Mikyeil El-Mekki: Changing the game by empowering next-gen problem-solvers

Cherri Gregg
February 20, 2020 - 4:00 am
Mikyeil El-Mekki.

Cherri Gregg/KYW Newsradio

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PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — Mikyeil El-Mekki is a self-described “super nerd” with a love for two things: Black history and chess.

“I grew up in a very Afro-centric environment,” said the Philadelphia native, “and I had a love of learning, and chess really fed that.”

El-Mekki began playing the game at age 3, usually skirmishing against his older brother. Eventually, he got into competitive chess.

“Who knew you could study chess the way I study math, science and other subjects,” he recalled.

A polyglot proficient in nearly a half-dozen languages — thanks to international travel and some time spent living in Iran as a child — El-Mekki combined his two passions in 2005 when he founded the Paul Robeson Chess Club.

“We are proud to be named after him,” he said of Robeson, an actor, athlete and activist who spent his final years living in West Philadelphia. “No matter what choices he faced, he would never compromise his values.”

Eventually, El-Mekki began partnering with the Paul Robeson House and Museum. Occasionally, the club will meet at the Walnut Street house to practice. They meet a couple times a week to go over strategies, challenge each other, and test their skills.

Kids as young as 5 use logic and problem-solving to decide which pieces go where on the 64-square board.

“We reject the lie of (being) too young,” he noted. “They put fire to the board — serious chess — that is our culture.”

The kids will play anywhere, at any time, with anyone — including El-Mekki.

“There’s no mercy on coach,” he chuckled. “There are kids I avoid on the regular.”

Mikyeil El-Mekki playing chess with his students.
Courtesy of Mikyeil El-Mekki

El-Mekki said some of the kids who have speech issues or who live with disabilities thrive when playing chess. Although the club began with mostly African-American and Latino children, it has grown into a multicultural mecca. Kids flock to the club from all over the region, and alumni of the club come back and volunteer. 

“When you have a group as rich and diverse as ours, the games, the interaction, the conversation and the laughter is so rich,” he said. “Chess is life, and so that is one of the greatest joys for me, seeing them applying it on the board.”

Playing chess strengthens kids’ creativity, too. 

“Life is the only thing with more possibilities than chess,” he said.

El-Mekki’s students seem to be taking to the game well. They've won 14 national club titles — five within the past two years — and too many local titles to count. Their group nickname? “Team Genius.” 

“I challenge the geniuses daily," El-Mekki said, noting his personal nickname is “Learner One.” “They teach you what is possible.” 

The club is funded solely by grants and community donations. El-Mekki said the biggest challenge is raising the money for travel, but they seem to make ends meet. 

He has worked with hundreds of kids over the years and hopes to take the club to international competitions. He also wants to create a developmental league where kids can gain more self-confidence.  

For now, El-Mekki hopes his work is strengthening the minds of all the youth who participate.

“By empowering — deeply and profoundly — the next generation of great problem-solvers,” he said.

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Gamechangers is led by KYW Newsradio's community affairs reporter Cherri Gregg. It recognizes 10 individuals or organizations that are making a positive impact on communities of color. 

For a full list of 2020’s Gamechangers, check back here. One honoree will be announced each weekday between Feb. 10 and 21. The awards ceremony takes place on Feb. 27 at The Met Philadelphia.