Former African-American standouts reap benefits of chess

Chess has been said to have many qualities. Often misunderstood as a game only for the high-browed intelligentsia, it has many redeeming qualities that attract adherents of all demographics. Chess has been the subject of many studies and is often called a sport, game, and even science. It is undeniable that chess players derive benefits from playing the royal game and there are many examples confirming what the studies have already found.

Sometimes we look back in time and wonder how certain players of note are doing both in chess and in life. We may peruse the rating chart to see whether they have been active. When The Chess Drum was launched in 2001, one of the objectives was to highlight young Black players worldwide. This is to provide exposure, build confidence, and index their accomplishments in the digital world for documentation. Many have used these online stories with great effect but in ways unrelated to chess.

Darrian Robinson
Photo by Michelle Agins.
The paucity of Black players in top-level chess has been a question raised for decades. Frankly, chess requires a significant amount of time and financial resources. The average Black family has neither generational wealth accumulated nor significant amounts of disposable income to dedicate to an activity (especially after college) that will not lead to income generation. Thus, there is a huge ‘opportunity cost’ in spending the time and resources on chess unless there is a residual benefit. If it is not feasible to spend inordinate amounts of time studying and playing chess, are there other routes for talented players?

What is common in the current generation of players is that chess is being used as a stepping stone for success in other areas. Chess still has a tremendous amount of “cachet” and draws attention to college and job applications. It also sharpens the mind to handle the rigors of academic and professional subjects. This seems to be the way many young stars are approaching chess. Attrition is still very, very high, but when we check on former scholastic stars, many are thriving and engaged in successful careers. At some point, a talented young player has to make a tough decision and decide what role chess will play in their lives.

Below are a few players who received some notoriety on The Chess Drum and links to a profile describing what they are doing now. Enjoy!

Where are they now?

Dr. Shearwood McClelland III
Jessica Wamala
Kayin Barclay
Darrian Robinson
Rochelle Ballantyne
Jacob Wamala


  1. Dr. Shearwood McClelland III

    Hometown: Teaneck, New Jersey
    Education: B.A. Harvard College (2000), M.D. Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons (2004)
    Peak Chess Rating: 2311 (USCF), 2210 (FIDE)
    Chess Accolades: National Master (1994), All-American, 3-time National H.S. Champion, U.S. Junior Open Champion (1997), 2-time New Jersey State Champion, 12 state titles, beat GM Bu Xianghzi
    Activities: National Scholar Chessplayer Award (USCF), National Institute of Health, Neurological Institute of New York (fellow), Cleveland Clinic Foundation Lerner Research Institute, Cleveland, OH (fellow), University of Minnesota Medical School, Minneapolis, MN (fellow), Oregon Health & Science University, Portland, OR (fellow)
    Current Profession: Clinical Research Assistant (oncologist), Department of Radiation Medicine, Oregon Health & Science University, Portland, Oregon (resume)
    Last tournament: 2012-08-18 BCF Grand Prix 12 (MA)

    Dr. Shearwood McClelland III
    Photo by OHSU

    Dr. Shearwood “Woody” McClelland III had an outstanding scholastic chess career and was one of the trailblazers in the African-American community winning multiple national and state championships. For a time, he had only trailed Howard Daniels and KK Karanja in terms of the age record for the youngest African-American master. That record has been broken several times since, but it is clear that chess gave Woody a platform for excellence.

    The son of Drs. Shearwood J. McClelland and Yvonne S. Thornton, he had excellent examples to follow and now has a storied career of his own as a prolific researcher in radiation and oncology. He has placed a specific emphasis on addressing disparities that affect minority communities in terms of combating cancer and researching viable treatments.

    As far as chess is concerned, Woody last played tournament chess in 2012, but perhaps has little time these days. He has been party to over 130 research papers and is extremely active as a conference presenter and consultant. It goes without saying that chess has certainly yielded tremendous benefits to Dr. McClelland.

    Research Publications:
    Additional links on Dr. McClelland

  2. Jessica Wamala

    Hometown: Milford, New Hampshire
    Education: B.A. Villanova University (2013), M.A. Villanova (2014), MPhil Middle Eastern Studies, University of Oxford (2016)
    Peak Chess Rating: 1790 (USCF)
    Chess Accolades: Massachusetts Junior High co-champ, U.S. Open “C” champion
    Activities: Phi Beta Kappa (honor society), Rhodes Scholar, Villanova varsity women’s basketball, Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. (Upsilon Tau Chapter), Truman Scholar, Rangel Scholar, Gates Millennium Scholar
    Current Profession: Head of Partner Operations & Integrations, Wave Mobile Remittance
    Last tournament: 2006-09-04 66TH NEW ENGLAND OPEN (MA)

    Jessica Wamala
    Photo by Villanova University

    Jessica Wamala graduated from Villanova University in May 2013 with majors in Political Science, Arab and Islamic studies, and Global Interdisciplinary Studies. A year later, she earned her M.A. in Political Science & Government and earned the coveted Rhodes Scholarship to study at University of Oxford. Jessica interned at the U.S. Embassy in Belgrade and at the State Department office of Near Eastern Affairs. She also served in the Peace Corps in Taza Province, Morocco.

