The victory of 8-year-old Tanitoluwa Adewumi in the New York State K-3 championship this month has received more attention than any chess story in a long time. His circumstances, a Nigerian refugee living in a family shelter, were the key ingredient, even more than his dazzling smile next to a trophy taller than he is.
According to reports, “Tani” had learned to play only a year earlier, while most of his rivals had been playing in tournaments for several years. It’s an irresistible underdog story, well-deserving of going viral and generating an outpouring of donations to aid him and his family.
This heart-warming tale is also a quintessentially American one. Despite his family’s conditions, Tani learned to play at a good chess program in an excellent Manhattan public school. His mother took the initiative of getting him into the school chess club, reminding any true chess fan of a similar letter written by the mother of future U.S. world champion Bobby Fischer. (All praise to assertive chess mothers like my own!)
The United States is where the world’s talent comes to flourish. Since its inception, one of America’s greatest strengths has been its ability to attract and channel the energy of wave after wave of striving immigrants. It’s a machine that turns that vigor and diversity into economic growth. It may mean opening a dry cleaner or a start-up that becomes Google. It could mean studying medicine, law or physics, or — as Tani says he would like to do — becoming the world’s youngest chess champion.
Many of the questions I received as world champion centered on why the Soviet Union produced so many great chess players. After the dissolution of the USSR, these questions were asked again along new national borders. Why did Russia, or Armenia, or my native Azerbaijan have so many grandmasters? Was there something in the water, the genes or the schools? And why weren’t there more chess prodigies from the United States (or wherever the questioner was from)?
My answer was always the same: Talent is universal, but opportunity is not, and talent cannot thrive in a vacuum.
The Soviet leadership always looked at chess as an opportunity to tout the superiority of the communist system. The leadership invested heavily in the game and promoted it at every level, for kids and professionals. I benefited directly from this aggressive farm system, receiving good coaching at a very young age in Baku and quickly being placed into a special chess school under the direction of former world champion Mikhail Botvinnik.
I was lucky to find chess, which was like a native language to me, but it wasn’t luck that chess found me. With that in mind, I have worked since 2002 to bring chess into education systems around the world. Chess is excellent for boosting children’s cognitive development and academic skills, but growing the base also means finding more top-level talent.
America’s recognition of chess’s benefits may help explain a development that merits wider recognition: This is a golden age for chess in the United States. The U.S. team’s gold medal in the 2016 Chess Olympiad, where teams from 175 countries competed, wasn’t exactly front-page news, and there was no White House invitation. American grandmaster Fabiano Caruana fell just short last year in challenging Norwegian Magnus Carlsen for the world championship, but he will likely be back.
Whether Tani breaks my record of becoming, at age 22 in 1985, the youngest world champion, I wish him every success. But regardless of whether he succeeds, his achievement has already reached millions of people. The new numbers game of clicks and likes is working its viral magic. There are kids all over the world right now looking at online chess lessons because they want to be like Tani, not Kasparov or Carlsen. The talent is out there, waiting for opportunity to find it.
Garry Kasparov is an author and the chairman of the Renew Democracy Initiative.