'd love to meet you."
And the heartwarming story gets even better! Since they now have a home, the Adewumis have decided to "pay it forward" and donate the over $200,000 collected on GoFundMe. They plan to give 10 percent of the funds raised to the church that has supported them since they arrived in New York. The rest will be placed in the newly-created Tanitoluwa Adewumi Trust and given to African immigrants in America who are struggling the way the family was, not too long ago!
Tani, while excited about his new life, has other, more important, things on his mind. He is busy preparing for the National Elementary Championships, which will be held in Nashville, TN from May 10, 2019 to May 12, 2019. Winning the competition will bring the chess prodigy closer to his dream of becoming the world's youngest chess grandmaster. The record is currently held by Russian chess player Sergey Alexandrovich Karjakin, who qualified for the title in 2002 at the age of 12 years and 7 months. We have no doubt the determined youngster will achieve his goal soon!
Resources: Nytimes.com, gofundme.com, people.com