    Jessica has an older brother Jacob who was also a chess standout. More on him later! Below she gives precious advice on how to navigate the collegiate experience and juggling activities.

    “The one thing that you have to understand is that you’re going to have to make sacrifices. And I did make sacrifices. While I did go out, there were nights where my friends went out, but I had to study for a test and then the next day I had to be on the road for basketball; so [making] sacrifices and maintaining a priority, and then maintaining that every time you wake up. When you are practicing, you can’t do your homework. When you’re doing your homework, you can’t be having fun; and when you are having fun, you can’t be sleeping. You have to understand how to take care of your body, take care of your mind, take care of your health.” (link)

    Additional links on Jessica Wamala

  3. Kayin Barclay

    Hometown: Chicago, Illinois
    Education: B.A. Morehouse College (2012), M.B.A. Harvard University (2019)
    Peak Chess Rating: 2215 (USCF) 2220 (FIDE)
    Chess Accolades: National Master (2012), 2-time state champion (Whitney Young Magnet H.S.), beat GM Jaan Ehlvest
    Activities: Phi Beta Kappa (honor society)
    Current Profession: Investment Banker, full-time MBA student at Harvard University
    Last tournament: 2011-04-06 JUSTIN OPEN (GA)

    12-year old Kayin Barclay on “B” section’s top board at 2003 Chicago Open.
    Photo by Daaim Shabazz.

    Kayin is a very unassuming young man. However, he had confidence that belied his humble demeanor. The first time I encountered him was at the 2003 Chicago Open when, as a 12-year-old, he scored 6/7 in the “B” section. The early days saw coaching from legendary coach Tom Fineberg and session with local Expert Sam Ford.

    Kayin Barclay
    Photo Kayin Barclay (Facebook)

    Kayin entered Whitney Young Magnet program as a 7th grader and led them to four state appearances. Prior to going off to Morehouse College, Kayin played in two Denker Tournament of High School Champions. He tied another year, but instead of playing the blitz tiebreak, he declined and allowed the other player to represent Illinois. Class personified.

    Now married to the former Lauren Crim, Kayin worked on Wall Street at Barclays Bank as an investment banker for two years, then after a stint with RLF Equity he joined the Harvard Business School in Boston. Kayin told The Chess Drum that he will graduate from Harvard B-School in May 2019 and move to Dallas to work for a private equity firm called Insight Equity. He also gives some sage advice on how to approach chess.

    “First of all, they must ask themselves if it is truly worth it. The time that I have invested in chess is probably equal to a college degree (in no way am I downplaying its worth). When I was intensively studying, I studied everyday about 5-6 hours. If you want to be a good player, you have to put in the time, learn how to study, and study the correct material. A coach is helpful but you have to go beyond what a coach does. Finally, I would say play as much as you can, there is no amount of studying that you can do that can help you react to that position that you have gotten in a random blitz game.”

    Additional links on Kayin Barclay

  4. Darrian Robinson

    Hometown: Brooklyn, New York
    Education: B.A. University of Chicago (2016), London School of Economics (study abroad)
    Peak Chess Rating: 2128 (USCF) 2035 (FIDE)
    Chess Accolades: World Youth representation – Batumi, Georgia (2006), Antala, Turkey (2009); Pan-Am Games – Cuenca, Ecuador (2006), University of Chicago Chess Team Pan-Am Intercollegiate
    Activities: White House Office of Public Engagement and Intergovernmental Affairs (summer 2013), Hillary Clinton for America (2015)
    Current Profession: Analyst, Federation Reserve Bank of New York
    Last tournament: 2016-08-14 CLEVELAND OPEN (OH)

    Darrian Robinson at 2006 World Youth Championships in Batumi,Georgia.

    Darrian was very cute and shy girl who peered at the chess board with intense focus. Very soft-spoken, she was able to assert herself and build her confidence at the famed IS-318, the school featured in the movie, “Brooklyn Castle.” While she was seen in the movie briefly, Darrian had already moved on to Packer Collegiate Institute. While considering universities, she stated that chess helped her to stand out.

    I think being the highest-rated African-American female chess player in the U.S. has helped me stand out from the crowd. It’s something most people don’t have under their belts. It helped me get into college. I remember the person who read my application to the University of Chicago came up to me during the meet-and-greet for incoming first-year students, and he remembered me immediately and that I played chess competitively. (link)

    Darrian Robinson
    Photo by University of Chicago

    Indeed. That article was one of many featured here on The Chess Drum and Darrian has always shown her appreciation for the exposure on The Chess Drum. She was also interviewed while at U. of Chicago where she weighed in on the Chicago vs. New York pizza debate!

    During her chess development, her mother Cenceria Edwards was seen accompanying her to chess tournaments. As any chess parent would know, investing in a child’s activities doesn’t come cheap, but it is apparent that such time and effort are well worth it. It is amazing that Attorney Edwards kept her own goal of a judgeship in focus and now serves in New York City Civil Court. Darrian plans to attend graduate school, but has not decided on whether to attend law school or opt for the vaulted Ph.D. degree.

