September 21, 2023

Mayer Brown Attorneys Try Their Hands Against 13-Year-Old Chess Prodigy Whose Family Gained Asylum With Pro Bono Help


There are plenty of similes to apply to a battle of wits between two lawyers (Was it like thermonuclear war? Or more like a pillow fight?)

Comparing a clash of attorneys to a game of chess seems apt; they both require strategy and intense concentration, and the weapons available to the players all come with their own rules and limitations.

And, of course, they both require coming to terms with losing.

Several Mayer Brown attorneys and one Law Journal reporter who was in way over his head were recently treated to that particular aspect of the game.

The featured guests to the Sept. 14 edition of the firm’s regular fireside chats was 13-year-old chess master Tanitoluwa “Tani” Adewumi and his father Kayode James Adewumi, who Mayer Brown represented pro bono in their effort to obtain asylum in the United States to flee the Boko Haram in Nigeria.

Tani and his family have had some time in the spotlight since they’ve been in the U.S. New York Times columnist wrote about the Adewumis back in 2021, and Tani has authored a book about the devoutly Christian family’s escape from Boko Haram, a militant Islamist organization.

After showing a video at the firm’s Midtown Manhattan office of Tani beating tennis great Roger Federer—who is himself a chess aficionado—on the board, it came time for a few brave souls in the room to see how long they could last against the young prodigy.

Christopher Houpt, co-chair of the firm’s banking and finance litigation group, fell in about five minutes. Tani took less than 10 minutes to lay waste to associates Calla Zhou and Luc Mitchell.
“I was just hoping to last for a few minutes,” Mitchell said as he walked away in defeat.

The Law Journal reporter lasted about seven minutes—because Tani played the match with his eyes closed and asked his opponent to call out the coordinates of each move. TV station PIX11 was there to document the devastation.

In a conversation with Matthew Ingber, managing partner of Mayer Brown’s New York office, prior to the matches, Tani was somewhat modest when asked how he’s handling his celebrity—”I’m having fun,” he said sheepishly— and said he is attracted to chess because of the creative potential the game presents.

“There’s a lot of ideas, a lot of possibilities you haven’t thought about,” he said.

As for what lies ahead for Tani, it might remain to be seen if his skills on the chessboard may one day translate to skills in the courtroom. For now, the middle school student wants to be a pilot.

Reprinted with permission from the September 21, 2023 edition of New York Law Journal © 2023 ALM Properties, Inc. All rights reserved. Further duplication without permission is prohibited.

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