Interviews Aug 11, 2020 | 7:00 PMby Leon Watson

Tani Adewumi on Magnus Carlsen, #ImpactChess and... Curly-Wurly candy

Chess changes lives - and none more so than nine-year-old Tanitoluwa Adewumi's.

Tani, who readers may remember hit the headlines last year, is a shining example of how our game is capable of transforming fortunes in every sense.

His cross-continent triumph against adversity story is both heartwarming and, despite his young age, inspirational.

This is why chess24 has invited Tani to launch the #ImpactChess campaign.

"Forty-six Dad, I got 46!" I can hear Tani before I can see him and it sounds to me like he's playing a game on a rival platform. "Did you just get 46 on Puzzle Rush?" I ask. "Yes!" bellows the excited youngster.

For those who have never played Puzzle Rush, that is an impressive score. But it is not surprising because Tani Adewumi is an impressive boy.

When I spoke to Tani with GM Pascal Charbonneau it was over Zoom rather than in person as, with flights suspended, I was not able to go to New York. For that reason, it came with a slight sense of trepidation.

Pascal, Leon, Tani and his father on Zoom

Here is a talented young man with an incredible tale to tell - but from long experience in journalism, I've found persuading children to talk can be fraught with difficulty and monosyllabic answers.

That was not the case. For a start, Tani is now well-practised at interviews! But also with Tani’s family, the Adewumis, you can feel the warmth flowing through even if you're just on a trans-Atlantic video call.

Tani’s tale begins in northern Nigeria when his parents Kayode and Oluwatoyin made the agonising decision to take their then seven-year-son and his older brother Austin and flee their homeland.

Fears of religious persecution from the terror group Boko Haram, a sect responsible for well-documented and widespread atrocities in West Africa, had suddenly become very real.

The family flew to New York to start a new life and landed as so many have before them, immigrants in a strange country with nothing but themselves. It was there that Tani’s chess-fueled American Dream started.

(From left) Oluwatoyin, Austin, Tani and Kayode Adewumi

A local pastor helped them find a homeless shelter and Tani enrolled in school, P.S. 116 in Lower Manhattan. His father had to take two jobs, one driving long hours for Uber, to support his family.

At one point Mr Adewumi, who had owned his own printing firm in Nigeria, worked nights as a cleaner in the Bronx for $6 an hour.

Tani first fell in love with the game when his teacher taught him how to play. He asked his family if he could join the school chess club. But, struggling to make ends meet, Tani’s mom had to ask the headteacher if the fees could be waived.

The school agreed and its two coaches, Shawn Martinez and Russell Makofsky, took Tani under their wing. Within months there was no doubt the young Nigerian immigrant had a bright future in the game.

In 2019 Tani entered the K3 section of the New York State Scholastic Championships Tournament. Faced with a field of 79 of New York's best kids, some of whom came from elite private schools, the youngster was not expected to win. But he did, finishing undefeated.

Just a year after learning chess, Tani was crowned state champion and took home a trophy almost as big as he was.

The boy who had once dreamed of becoming a pilot now had even loftier ambitions - he wanted to become the youngest grandmaster in history. He had Sergey Karjakin’s world record in his sights!

It was an astonishing story - one that transcended chess and reached people in all areas of life - and it was made even more remarkable because, at the time, Tani’s family was still homeless and living in a shelter.

But it didn’t end there. As Tani’s story went worldwide, donations started flooding into a Go Fund Me site set up for him. More than $200,000 was raised. Offers of support, accommodation and even a car came in from kind-hearted people touched by what they had seen or read about.

Tani’s family, blown away by the kindness, decided to donate the cash elsewhere - to the church that helped them and to set up a foundation in Tani’s name to help other immigrants. They wanted to pass on the kindness they were shown, to others in similar need.

Meanwhile, the family eventually settled in a flat offered to them rent-free for a year in the Lower East Side, which is where they talk to chess24 from.

While all this was happening Tani was being interviewed on national television, making headlines in newspapers across the world being invited to meet luminaries such as President Bill Clinton.

Tani attended the US Championships in St Louis where he met some of the stars and was interviewed by GM Maurice Ashley.

Production companies were even vying for the rights to make a feel-good film about Tani. That deal has now been struck and the studio Paramount has announced plans to shoot a film.

A 256-page memoir telling his family's story has also been published. My Name Is Tani... and I Believe in Miracles printed by Tommy Nelson Books was released last month.

So what has happened since to the boy wonder, now aged 9, who warmed the hearts of the world?

Tani reveals he's practising chess "seven to eight hours a day" - a lot more than usual because he's off school because of coronavirus.

Tani is chess24's #ImpactChess ambassador

But that hasn't phased him: "The game is really helpful, it's keeping me active all the time," Tani says.

"It's educational, math-ways because you have to add pieces," he adds. "It has impacted our lives very much because if we didn't have chess we probably wouldn't be here, so chess changed our life really.

It's really nice, the game keeps me awake every day, I jump out of bed a bit early just to play chess.

Tani has had the chance to play most of his heroes, but there's one hero left he hasn't yet played: Magnus Carlsen.

On his own game, Tani said: "I still want to get better at chess a lot and want to become a grandmaster at a young age. I'm more of a tactical chess player, I know a lot of positional ideas but I'm more of a tactical player."

Tani has been playing a lot online but - like many players - can't wait to get back to over the board chess. He's also very concerned about cheats online.

"Over the board is just better you can see your opponent but online there's smurfs, which is a bit annoying," he says.

Our chat with Tani draws to a close but just before he does he fires one question at me: "You're in the UK, right? Do you have a type of candy called... I forget the name but it's caramel and... it's called the Curly something?"

He may be a promising player, but he's still a school kid at heart.

"The Curly-Wurly?" I reply. "Yes, I know, I used to love them. It's caramel covered in chocolate in a curly-wurly shape. I'll bring you a couple next time I come to New York!"

And then it's time to say goodbye.

Expect to see Tani make an appearance at some point during the coverage of the Magnus Carlsen Chess Tour Grand Final. And, if we can, we may even engineer a game between him and the World Champion.

Watch this space.

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