    Additional links on Darrian Robinson

  5. Rochelle Ballantyne

    Hometown: Brooklyn, New York
    Education: B.A./B.A. (double major) Stanford University (2017)
    Peak Chess Rating: 2127 (USCF) 1957 (FIDE)
    Chess Accolades: Polgar All-Girls under-14, Polgar All-Girls under-16, All-Girls under-18 title, World Youth Championship – Caldas Novas, Brazil (2011), United Arab Emirates (2013)
    Activities: subject in movie, “Brooklyn Castle,” Starfish Scholar, Questbridge Scholar, Black Student Union (Stanford)
    Current Profession: Litigation Paralegal, Carr Maloney PC (Washington, DC)
    Last tournament: 2019-01-28 DMV LEAGUE S3R4 MAKEUP (VA)

    The road to Stanford University would not be easy for Rochelle Ballantyne. She grew up in Brooklyn, New York as the oldest of four children of a single mother from Trinidad & Tobago. Then chess entered her life.

    Eleven years ago (in 2002), I was like any other third grader, really active, really loud and really annoying, to my grandmother at least. Eleven years ago my grandmother found a way to keep me calm and to get my mind going: she taught me chess.

    Rochelle won a $68,000 scholarship to attend University of Texas-Dallas and had to weigh her options. UTD was known for its chess culture and one of her goals was to become the first African-American female National Master. This is even stated in the movie, “Brooklyn Castle,” in a scene with Latisha Ballard, the mother of teammate Justus Williams.

    Rochelle Ballantyne. Photo by Anthony Causi.
    Classic photo of Rochelle Ballantyne
    Photo by Anthony Causi

    Tragically, her grandmother passed away and it took a lot of determination for Rochelle to get over the loss. In her interviews, she reflects a lot on her grandmother and also her mother as her support system. While at Stanford, she became deeply immersed in social activism.

    In a Chess Life interview last year with Melinda Matthews, she made the following revelations about the chess environment:

    I think one of the most frustrating (frustrating might be the wrong word) things I realized as an African-American female chess player was the feeling that I didn’t belong. I was always the odd person out. Always asked whether or not I was lost. Chess is supposed to be a battle of intellect and my intellect always seemed to be diminished or erased because I am black and because I am a woman. Luckily, when I started playing chess I was too young to really process race and gender as a construct. I knew I was different but I didn’t care because I wanted to win. And that drive continues to carry me.

    Rochelle graduated from Stanford University in 2017 and trekked back to the east coast with two degrees in hand. Having already done a stint with Kobre & Kim as a Litigation Assistant, she is now a paralegal in the Washington, DC area. The town has an abundance of lawyers, but hopefully she can find a niche in the legal field and still have time to seek her coveted goal of becoming a National Master. This is a very important goal, and very much within her realm.

    Additional links on Rochelle Ballantyne

  6. Jacob Wamala

    Hometown: Milford, New Hampshire
    Education: B.S. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (2012), M.B.A University of California-Berkeley (2019)
    Peak Chess Rating: 2097 (USCF) 2078 (FIDE)
    Chess Accolades: 2-time Massachusetts H.S. State Champion
    Activities: MIT varsity football, OmegaBrite Scholar, MIT Minority Business Association (co-founder), Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. (Rho Nu Chapter)
    Current Profession: Principal, OVO Fund (Palo Alto, CA), JW Chess Academy
    Last tournament: 2006-08-29 MCC SUMMER VACATION SWISS (MA)

    Jacob Wamala
    Photo by Daaim Shabazz

    Jacob “Jake” Wamala, who just celebrated his 29th birthday, is the older brother of Jessica Wamala. Both were very close early on in life and shared passions for academics, athletics and chess. Both were able to gain success at the scholastic level and both won state championships. Entering competitive programs in undergrad, they had less time for chess, but the training they received helped them excel academically.

    Jake gained an interest in MIT after hearing a classmate’s desire at attending the prestigious school. He had attended camps prior to his enrollment but gained an interest in the impact of aging. Jake spent two years in the AgeLab, researchers study the impact of aging on the mind and body. He even conducted an experiment where he wore a special “Age Gain Now Empathy System” suit simulating age-related functionality issues.

    “Good grades and achievements are nice and all,” he says, “but I’m probably most proud of the work I’ve done to help other people.” (link)

    After receiving his B.S. Mechanical Engineering, he accepted a job at Morgan Stanley as an investment analyst but is now working for a small venture capital fund near Silicon Valley. He started up the JW Chess Academy sharing his passion with local youth. He is currently enjoying life on the west coast.

    Additional links on Jacob Wamala

    Jacob Wamala representing his fraternity at MIT

  7. Based on when they got college degrees, some of these “kids” seem to have quit playing tournament chess well before graduating HS. Is that the case?

        1. The same thing happened to me. I won Illinois Junior Closed and had gained about 600 points since H.S. Although I did not go to a “competitive school,” I majored in the competitive field of computer science. It became very difficult to maintain the 6+ hours daily I was putting in during high school. That seems to be the decision one makes. How do you spend your time? If chess is not going to provide a tangible benefit, then you replace it with something more beneficial. I ended up going for academics as well.

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