Rising chess star poised to contribute to African American master legacy

Young, Gifted & Black Series

By Taki S. Raton

Rochelle Ballantyne

She grew up in a single parent home in the working class neighborhood of East Flatbush, Brooklyn. Her first chess lesson was from her grandmother as a third grader when she was around 8 years-old. The elder did not want that neighborhood environment to limit or prohibit her granddaughter from reaching her fullest potential. This now 17 year-old high school senior never strayed from that beloved formative vision.

She is young, gifted and Black and just a few wins away from becoming the first African American female to attain the title of chess master. Rochelle Ballantyne plays chess the same way she walks through the streets of New York, “determined to reach her goal without letting any obstacles slow her down,” says Steve Kastenbaum in his October 26, 2012 CNN Radio Soundwaves writing “African- American blazing a trail through chess.”

And it was further through her grandmother’s tutelage where she was introduced to the prospects of being the first African American female chess master. “I’ve never been the first anything. So having that title next to my name is going to feel amazing,” Rochelle said.

Rochelle adds that she does not think about it much because “it seemed like an impossible feat and I didn’t think it could happen.”

The youthful competitor shares that she was not as dedicated then as she is now and reveals that one of the reasons her grandmother urged her in this direction was because, “I was really active as a child, and she wanted to find a way to keep me relaxed and get my brain going.”

Although others around her thought she was a “natural” at chess, Rochelle was not fully inspired mentally towards its pursuit. Her commitment, however, would soon be redirected with the passing of her grandmother.

“After she died, that really affected me, because she was the one person that always had confidence in me,” says the Brooklyn teen in a Sierra Tishgart “Teen Vogue” interview. “She never pushed me and she always respected me for who I was. I have to reach that goal for her.”

An early victorious moment on her path towards this goal was in fifth grade where she won fourth place at the Girl’s National Chess Championships. Of this accomplishment, she remarks that “This is when I thought I could really be good at this.”

When it came time for middle school, she enrolled in Williamsburg, Brooklyn’s Intermediate School 318, an inner-city school where more than 65 percent of the students are from homes with incomes below the federal poverty level.

However, as fortune would follow – along with perhaps the guiding spirit of her grandmother – I.S. 318 also has the most winning junior high school chess team in the nation. Over a multi-year period, writes Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan in an October 25, 2012 “latimes.com” account, I.S. 318 has won 26 national chess titles, more than any other junior high in the country.

The school has trained many of the highest ranked chess players and as cited in a Brooklyn Film Festival observation on the film “Brooklyn Castle” – “If Albert Einstein who was rated 1800 were to join the chess team at I.S. 318, he’d only rank fifth.”

It would be through the lens of “Brooklyn Castle” that America would first learn about this aspiring first African American female chess master. Directed by Katie Dellamaggiore, filming began in April of 2009 during that year’s junior high division of the U.S. Chess Federation Supernational competition. The 101 minute film follows the chess team through an entire academic year and highlights Rochelle because, as noted in Turan, “she is such a charismatic figure” and the only girl in the documentary.

Assistant principal and coach John Galvin oversees the chess program and says of Rochelle that she “was one of our best players that we have ever had in our school. She won several individual national championships while a student here at I.S. 318.”

During the time of the filming, this would be the last year for the 13 year-old eighth grader who was then looking forward to starting high school at the elite Brooklyn Tech in Brooklyn, New York.

During her sophomore year at Brooklyn according to an April 2010 Daaim Shabazz notation in The Chess Drum, Rochelle won the All-Girls 18 and under championship sponsored by the Garry Kasparov Foundation in cooperation with the University of Texas in Dallas.

It has been four years since the filming of this documentary and Rochelle is looking forward to her high school graduation.

But as written in Tishgart, her name is still at the top of the I.S. 318’s list of best players. To a question in the interview of how did it feel during her middle school years to be the only girl on the team and “beating all the boys” now that she is about to finish high school, Rochelle replies: “I like the idea of being the only girl! 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. The girls who play chess and go to the national tournaments with me are all my support system. The boys that I play with don’t understand.”

Upon the realization of her goal, Rochelle would then join an existing exemplar listing of young African American males who have already achieved chess master ranking. As reported in the “Young, Gifted & Black” series on April 7, 2012 “African American males continue chess master legacy,” James Black, Jr., Justice Williams, and Joshua Colas were all named chess masters before their respective 13th birthdays. Justice, for an example, set the record at the age of 12 as being among the youngest Black chess player ever to reach the level of chess master. The U.S. Chess Federation awards the title of National Master to anyone who earns a USCF rating of 2,200.

Justice was noted in 2010 as the highest-rated player in the United States in his age and gender group and ranked fourth overall in the World Chess Federation International rankings. Less than two percent of the United States Chess Federation are masters, counting 47,000 members, and only 13 of those masters, at the time of the April writing, were under the age of 14.

The youngest African American chess prodigy however would be Kangugi “K.K” Karanja. Born November 23, 1973, Karanja became a U.S. Chess Federation Candidate Master at the age of 10, the youngest African American to do so. At the age of 11, Kangugi won the National Elementary Chess Championship with a perfect 7-0 score, thus becoming the first African American to win a national scholastic title and the second African American to win a national chess championship. Frank Street, Jr. was the first, winning the 1965 U.S. Amateur Championship in 1965.

Although Rochelle was awarded a $68,000 scholarship to the University of Texas in Dallas as a result of her 2010 All-Girls championship win, she wants to attend either the University of Pennsylvania or Stanford. She says in Tishgart that being involved in chess “makes me think. It helps me in school and it makes me push myself harder.”

She further notes in published accounts that “it’s a bittersweet feeling to be a girl and one of the top players.”

But it is her sentiment that “I don’t want to reach the mark of becoming the first African American female chess master for other people. I want to reach it for my grandmother and me.”