Rochelle Ballantyne poised to become the first African-American female chessmaster
The 17 year old Brooklyn student is the star of the film ‘Brooklyn Castle,’ a new documentary about the chess club at Williamsburg’s I.S. 318.
By Lindsay Goldwert / NEW YORK DAILY NEWS
Rochelle Ballantyne is getting ready to the chess world in check.
The 17 year-old Brooklyn high school senior and graduate of I.S. 318, a middle school famous for churning out chess champs, is working toward becoming the first African-American female chess master.
Ballantyne, who is the lone female star of the recent documentary ‘Brooklyn Castle,’ which sheds light on the Williamsburg middle school’s chess program and its impact on its students.
Filmmakers spent the 2009-2010 school year following the kids at I.S. 318 — where 70% of the students live below the poverty line.
Ballantyne, who was an eighth-grader when the documentary was shot, is set to graduate from Brooklyn Tech high school, with applications to the University of Pennsylvania and Stanford in the mail.
She told Teen Vogue that she owes her drive, skill and ambition to the woman who taught her chess: Her grandmother.
“[She] taught me to play when I was in the third grade,” she said “I was really active as a child, and she wanted to find a way to keep me relaxed and get my brain going.”
The top-ranked Ballentyne, who often plays with her iPod playing, said that it was her grandmother’s influence that kept her competing after winning her first chess championship in fifth grade.
Her grandmother’s death gave her life a purpose—to become the first African-American female chessmaster.
“After she died, that really affected me, because she was the one person that always had confidence in me,” she said. “She never pushed me, and she always respected me for who I was. I have to reach that goal for her.”
While the documentary showed Ballentyne playing mostly among her male classmates, she said she’s glad to see more women picked up the chess pieces and starting to play.
Playing against men has its rewards, she says.
“I like the idea of being the only girl! Winning is just that much more glorious because everyone expects me to lose,” she said. “The girls who play chess and go to national tournaments with me are my support system. The boys that I play with don’t understand.”
The documentary has earned her some pretty fancy friends—Actors Jon Hamm and Jennifer Westfeldt celebrated along with Ballantyne upon the film’s release at tony Soho House.
She admits that her rising status is the world of chess can be a lot to handle.
“Chess is emotionally burdening, but when I win, it makes me feel a whole lot better about myself. I feel like I can accomplish so much more, and so that’s helped me through the years,” she said.
She admits there’s a lot pressure for her excel, not just on the chessboard but in every aspect of life—on top of being an academic role model.
To maintain that number one spot and excel in other aspects of life besides chess puts a lot of pressure on me,” she said. “But I don’t want to reach the mark of becoming the first female African-American chess master for other people; I want to reach it for my grandmother and me.”