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Meet the Boy Who Is Living the American Dream

How a homeless Nigerian refugee became a U.S. chess champion

spinner image a young boy concentrates on a chessboard with trophies behind him
Photo: Bryan Derballa

Want proof of the American dream? Look no further than Tanitoluwa “Tani” Adewumi. At age 8, Tani stormed to victory in the New York State Chess Championship while living in a homeless shelter.

His rise to national stardom came less than two years after his arrival in the United States. In 2017, he and his family fled Nigeria where, because of their Catholic faith, they were threatened by Boko Haram, an ISIS-affiliated terrorist group. Tani’s father owned a printing press and became a target of the group after he refused its demand to produce a poster with anti-Western and anti-Christian slogans.

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In the United States, the family’s first residence was a New York City shelter. There, Tani’s older brother taught him to play chess using a homemade board. While his parents worked (his father, Kayode, washed dishes while his mother, Oluwatoyin, cleaned offices), the third-grader joined his school’s chess club and, within a year, won the K-3 division of the New York State Chess Championship, defeating 73 of the best players in his age group. 

Following his achievement, the young boy returned to the homeless shelter.

But as his story spread, thousands of Americans donated money to a GoFundMe account created by his father. The family was able to leave the shelter and move into an apartment while Tani pursued his skyrocketing chess career. Two years later, at age 10, Tani became the 28th-youngest national chess master in U.S. history, competing against players of all ages. Today, at age 12, he’s become an International Chess Federation (FIDE) master, the third-highest level of chess titles, and the 172nd-highest-ranked active chess player in the country.

“I’m aggressive. I like to attack,” Tani told 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.”

In December, Tani clinched the greatest prize of all — he and his family were granted asylum. 

“We feel so thankful for the grace and mercy of God, for America, and for Americans who are so kind to us,” says Tani’s father, now a licensed real estate agent. “We are happy people.” 

Today Tani trains for chess competitions full-time, from seven to 10 hours per day, in addition to his regular school duties. His next goal is to become a chess grandmaster, the highest title in chess. If he achieves his goal this year, he’ll be one of the five youngest people in the world to earn the title.

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Tani’s story was published in a book called My Name is Tani … and I Believe in Miracles: The Amazing True Story of One Boy’s Journey from Refugee to Chess Champion. He’s the main subject, but he gives all the credit to his parents. “They’re also my heroes,” he writes. “None of this would have happened if it hadn’t been for them.”

The world is Tani’s to conquer. In fact, the preteen wants to be a pilot after he becomes a grandmaster. “I've been thinking again about being a pilot. There are a lot of places I’ve not been to and if I were a pilot, maybe I could go see them,” he said. “Maybe I'll be both a grandmaster and a pilot, too. I’d like that.”

And here, in America, the sky’s the limit.

Share Your Experience: What was your biggest achievement against difficult odds? Let us know in the comments below.

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