National Chess Champion Rochelle Ballantyne shares her experiences and insights with buddingSTEM as we launch our Chess Collection -- starting with our Chess Queen Shirt.
Imagine being introduced to a game at age 8. Before age 16, you are the best in the country.
This is Rochelle Ballantye. Rochelle seeks to become the first female African-American chess master in the U.S. You might recognize Rochelle from the 2011 film Brooklyn Castle, a documentary that follows Rochelle and her chess teammates through a year of chess practice and tournaments. Today, Rochelle is a student at Stanford University and has her sights on law school.
How did you get into playing chess? How old were you when you started? And, were there many other girls playing?
When I first introduced to the game of chess when I was eight years old. I didn't want to play originally, sitting down at a board for hours wasn't appealing to my eight-year-old self. My grandma told me that I was way too active and so she sat me down, showed me the game and essentially changed my life forever.
The game still bored me but the concept of winning excited me; but I never won. My grandma would always beat me and it made me really upset.
Around this time Chess-In-The-Schools, a non-profit organization, established a chess club at my elementary school under my first coach Ian West. I joined the chess club to learn enough to beat my grandma. I stayed because now there were new challengers and new people to beat. In my elementary school, I remember there were five or six other girls on the team which was cool because I had someone to talk to in a male-dominated sport. As I got older though, the number of girls decreased, which both motivated me and inhibited me in some ways.
What do you love about chess?
When I was younger what I loved the most about chess was beating people, of course, and the trophies were very shiny. As I got older, the competitive nature and drive remained, but I loved how chess affected my life. The cool places I got to travel to, the people I got to meet, the certain character traits that determined who I am today.
Now, even though all of those other things still apply, what I love most about chess is that it is my one chance for serenity. Chess has always been my sanctuary, it has always been the one time where I can really be in my head and be at peace. I never appreciated it when I was younger, but now that I do so many other things I appreciate the time to just be who I always was and hammer out that victory.
Tell us a bit about your goal to be the first female African-American chess master -- when did you set that goal for yourself?
My grandma actually set the goal for me. While chess has always been a recreational sport there were never any clear goals in mind, I just wanted to be the best. My grandmother loves order and regulations and she told me one day, "Rochelle you can be the first African-American female master."
My initial response was "yeah, right", and then my next response was, "isn't there one already?" This was around my last year of junior high school and my interest in chess was already waning, so I didn't think too much of it after that conversation. Then after my freshman year of high school my grandma died and her goal seemed like the only way I could thank her for everything she did for me.
You have excelled in school and chess -- how did you balance these activities?
Originally when I first started playing my mom and I came to an agreement: I could only play chess if it didn't affect my grades and that kinda stuck with me. Chess was fun, but school always came first. It was cool that chess even helped me in school sometimes, not in math and science like everyone always thinks, but in critical reasoning and logic.
How has chess helped you in school and life? Has chess taught you any life lessons?
Has chess taught me any lessons? Haha! I can't think of a lesson chess hasn't taught me. The way you play chess determines/establishes your personality. I am a very tactical player and in life the same applies: I think and rethink and calculate everything I do. I'm also a very active player, sometimes I sacrifice a piece in the game to get some play, in life sometimes I decide to do crazy stuff like skydive because I can! I would say chess taught me to be patient but I'd be lying, I'm still the most impatient person I know.
I am patient with myself though, I understand that nothing will come easy and I have to work hard for everything, and that comes with a lot of self-reflection and growth.
I've learned the importance of teamwork. Chess is a very singular game and you're essentially playing for your own advancement, but I was also always playing for my team's advancement to ensure that even if I didn't do well I contributed enough points to the team so that they can come out with a good result.
Why do you think there are so few women in the higher ranks of chess?
I just think chess is originally a male-dominated sport and there's no real motivation [for girls] to participate since there are so few high ranked women. I also don't think many women know the benefits of playing chess.
What are your educational and career goals and how are you balancing these with your chess goals?
Currently, I'm focused on my LSATs and law school. It's been hard balancing both but now I have a coach who keeps me on track.
Generally, I think you get the most out of things your passionate about and it's so important to be passionate/motivated about anything because it can take you to some incredible places, or it can't, but you'll learn something regardless.
Finally, in the film Brooklyn Castle, you often wear headphones during chess competitions -- what do you listen to?
I don't have a particular music interest, I just listen to whatever my iPod wants me to! My iPod is a big Kanye fan, so I get a lot of those songs when I play, as well as soca songs (soca is music from the Caribbean, specifically Trinidad where my mom is from).