The U.S. Could Soon Have a Black Female Chess Master

Rochelle Ballantyne navigates Marshall Chess Club in New York City like it’s her own home. With a hasty New Yorker stride, she weaves through the narrow, wooden hallways of the club to the back room, where newer chess players hesitate to go. She plops down her belongings on an unused chess desk, headphones on, and shovels a few bites of a Chipotle burrito bowl before her match.

She’s a veteran in the chess world. Ten years ago, she was a star in the 2012 documentary Brooklyn Castle, which followed rising chess stars at a junior high school in Brooklyn, New York, that serves low-income students. The buzz was that Ballantyne could be the first Black woman chess master in the U.S. But then she abruptly stopped playing and went to Stanford to study law.

With the layered discrimination that comes with being both a woman and Black, Ballantyne said working toward being the first was exhausting.

“I was tired of … having to show up and fight for my right to belong. I have to do that in every other aspect of my life, and I didn’t want to do it in the one aspect where it really should not matter. So I stopped,” Ballantyne told NBCLX.

But now she’s now back for another shot at the title.

Rochelle describes herself as an aggressive player. Every time she makes a move she wonders to herself, “How can I crush you?” At the same time, when she gets before a board, she says she has a mini panic attack. Music is the only thing that can help her regroup, refocus. But an employee tells her to take off her headphones.

In the back room where she eats before the match, she chooses to sit separated from the main foyer, which is lined with 1800s-style portraits of famous chess players, who look a bit like former presidents. A statue of Frank Marshall  (hence the name Marshall Chess Club), sits in the center of the back wall. The chatter from the crowd of mostly white men becomes a hum through the building.

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SOURCE: NBCLX, Mackenzie Behm