Fleeing Boko Haram in Nigeria to find safe haven in the US, some would say is a miracle. The terror Boko Haram has wreaked across African nations is truly horrific. Nine-year-old Tani Adewumi, a Nigerian refugee, turned this miracle into ripples of change in a tale that is as admirable as it is inspirational. Tani moved to New York with his parents and elder brother, and in just a year, he won the 2019 New York State chess championship. He released his autobiographical memoir with New York Times bestselling writer Craig Borlase, and My Name is Tani… and I Believe in Miracles is an endearing and touching account of a boy whose world was shaken up, and how he carved his own niche in the world of chess. There are many miracles Tani writes about in his poignant and innocent voice. The tale is now being made into a film produced by Trevor Noah.
Even as the little chess champion takes on the black and white squares of his chess board with tenacity, the Harper Collins title, and its simplicity is a beacon of hope. With a message that is as direct as its writer,. Tani’s family left Nigeria and sought asylum in the US, and the serious-minded Tani has gone from being a homeless refugee to being celebrated. Today, Tani brandishes that “deep” thinking of chess into life beautifully.
For those who play chess, early on Tani did 54 puzzles in three minutes! For those who don’t, it’s a feat no less! Infact, his next wish is to become the youngest grandmaster and beat Sergey Karjakin’s record at 12 years of age. His narration follows the family from Nigeria to the US, where they lived in a shelter till chess became a game changer. The world through the eyes of a child has a naïveté that reassures, and reaffirms. It also gives newbies an “in” into chess. Those weighed down by the pandemic can take back a message of optimism.
How a wee lad became a champion at eight years of age, and started a foundation – Tanitoluwa Adewumi Foundation to help immigrants in need, the book speaks of his dedication, and talent. Coach Shawn, Tani’s first coach saw potential in a lone and terrified little Nigerian boy. Chess classes were expensive, but he made sure Tani signed up. “Tani has potential. I believe in his deep passion for chess as he fell in love with it. The dedication he puts into learning the facets and his constant drive, he could well accomplish the goal of being the youngest grandmaster in the world!” says Coach Shawn.
A love for donuts that Auntie Maria always had ample of for him and his brother, Tani spent every waking hour playing chess. Living in New York, which was at the epicentre of the pandemic, he reveals, “It is so tough, people are scared, nobody wants to go out, though things are relaxing now.” His foundation is also doing its bit, “Through GoFundMe on immigrants #Covid-19 – rent relief and donations (are being given) to immigrants like us at our church,” Tani adds.
“God, hard work plus talent makes you great. Talent without hard work is empty,” chirps the nine-year-old with a sensibility of an adult.
Confident, Tani keeps learning, “I use a lot of chess websites – Chess24, lichess, chess.com, chessbase.com, life chess coaching and more of chessbase. No, I’m not scared and am now focused most on the positional aspect of the game,” says Tani.
He bought a house for his family, after his big win. During Covid times, he adds, “We have been doing great and keeping safe. Life has changed as I am getting more time to practice chess online than when there was school. I can’t play physical tournaments, only online tournaments.”
Leaving Boko Haram
The book speaks about how his father was terrorised by Boko Haram who wanted him to print hate propaganda, and his father refused. They even shifted cities, and then decided to leave Nigeria. “I know they are a set of bad people. When I heard about it, I was not happy. My friends, Austin, my brother and I do not talk about it.”
The adaptation speaks about his father’s struggle through the eyes of a child.
Tani now wants to “use a part of his foundation money to grow the country (Nigeria).”
In as much as Tani’s days are all about chess, it is that “deep thinking” of chess that he has imbibed. A terrified boy taken aback by the tall buildings in New York has changed. With a smiley face, he writes in this email interview, “Tani now meets chess elites. I’m in America, what changed me was chess. I see chess as a life changer. Chess will change your thinking, how you deal with yourself and your friends.”
Much as sports is a lesson in life, he adds, “My next move is to keep practicing to be the youngest grandmaster. I have been playing different online tournaments. I played online US vs UK on Chesskid and I will be playing Chesskid Elementary Chess Championship and some others too.”
Before chess became his piece de resistance, Tani wanted to fly a plane… and now he wants to become the youngest pilot ever.
Spending hours on end playing chess, a very solitary thinking endeavour, the young boy has two other solitary hobbies, swimming and reading.
As hard it is to associate Tani’s qualities of respectfulness, persistence, independence, strategising, doing what’s right and fast thinking as attributes of a mere nine-year-old, that is what his parents opine, as they continue to guide him.
Coach Shawn mentored this chess whiz, and believes others can emulate these qualities. “I’ve always taught Tani and all my students that winners never quit, and quitters never win, to keep the mindset of never quitting and fighting to the end.” Tani has emulated this well.
Being a champion catapulted Tani into the limelight, even though he would much rather sit quietly in a corner and perfect his next move. From his attempts, one thing is clear, he is already many steps ahead!