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When you think of chess players, you think of social outcasts, the nerds, the smart kids that are, for the most part, ignored by the popular kids. But the stereotypes don’t apply at Brooklyn middle school I.S. 318. The kids in the chess club are the popular kids. Because they win. Consistently. Though 65 percent of I.S. 318’s students are living below poverty, their chess team has won more national chess championships than any other school in the nation. 30 to be exact.

And Rochelle Ballantyne, who was a student at I.S. 318 four years ago, is on her way to becoming the first female, African American chess master. Four years ago her journey, and that of her fellow classmates, was featured in a new documentary called Brooklyn Castle

Ballantyne recently spoke to Teen Vogue about taking part in the film, why it was important for her to become a chess master and what lessons she wants audiences to take from the film.

On how she started playing chess

“My grandmother taught me to play when I was in the third grade. I was really active as a child, and she wanted to find a way to keep me relaxed and get my brain going.”

Whether the documentary causes additional pressure when she’s playing

“With the documentary coming out, the pressure is going to increase. It’s a bittersweet feeling to be a girl and one of the top players. To maintain that number one spot and excel in other aspects of life besides chess puts a lot of pressure on me. But I don’t want to reach the mark of becoming the first female African-American chess master for other people; I want to reach it for my grandmother and me.”

How does playing chess impact your academic life?

“Chess makes me think. It helps me in school, and it can really help in the college applications. It motivates me and makes me push myself harder.”

Her future goals
“I really want to go to the University of Pennsylvania or Stanford. I applied through QuestBridge, which is a scholarship program that has a partnership with those schools.”
What’s pushing her to become a chess master

“My grandmother. When I first started playing, she introduced to me the idea of being the first African-American female chess master. I didn’t think about it much because for me it seemed like an impossible feat, and I didn’t think it could happen. I wasn’t as focused and dedicated as I am now. I didn’t think I was a good chess player—people told me I was, but it wasn’t my mentality at that moment. But then after she died, that really affected me, because she was the one person that always had confidence in me. She never pushed me, and she always respected me for who I was. I have to reach that goal for her.”

Read the rest of her interview with Teen Vogue here.

Rochelle will compete in the 2012 World Youth Chess Championship in Maribor, Slovenia from November 7-19.

We’re wishing Rochelle and the students at her alma mater the best of luck in the upcoming competitions.


Check out the trailer for the documentary Brooklyn Castle, featuring Rochelle below.


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