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US: Chess changes the fortunes of 11-year-old prodigy

October 3, 2021

When Tanitoluwa “Tani” Adewumi mulls his next move on a chessboard, his instinct is to pile pressure on his opponent.

“I’m aggressive, I like to attack,” he tells CNN Sport of his playing style. “It’s just the way I think in general: I want to checkmate my opponent as fast as I can.”

Tani, who turned 11 in September, is taking the same approach with his chess career. Having become a national master earlier this year — the 28th youngest person to achieve that title — he now wants to become the game’s youngest ever grandmaster.

That record currently belongs to 12-year-old Abhimanyu Mishra, but Tani is putting in the hours to try to get there faster. He attends school in New York, then practices for seven hours when he gets home; when he doesn’t have school, he can practice for eight, nine, or sometimes even 10 hours a day.

His success in chess has so far yielded a growing collection of trophies, the most treasured of which is the title he won at the New York State chess championship in 2019 — not necessarily because of the way he played, but because it changed his family’s life forever.

“That’s the one that really boosted us up to become where we are today, and also me and my chess,” says Tani.

In June 2017, nearly two years before he won the state championship title, Tani and his family fled northern Nigeria, worried about attacks by extremist group Boko Haram.

They lived in a homeless shelter in Manhattan after moving to the United States, and shortly afterward Tani joined the chess club at his school, P.S. 116 in New York, on the agreement that the registration fee could be waived.

When word spread of Tani’s state championship title, an outpouring of financial support for his family followed.

“One family, they paid for a year’s rent in Manhattan, one family gave us in 2019 a brand-new Honda, and the Saint Louis Chess Club in Missouri invited the family and the coaches to come and pay a visit,” Tani’s father, Kayode Adewumi, who works as a real estate agent, tells CNN Sport.

“A lot of people really helped us, a lot of people gave us financial (support) and money … they donated money for us to get out from the shelter.”

The family set up a GoFundMe page, which provided the housing, legal and educational funds needed to find their feet in the US. Further donations are being channeled into the Tanitoluwa Adewumi Foundation, which supports underprivileged children around the world.

“We need to give back to the needy, because we know what it takes — we’ve tasted everything,” adds Mr Adewumi.

“When we were in the shelter, some people are still there. We need to help the needy, especially the chess community and the people that need help. That’s why we put the money into the foundation, to help people.”

The family feels indebted to the sport of chess — so much so that, through the foundation, they have contributed money to a chess organization in Africa encouraging more people to take up the game.

Tani’s story bears similarities to Netflix series “The Queen’s Gambit” — a fictional story about an orphaned Kentucky girl in the 1960s who becomes a chess champion in her teens. He has watched the series and says he “definitely did” see himself in it.

“Chess is everything to me, it’s my life,” says Tani. “That’s how we came to where we are today.”

But his early competitive experiences weren’t easy; when he played his first chess tournament, Tani lost all of his games.

“It did take me time, of course,” he says. “I believe it takes everybody time.”

Today, much of Tani’s training involves watching the world’s best players — the likes of reigning world champion Magnus Carlsen and grandmasters Hikaru Nakamura, Levon Aronian and Ian Nepomniachtchi. He studies how they think and how they plot each move.

According to Carlsen, there are few secrets to how he became the world’s best player.

“It’s been about putting in the time,” he tells CNN Sport. “For me, I don’t think I could have ever gotten far in chess without a great love of the game, that’s what’s been driving it for me all of these years.

“What I do remember from my childhood is that I would go to school; after school I would play soccer with my friends, and when I got home, I would sit down at my own little board where had my chessboard and chess books.

“I would usually eat there. If I didn’t have to, I preferred not to eat with my family because then I could not study chess … it must have been a lot of hours, but it was always because I loved it.”

To follow in Carlsen’s footsteps and reach the status of grandmaster — the highest title in chess — Tani will have to achieve three grandmaster norms — an award given for a high level of performance in a chess tournament — as well as earning an FIDE (Federation Internationale des Echecs) rating of 2,500.

Wherever his chess career takes him, Tani can be sure that his family’s support will never be far away. His mother accompanies him to his tournaments, and more recently, his father has been able to attend when he can fit it in around his work schedule

As he watches his son emerge from his games, Mr Adewumi waits for a signal: thumbs up for a win, a horizontal thumb for a draw, and thumbs down for defeat. But whatever the result, his father’s reaction is always the same.

“When I’m watching him playing, it’s just like your chest wants to burst out until it can be free,” says Mr Adewumi. “When he comes out … we just grab him and are celebrating with him … when he’s lost the game, I embrace him, I encourage him.

“He has a philosophy that when you lose, you try again to work out what made you lose and encourage yourself to get better.”

That philosophy has reaped rewards so far, and it might yet help Tani Adewumi achieve the status of chess grandmaster

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