The sounds of clicking timers echo from a white tent in Abuja, Nigeria. Thirty-six chess players focus on checkered boards. This chess event’s appeal reaches beyond love of the game: Chess may be a way for Nigerian children to make a living.
At the Abuja tournament, the spectators include nine children from a primary school. They’re waiting for their own tournament to begin. Folarin Adebayo is the children’s coach. He has taken the youngsters to several competitions. At one, a six-year-old won a bronze medal.
Other groups like Adebayo’s are also training Nigerian children. They hope to establish the game as a professional sport—and groom the first grandmaster in West Africa.
“Most of the grandmasters played before 14,” Adebayo says. “We’re planning to get a grandmaster in the space of five to seven years.”
Luke Owolabi has a background in Scrabble. In 2015, he represented Nigeria at the World Scrabble Championship. He launched the Lagos-based Mind Games Incorporated (MGI) in 2017. His first tournament featured Scrabble, chess, and checkers.
Owolabi’s initial plan was to keep Nigerian youth engaged. But that changed along the way. He realized, “We can create a means of livelihood around these games.”
MGI has trainers in about 23 private schools across Lagos. Owolabi is talking with Nigeria’s education ministry about creating the same opportunities at public schools.
In November, an MGI championship included players from Ghana, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and the Gambia. Winners for Scrabble and chess each walked away with $1,600. Such contests with prize money are important. Otherwise, Owolabi says, “The kids have the mentality that the game is for leisure and move on with their lives.”
Nigerians’ chess prowess appeared on the global stage last year. Tanitoluwa Adewumi is a Nigerian refugee living in the United States. He won his category in the New York state chess championship.
Eight years old at the time, Tani won with little more than a year of training from a part-time chess teacher and free weekend chess sessions in Harlem. He practiced on the floor of a homeless shelter yet defeated children with private tutors.
Since Tani’s victory, people have donated money, and his family has moved into an apartment. His family also set up a foundation. Money collected will help other struggling African immigrants in the United States.
Today, Tani is working toward becoming a chess grandmaster. His parents believe their son’s skills wouldn’t have gone far in their native country. Nigerian coaches like Adebayo and Owolabi want to change that.