Even when she’s backed into a corner on the chess board, Rochelle Ballantyne lives for moments when she’s able to find a way out.
“I love being able to think strategically about things, to just like sit and just be with my thoughts and just like figuring out a way to beat you,” said Ballantyne. “I love winning. I really love winning.”
That will help on her mission to become the first Black woman in the United States to become a chess master. She’s currently ranked an expert among the top 100 women in the country by the U.S. Chess Federation.
“So, at expert you’re at 2000 rating points and at master you’re at 2200. So I have to get the 200 points to get to master, essentially,” said Ballantyne.
At these tournaments at the Marshall Chess Club, she’s accustomed to being the only black woman in the room.
“I think it’s a product of the game. Chess isn’t very accessible for people who look like me and for people who come from the same background that I do.”
The Crown Heights native participated in chess programs at her elementary and middle schools as a kid, and was even featured in the documentary Brooklyn Castle about the chess team at I.S. 318. But, it all started with her late grandmother.
“She was the one who taught me chess,” Ballantyne said. “I miss her a lot.”
With that inspiration she’s accomplished goal after goal, including two bachelor degrees from Stanford University, a master’s in education policy from Columbia, and she’s currently studying for a law degree at NYU.
But, she’s wary of what it means to be a trail blazer in chess and what that says about expectations of people of color.
“It’s because I’m Black and it’s because I’m a girl that people think it’s so impressive and it’s not,” said Ballantyne. “I’m just a girl who loves this game and there are other people who are good at it too.”
By working to become a chess master, she’s showing her little sister and kids of color that barriers can be broken while honoring her grandmother and the values she instilled so long ago.
“I just wasn’t able to give her the gratitude or just appreciate her for all that she’s given me while she was alive and so I need to do this one thing for her,” said Ballantyne.