Rochelle Ballantyne, 17, on the verge of becoming the first African-American female chess master, is one of the stars of a new documentary called “Brooklyn Castle” that chronicles the amazing achievements of the chess team at I.S. 318 middle school in Brooklyn.
Despite 65 percent of the students at the school living below the federal poverty level, IS 318 holds nearly 30 national championships. It has the highest ranked junior high team in the country. But up until Rochelle came along, all of its success had been with boys.
Now a high school senior, Ballantyne was profiled in Teen Vogue where she talked about the pressures and motivations behind her remarkable rise to the top of the American chess world. She attributed much of her success to her grandmother.
“My grandmother taught me to play when I was in the third grade. I was really active as a child, and she wanted to find a way to keep me relaxed and get my brain going,” Ballantyne told Teen Vogue. “When I first started playing, she introduced to me the idea of being the first African-American female chess master. I didn’t think about it much because for me it seemed like an impossible feat, and I didn’t think it could happen. I wasn’t as focused and dedicated as I am now. I didn’t think I was a good chess player—people told me I was, but it wasn’t my mentality at that moment. But then after she died, that really affected me, because she was the one person that always had confidence in me. She never pushed me, and she always respected me for who I was. I have to reach that goal for her.”
While Ballantyne said she likes the idea of being the only girl vanquishing a room full of boys, she’s glad to see girls joining her in the sport.
“Winning is just that much more glorious because everyone expects me to lose. But many more girls are getting involved in chess, and I like that,” 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.”
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But she has found that with the fame that has come through “Brooklyn Castles,” she now feels more pressure to win.
“With the documentary coming out, the pressure is going to increase,” she said. “It’s a bittersweet feeling to be a girl and one of the top players. To maintain that number one spot and excel in other aspects of life besides chess puts a lot of pressure on me. 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.”
As for her future, Rochelle has her sights set on University of Pennsylvania or Stanford next year. But there is something more immediate that is upsetting her—her former school, I.S. 318, is slated to eliminate the chess program because of budgets cuts.
“Kids have achieved so much because of the chess program at I.S. 318, and now because of budget cuts, that program might not be there anymore, and that’s really horrible,” she said. “It’s so sad that you can take out money from schools because education is what allows you to succeed in life. My brother goes to I.S. 318 now, and the chess team might not be able to go to nationals. When people watch the movie, I want them to see how important the school is to all of us, and how it molded our lives. We have to pave the way so that other kids can achieve what we’ve achieved.”