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On a Saturday afternoon in December, the sounds of clicking timers echoed from a white tent in an Abuja garden. There, 36 chess players focused on their boards while observers stood on both sides of the tent.
The spectators included nine children from a primary school waiting for their own tournament after the nine 10-minute rapid rounds.
Folarin Adebayo, the children’s coach of four years, told me he’s taken them to several tournaments, including one in Lagos state, where a 6-year-old won a bronze medal.
“Most of the grandmasters played before 14,” he said. “We’re planning to get a grandmaster in the space of five to seven years.”
The event is part of a goal to provide more opportunities for chess and other mind games. Several groups like Adebayo’s are also training younger children, hoping to establish the game as a professional sport that could lead to the first grandmaster in West Africa.
Efe Onodavberoh, 24, who organized the tournament, first started playing chess while he attended the University of Abuja. He tried to organize his first tournament in 2017 but didn’t know enough players.
But through social media he gathered enough participants to host the Abuja tournament and wants to make it a regular occurrence: “I’m already planning my next event for April.”
What I want to do next is to start going for my goal of being the youngest grandmaster in the world. —Tanitoluwa Adewumi
Ngozi Uba-eze was the only female participating in the main competition. She typically plays chess for leisure and was attending her first tournament. In the second round she lost to the more experienced Joshua Adejo.
He won a national open championship in Lagos, where players from Ivory Coast and a grandmaster from India attended. Adejo, 30, runs a business on the side but is working toward becoming a grandmaster.
One challenge is the scarcity of rated tournaments in Nigeria. “I’m praying, but I don’t have time on my side,” he said, laughing.
Nigerians’ chess prowess appeared on the global stage earlier this year when 8-year-old Tanitoluwa Adewumi, a Nigerian refugee in Manhattan, won in his grade in the New York State chess championship.
He did so with a little more than a year’s worth of training—defeating children from elite schools with private tutors—and while living at a homeless shelter. His family fled northern Nigeria in 2017, fearing attacks from Islamist terror group Boko Haram.
He attended P.S. 116, where a part-time chess teacher taught him the game and waived his fees for the chess club. He practiced on the floor of the shelter, and his mother took him to free chess sessions in Harlem on the weekends.
Since his victory, his family moved into an apartment and received multiple donations, including from elite private schools. The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah is set to co-produce a motion picture based on his story for Paramount Pictures.
“What I want to do next is to start going for my goal of being the youngest grandmaster in the world,” he told New York’s NBC News 4 in March.
Luke Owolabi said Tani’s story proves many young Nigerians have talent but lack the “conducive environment” to thrive. In 2017, he launched the Lagos-based Mind Games Incorporated (MGI) and organized his first tournament in Scrabble, chess, and checkers.
His background is stronger in Scrabble: In 2015, he represented Nigeria at the World Scrabble Championship. His initial plan was to keep Nigerian youth engaged, but that changed along the way: “We can create a means of livelihood around these games.”
MGI has trainers in about 23 private schools across Lagos, and Owolabi is talking with the education ministry and other groups about creating the same opportunities at little to no cost at public schools.
They are also raising money for a national championship. In November, MGI’s annual premier championship included players from Ghana, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and the Gambia. The winners for Scrabble and chess each walked away with $1,600. Such contests are essential if the games are to become a sustainable income source, he added. “If you don’t provide that kind of platform, the kids have the mentality that the game is for leisure and move on with their lives.”