Rochelle Ballantyne, a New York lawyer, is pursuing her dream of becoming the first Black female chess master.

Ballantyne said she has been trying to reach her goal for over a decade. Reuters reported that the 26-year-old was featured in the 2012 documentary Brooklyn Castle, highlighting a chess club at a middle school in New York City.  

Ballantyne, who is in her first year working as a lawyer after attending law school at New York University, said she learned chess at 8 from her grandmother. The rising chess star continued to sharpen her skills by competing in various tournaments. As she continued to climb up the rankings, Ballantyne realized that few people in chess looked like her.

“As I got better, there were less and less girls,” she said in an interview with Today.

Ballantyne has now aimed to inspire more Black girls to participate in chess.

“I do this becuase I do wanna see more Black girls playing chess,” she said. “I do this because I grew up poor and this was a way for me to get into college for free.”

Ballantyne especially strives to be an example for her 10-year-old sister. She told Reuters she wants her sister “to know that there isn’t anything she can’t do if she works hard enough to do it.”

Ballantyne said people at chess tournaments would sometimes mistake her as “the help.” She added that people advised her to wear pants when she plays because she might “distract boys.”

“People just weren’t aware of how their statements impacted or left impressions on a little Black girl,” Ballantyne told Reuters. “Race always matters. And I think more people should understand that and recognize the effects of race in every aspect of our life, not just chess.”

Ballantyne worked three jobs to get through law school while interning for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund simultaneously. Additionally, her loved ones used GoFundMe to help her cover travel and chess tournament expenses.

Tony Rich, executive director of the St. Louis Chess Club, told Reuters that players who score 2,200 are considered chess masters. Ballantyne has achieved a rating of 1,962 in the past year.

Ballantyne will continue to honor her grandmother and represent Black girls as she moves forward with her chess career.

“First and foremost, it’s for my grandma,” she said. “Secondly, there’s so many more Black girls, little Black girls playing chess now, and it’s so cool to inspire them.”