Meet America's Newest Chess Master, 10-Year-Old Tanitoluwa Adewumi

May 11, 2021
Originally published on May 12, 2021 1:09 pm

Tanitoluwa Adewumi, a 10-year-old in New York, just became the country's newest national chess master.

At the Fairfield County Chess Club Championship tournament in Connecticut on May 1, Adewumi won all four of his matches, bumping his chess rating up to 2223 and making him the 28th youngest person to become a chess master, according to US Chess.

"I was very happy that I won and that I got the title," he says, "I really love that I finally got it."

"Finally" is after about three years — the amount of time that Adewumi has been playing chess. When he started, Adewumi and his family were living in a homeless shelter in Manhattan after fleeing religious persecution by the Islamist militant group Boko Haram in their home country of Nigeria.

Now, Adewumi practices chess "every day" after school for "10, 11 hours" — and still manages to get some sleep.

His hours of practice have paid off. As a chess player, he describes himself as a bit of an every man, "aggressive" or "calm" when he needs to be, and always thinking ahead.

"On a normal position, I can do up to 20 moves [in advance]", he says. Keeping all of the pieces straight in his head might seem like a challenge but Adewumi says it's a skill that "when you master, it just keeps coming back."

Adewumi competes against other chess players at all levels. But his favorite match?

"I guess Hikaru Nakamura is my favorite person I've ever played," he says. "He's a grandmaster, a very strong one. He's on the top of the rankings."

Nakamura won that match. But Adewumi takes each loss in stride — and there's always the possibility of a comeback.

"I say to myself that I never lose, that I only learn," he says. "Because when you lose, you have to make a mistake to lose that game. So you learn from that mistake, and so you learn [overall]. So losing is the way of winning for yourself."

Since the last time NPR spoke with Adewumi, his family moved out of the shelter and he's written a book about his life called My Name Is Tani . . . and I Believe in Miracles. That book has been optioned for a Trevor Noah-produced film adaptation with a script by The Pursuit of Happyness screenwriter Steven Conrad.

But Adewumi's journey is not over yet. He says his goal is to become the world's youngest grandmaster. At 10 years 8 months, he has a little under two years to beat the current record holder, Sergey Karjakin, who gained his title at 12 years 7 months.

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Our next move is to the game of chess and the youngest national chess master. Tani Adewumi is 10 years old. He lives in New York. He's only been playing chess for about three years. When he started, he and his family were living in a homeless shelter. They'd fled religious persecution in Nigeria. We first brought you Tani's story last year after he won the New York State Chess Championship. We spoke with the new national chess master again today and asked, how often does he practice?

TANITOLUWA ADEWUMI: I do probably every day for, like, around 10, 11 hours.

KELLY: Ten, 11 hours?

ADEWUMI: Like, nine, 10 - yes. Like, nine, eight - seven, eight, 10 - nine, 10, 11 hours.

KELLY: All right. Now I'm trying to count because you must be in school - how many hours a day? - like, six, seven hours.

ADEWUMI: 8:30 to 2 o'clock.

KELLY: And then when do you start practicing chess?

ADEWUMI: After that.

KELLY: And do you sleep (laughter)?

ADEWUMI: Yes.

KELLY: It doesn't sound like there's much time. All right. Well, talk to me about becoming a national chess master. Talk about the day it actually happened. Just how did it unfold?

ADEWUMI: I was very happy that I won and that I got the title. I was very happy with myself. I really loved that I finally got it.

KELLY: How would you describe yourself as a player?

ADEWUMI: Probably aggressive. And I like to, like, sometimes be calm.

KELLY: Yeah.

ADEWUMI: I'll say myself as a every type kind of person.

KELLY: I know when I play chess, I'm always trying to think one move, maybe two moves ahead. How many moves ahead are you planning?

ADEWUMI: It depends on the position, but, like, on normal position, I could do up to 20 or 10 moves.

KELLY: Twenty moves in advance. And you're thinking about every piece...

ADEWUMI: Yes.

KELLY: ...That many moves in advance. How do you keep that straight in your head?

ADEWUMI: I don't know. It's a thing that when you master, like, it just keeps coming back.

KELLY: Favorite person you've ever played?

ADEWUMI: I guess Hikaru Nakamura is my favorite person I've played.

KELLY: And I don't know who that is. Tell me.

ADEWUMI: He's a grandmaster, a very strong one. He's on the top of the rankings.

KELLY: What was that like to play him?

ADEWUMI: It felt really good, and it was a good experience for me.

KELLY: Who won?

ADEWUMI: Him.

KELLY: For now.

ADEWUMI: Yes.

KELLY: (Laughter) Until your comeback match. When you lose, which I guess doesn't happen very often these days, but what is that like?

ADEWUMI: I say to myself that I never lose, that I only learn because when you lose, you have to make a mistake to lose that game. So you learn from that mistake, and so you learn. So losing is a way of winning for yourself.

KELLY: Aside from chess, I know the last time we had you on NPR, you had just won the New York State Championship. And your life was totally changing because when you started all this, your family had relatively recently arrived in America. Y'all were living in a shelter. What is life like now for you and your family?

ADEWUMI: It's better, I would say. But I thank God for everything that he's done for our family.

KELLY: Is there anybody your age who can remotely keep up with you on the chessboard, or are you mostly playing grown-ups at this point?

ADEWUMI: Mostly grown-ups at this point.

KELLY: It doesn't seem like it leaves a lot of time to be a kid, to run around on the playground.

ADEWUMI: No, it doesn't.

KELLY: Oh. But this is the life you've chosen, and you sound happy with it.

ADEWUMI: Yes.

KELLY: Well, may I say - I'm sure I'm not the first, and it doesn't sound like I will be the last, but congratulations.

ADEWUMI: Thank you.

KELLY: That is Tani Adewumi - 10 years old, talking about just becoming the youngest national chess master.

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