The Adewumi family. From left: Oluwatoyin, Adesina, Tanitoluwa, and Kayode. (Photo by James Pothen).

“I need 400 points more,” says the small boy on the couch. “And I need to go to more tournaments.” 

The strange thing is, everyone is taking Tanitoluwa (“Tani”) Adewumi seriously. He’s not talking about beating his friends at Fortnite or becoming a state sports champion. This 10-year-old is inches away from becoming the youngest chess Grandmaster in history. 

He’s escaped a terrorist group, survived homelessness, and learned the game of kings as an elementary schooler. But COVID-19 may be the thing to prevent Tani from achieving his goal. The pandemic has forced him to give up board training with his coach in favor of online lessons. And over-the-board tournaments were already limited before everything shut down. Time is running out. The current record holder is Russian player Sergey Karjakin, who became a Grandmaster at the age of 12 years and seven months. Which means Tani only has until April 2023.

The title of chess Grandmaster (GM) has been around since the 1830s and was formalized by the world chess organization FIDE in 1950. Of the millions of chess players around the world, only 1,725 have earned GM status. And of those GMs, only a handful are of African descent. Amon Simotuwe, the first GM from Sub-Saharan Africa, earned his title in 2007.

Earning the title cannot be done in isolation, or on a computer. Tani will need to perform well at tournaments that meet strict requirements. He also needs to achieve a rating of at least 2,500 points. This requires intense practice and wins over highly-rated players.

Tani’s story parallels the fictional Beth Harmon of the hit Netflix show The Queen’s Gambit. A young child overcomes difficult life circumstances through a miraculous ability. Beth received hers from a gifted but troubled mother. Tani’s parents are seemingly more normal: his mother, Oluwatoyin, worked at a bank and his father, Kayode, owned a printing press.

That is, until they became religious refugees. Their Christian faith put them in the crosshairs of Boko Haram, a jihadist terrorist organization. In 2017 the Adewumis fled their native Nigeria with Tani and his older brother, Adesina. They eventually found their way to a homeless shelter in New York City.

That’s when something magical happened. One day Adesina was bored. He remembered a game he had seen two teachers playing back in Nigeria. So he made a makeshift chess board and pieces and taught young Tani how to play. 

“I always won,” said Adesina. “We kind of made our own rules. I taught [Tani] how to move the king wrongly: ‘The king can move any squares it wants to twice.’” (For the record, the king can indeed move in any direction, but only one square at a time.)

Tani’s losing streak didn’t last long once he joined the school’s chess club. He started attending tournaments and won the 2019 K-3 New York State chess championship. He was all of eight years old.

Things changed quickly after that. The New York Times picked up his story, a GoFundMe campaign raised over $250,000, and a donor provided the family with a place to stay. The Adewumis, for their part, have remained decidedly grounded despite the rapid rise to fame. The money from the GoFundMe has gone to a foundation bearing Tani’s name. And Tani will finish his elementary schooling at P.S. 116, where he got his start.

These surprising decisions come from the family’s devout Christian faith. “We believe that God does everything,” said Kayode. “God is so kind to the family. We prayed, he answered our prayer.” Every morning and evening the family gathers in the living room for 15 minutes of worship, scripture, and prayer.

There is a sense of divine intervention in Tani’s rise. The Adewumis aren’t the only people to use religious language to describe his quest. Tain’s coach Shawn Martinez speaks with the conviction of a true believer.

“I witnessed a miracle happen firsthand,” said Martinez. “And I think another one can happen if the right things are being done…all my faith and belief is with him.”

That faith is grounded in Tani’s dedication to the game. Martinez stressed that it takes both study (4-8 hours a day, every day) and constant playing for a player to achieve the Grandmaster title. He said that the pandemic has been “a gift and a curse” for Tani, giving him time to study the game while simultaneously limiting his access to tournaments. To make up for this, Tani has been playing in online tournaments against other highly-rated players. His strong performance in these online tournaments give Martinez confidence that Tani will perform well at the in-person tournaments where he needs to perform well.

Martinez characterized Tani’s playing style as “tenacious,” being willing to attack and risk pieces. Karjakin, on the other hand is nicknamed “Minister of Defense” for his playing style. Martinez described him as a “solid” player, as contrasted to the still developing Tani. That tenacity will prove necessary if he is able to take the title from Karjakin, who has held it for nearly two decades.

And even though COVID-19 has slowed Tani’s path to becoming a Grandmaster, his path seems clearly laid out. It’s like his life is a series of chess moves, and he can see the path to victory. In videos of his matches, the pint-sized genius often outpaces his opponents, forcing them to slow down and consider what he is doing. When asked how he could play so quickly, he says he is simply executing a plan in his head.

“You already have all the moves that you know you want to play,” he says. “And all the moves that you know are good to play.”