Chess Club: No pads, no helmets, just pawns

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Chess is not just a game for nerds!

Blankenburg is the leading chess team in the west region of the Philadelphia Scholastic Chess League, sponsored by the After School Activities Partnership (ASAP). Players who sit across the board each week may even be considered cool. Many excel in sports such as basketball and football, and have seen academic growth that they attribute to playing chess.

The leaders of the Blankenburg chess team are self-assured and confident tweens and teens. Rushawn Martin, a 6th grader who has been playing chess for only two years, said, “I joined chess when I saw other classmates attending tournaments.” Martin described his early experience with chess as “boring and exciting at the same time.” He noted the intensity of facing another opponent lead him to improve his chess skills. Martin stated chess helps him slow down and think things through. He said, “chess helps me do better on my test; I don’t rush when I am taking my test anymore."

Sharlock Griffin, a “young, statesman-like” 8th grader, has been playing chess for over three years. He said, “I only got serious when I saw my friends and my little brother winning medals and trophies.” Griffin indicated that chess has taken him to some exciting places. He and other Blankenburg players are members of the Paul Robeson chess club. They attend tournaments throughout the city and region. Griffin spoke with pride, “I helped raise funds for the team to participate in the Supernationals in Nashville, the Superbowl of chess tournaments."

Ellana Gaines, aka “Lady Lion," is an 8th grader who is not intimidated that chess is perceived as a male-dominated sport. She said, “it motivates me when an opponent is sexist and thinks I can’t play because I am girl." She has been playing chess for four years and said, “chess keeps me out of trouble and helps me use the process of elimination in real world situations.”

These articulate chess scholars spoke of their coach and mentor Mikyael El-Mekki with high regard. They said, “Coach El-Mekki is tough, but makes us better players." They admitted that even when they try to argue with him–not only about chess–he is right most of time.

El-Mekki is truly amazing. He coaches two chess teams at Blankenburg and Mastery Charter Shoemaker, and sponsors the Paul Robeson Chess club. El-Mekki played chess against his brother Sharif El-Mekki the principal at Mastery Charter Shoemaker since they were children. Principal El-Mekki said of his brother, “Coach El-Mekki has dedicated himself to using chess as a tool to teach students how to problem solve, focus, and analyze.”

Griffin explained that “Coach El Mekki taught us that Paul Robeson was a great actor, scholar, traveled all over the world, and he even played chess." Griffin said, “Robeson’s life motivates me, to take it the next level. I’m going to keep playing chess, win scholarships, and make something of my life.”

When wrapping up my interview with the chess players, I asked them if they knew about Maurice Ashley, the world’s first African American chess grandmaster and national advocate for using chess as outreach to inner-city kids. They responded “we played against him in a 30 players simul,” (simultaneous chess match) at the Supernationals “and he beat all 30 of us.”

Chess clearly motivates and supports students in improving academically. More students need mentors like Coach El Mekki and Maurice Ashley and programs like ASAP to motivate and inspire young people through extra-curricula activities.

Blankenburg went undefeated in the west region and will enter the playoffs of the Philadelphia Scholastic Chess League. The Paul Robeson Chess club will hold a special chess event for the community during Black history month in February.

Stay tuned to my blog, for chess events sponsored by the Paul Robeson Chess Club and the final playoff results from the Philadelphia Scholastic Chess League.