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.
The wooden floor creaks below her, announcing her every step as she enters the main room for her match. She stands out among the rows of players at tables, the portraits looming over her as a reminder of her goal.
“Black people have played chess for a long time. There's a whole culture around playing chess, but playing it in mainstream settings is a different question,” said Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, assistant professor of physics at the University of New Hampshire and a casual chess player who noticed the chess and the STEM communities were similarly white and male.
So if Black people have been playing chess for a long time, why is there still no Black woman chess master in the U.S.? Sabrina Chevannes, a woman international chess master, says it has a lot to do with the culture of competitive chess.
“I would have really big confidence issues because I'd get teased by other people telling me I'm no good at chess and that women can't play,” Chevannes said. “Or if I go to a tournament and people even mention, 'That’s why are there no other Black people playing chess. Obviously, Black people don't know how to play chess because they're stupid.'"
Geah Jean Baptiste, a chess student at Success Academy in New York, says there isn’t one particular thing that makes it difficult to be a Black women chess player, but rather an environment that doesn't feel inclusive. She says it’s “a look people give” and that her opponents often act as if they aren’t excited to play her, or they are more relaxed because they assume (wrongly) they will beat her.
There’s another issue that has kept a Black woman from claiming the title of chess master. Playing competitively is expensive and time consuming, requiring hundreds, if not thousands of hours of practice and dedication to get good.
“In the case of the Black community, most of us don't really have the luxury of time. ... For so long, we had been marginalized economically,” said Daaim Shabazz, a chess historian who runs The Chess Drum, a website that documents Black chess player’s records.
“What chess does for Black people is it provides a platform to do other things, for example, to get into a competitive university. Chess looks very good on your resume, and I have found that in my community, that's the main takeaway. ... There's essentially no money in being a professional player unless you are at the very, very top.”
Shabazz is one of the only people in the world documenting Black chess players' success. While the U.S. and International Chess Federation keep official records on gender and age, they don’t track race.
“When you do that, you limit your ability to measure your growth in certain segments of the community. And for the International Chess Federation, they don't keep history," Shabazz said.
Still, history is close to being made. With an increased interest in chess due to shows like Netflix’s "The Queen’s Gambit" and competitions becoming less expensive and time-consuming now that they're played online due the pandemic, there are now a handful of Black women in the U.S. going after the record.
Jessica Hyatt, a teen from Brooklyn, New York, rated 2090, is close to becoming the first Black woman Chess Master the U.S. has ever seen. Her rating of 2090 is just 110 points from what she needs to get, 2200. Hyatt is also a student at Success Academy, one of the largest employers of full-time chess teachers in the country.
“It only takes a few people to make a bit of noise and effort, and that will inspire other people to come through. You're already seeing some talent coming through,” Chevannes said. “It won't be long before we see a Black female master in the U.S. With the support we can give people now in the U.S., I think it will be different. I really do.”