Meet chess champ Rochelle Ballantyne

At the end November, the 17-year-old could very well be the first African American female chess master

by Julia De Laurentiis Johnson

Photograph by Grant Cornett, courtesy of Producers Distribution Agency

Rochelle Ballantyne is one determined young lady. The 17-year-old star of Brooklyn Castle, a documentary about a middle school that produces national chess champs from a body of students where most live on the federal poverty line, would like to be the first black female chess master. After the film had its international premiere at Toronto’s Hot Docs earlier this year, attention around Ballantyne has been mounting. At the end of November, she’ll compete in her last national junior school chess tournament and, possibly, reach the level of chess master.

Chess is historically an old white guy’s game. It calls to mind images of Victorian gentleman discussing the Empire over a match at the club or an American genius competing against a Russian genius in some kind of Cold War metaphor. Ballantyne is like the Williams’ sisters of chess: she’s can’t help but shake things up.

Maclean’s spoke with her about focus, skin colour and how beating a boy at chess feels oh so good.

Q: You’ve said that when you play national tournaments you think of the other girls as part of your support system and that you feel like the boys don’t understand. What is it that you don’t think they understand?

A: It’s not easy being different in a male-dominated game. But I pride myself on being different. Playing tournaments and seeing only guys, I mean, I don’t want to talk to the guys! My girlfriends [at tournaments] support me whether I win or I lose.

Q: Does it feel better to beat a boy than to beat a girl?

A: It does, it’s kind of satisfying when I beat a guy. When I beat a girl, I sort of feel bad because we’re both fighting for the same thing, fighting to increase the girl population in chess. But beating a guy proves that [the girls] are just as good as them.

Q: You listen to your iPod when you compete. What are you listening to?

A: It varies because I put it on shuffle. Lately, a lot of Kanye. And Soca, the traditional music of Trinidad, where my mom’s from.

Q: You’ve mentioned that your grandmother introduced you to chess. How else did she influence you?

A: She was a teacher in Trinidad. She inspired her students to really try and she did the same for me. She taught me about the importance of working really hard to achieve what you want. But my mom’s the one who pays for my tournaments and picks me up late at night from practicing. Thanks mom!

Q: Did your mom ever talk to you about the obstacles you might face in the white, male-dominated world of competitive chess?

A: Whenever I’d be getting ready to go to a tournament, she’d say ’Rochelle, you can do this.’ I was afraid when I first started competing: being the one black girl in a white male-dominated sport was pretty scary. I thought I would lose every game. But she told me ‘When you’re playing chess, it doesn’t matter what colour you are. It’s about who come out on top’. She taught me to strive.

Q: What’s next?

A: I’m going to Grand Nationals in Florida at the end of November, the last time I can enter since I’m about to graduate high school. After it’s over, me and my friends are going to Disney World.




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Meet chess champ Rochelle Ballantyne

  1. Kudos to Miss Ballantyne, and hopefully someone will teach (tell her about other Black People who have excelled in America despite the stumbling blocks placed in their way by the most destructive modality the World has ever experienced, Racism/White Supremacy!!! I know that my words are not “politically correct”, and, of course I don’t care to be “that”. Miss Ballantyne is another reminder of our Greatness in spite of our Clear Subjection under the domination of that “peculiar modality/institution” I identified before. My Spirit reminds me that avoiding TRUTH might be acceptable to some (many), but I will not become an accomplice to my (our) status as “slaves”, and happy to be such!!! For most of my life, I’ve been aware of the fact that, despite being relegated to an ENFORCED inferior position, Never meant that We Were, in fact Inferior, and the Re-election of President Obama, Certainly does not mean that we (Black People have suddenly Arrived) and the White Supremact Modality has been rendered ineffective now, and forever more!! A rhetorical question comes to mind, and I hope some of you will “get it”, many have already been wiped out (genocide), exterminated, and their genetic footprint has been virtually erased,( Natives of the Americas, attempted ethnic cleansing in Kosovo etc, , and now the Palestinians seem to be one of the latest targeted groups, but Black People, what about us, and why are WE still here??? We are, seemingly the easiest target, because we have almost No inclination (collectively) towards Unity, and in Fact, we seem to almost “Celebrate” Disunity!! WHY ARE WE STILL HERE??? A rhetorical question!!! Uhuru Abu ElDiallo AKA C. Leon Bynum Jr

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