There are plenty of reasons why Tanitoluwa Adewumi captured the world’s attention in March 2019 after winning the New York State chess championship in his age group. Nine-year-old “Tani” was living in a Manhattan homeless shelter. And he was a refugee. Tani’s family had fled northern Nigeria and sought asylum in America in 2017 after being threatened by Boko Haram, a jihadist group. Oh, one more thing: when Tani took home the state championship trophy, he had been playing for only a year. It is little wonder his inspiring story is already the subject of three books (the first was published on April 14th) and a film.
But the story doesn’t end there. Tani is getting better. Chess players are ranked by the United States Chess Federation and the World Chess Federation using the Elo system. Named after Arpad Elo, a Hungarian-American physics professor and chess enthusiast, Elo ratings are based on a player’s performance in matches, and the skill level of their opponents, according to a mathematical formula. A beginner typically scores 800, an average player 1500 and a professional 2200. Grandmasters score above 2500. After his win a year ago, Tani was rated at 1587, or 20th among eight-year-olds in America. Today he is rated at 2059, number three among players his age, and on track to be number one. In the past year, his rating has increased twice as fast as that of the two peers above him.
Tani’s following could grow in the coming months. With conventional sport cancelled, chess, which can be played online, has enjoyed a boost in popularity. Chess.com, a website devoted to the sport, has seen its traffic more than double in the past few months. On Twitch, a video-streaming platform where users watch each other play video games, Hikaru Nakamura, an American “super-grandmaster” with a rating of 2,827, regularly draws audiences in the tens of thousands. His channel, where he competes against other grandmasters, has seen a 900% increase in viewers since February.
Whether Tani will one day join the ranks of the chess elite is hard to say. His dream is to become the world’s youngest grandmaster. But to achieve that status he must score three strong finishes in ultra-competitive tournaments, which were limited even before the pandemic. The current record-holder, Sergey Karjakin, a “super-grandmaster” widely considered among the best in the world, reached the milestone at 12 years and 7 months. To compete with the best, players need grit as well as talent; they study intensely, memorising opening-move orders and end-game sequences. But one year after his tournament win, Tani has not strayed from his path: from homeless refugee to master of the game of kings.