I haven’t played, or even thought about, chess since I was probably 8 years old. Reading Ali Hazelwood’s young adult debut “Check & Mate,” however, made me want to pick up the board game again.
18-year-old Mallory Greenleaf once loved the game of chess — it was a game her father taught her. But four years ago, after a chess-related scandal rocked her family, she put down the pieces for good. That is, until she agrees to play in a charity tournament and beats the current world champion of chess, Nolan Sawyer.
After the match, a Grandmaster named Defne comes (literally) knocking on Mal’s door, offering her a chess fellowship in New York. Mal can’t refuse — she needs the money to support her two younger sisters and her mother, who suffers from arthritis. Mal finds herself spending the next few months training and studying chess non-stop. She intends to keep her work-life separate from her personal life, but chess, along with a certain champion, keep weaseling their way to the forefront of Mal’s mind and heart.
I know what you’re thinking … chess? But I promise Hazelwood has an uncanny ability to turn a seemingly mundane topic into something riveting. Dare I say she made chess sexy. For those unfamiliar with Hazelwood’s contemporary rom-coms, they’re scientific and smutty. Like, really smutty. Knowing that her upcoming novel was YA, and that very few YA novels tackle sex meaningfully, I wasn’t sure how Hazelwood would approach the topic. But I was pleasantly surprised to see that the sexual content presented in the story is non-graphic.
Mal is our sex-positive heroine who, we learn, openly has casual sex with men and women. Over the course of the novel, Mal’s view of sex and intimacy is challenged by Nolan, who is a virgin and forms an emotional connection with her. I appreciated that neither character shamed the other for their sexuality, showing that sex-positivity can take many forms.
The worldbuilding in “Check & Mate” is truly incredible. We’re introduced to elaborate and realistic characters. Because of her mom’s chronic illness, Mal acts as the provider of her family: She drives her sisters everywhere they need to go and uses her income to pay her house’s mortgage. When her best friend leaves for college, Mal feels left behind, inadequate and stuck because she didn’t choose the same path. But she starts to play chess again and recognizes her own talent, realizing that she could make a career out of the sport. I will always root for the self-sabotaging girl who has a serious case of eldest daughter syndrome.
We also see into Nolan’s world of luxury and privilege — being the number one chess player in the world comes with its perks. Like Mal, Nolan has his own complicated familial history with chess. Considering Nolan is only 20 years old, there’s an added level of stress and intensity that comes with playing professional chess as a young person.
The side characters never outshine the main characters, but they are certainly entertaining. Mallory’s two sisters, Sabrina and Darcy, make for good comic relief, though I could’ve gone with a lot less flatulence humor. The reader also spends a lot of time with Nolan’s friends (and highly ranked chess players), Tanu and Emil, and their presence takes the reader deeper into the chess community.
Hazelwood also addresses workplace sexism in “Check & Mate.” In the novel (and in real life), chess is a male-dominated sport. Hazelwood explores the lack of female representation in chess and the general attitude of female inferiority within its community. Defne explains the fair share of “chess bros” and sexist jokes she has encountered as a female chess player. This theme is further reinforced when our main character faces off mostly against men throughout the story.
In Mal’s first real tournament, she’s disqualified from the final round because her male opponent complains about a doodle of a guinea pig she drew on her scoresheet. This male opponent tells Mal during their match that women should stick to their own tournaments. Later in the story, Mal is chosen for a prestigious tournament, and the press propose the reason is because Mal and Nolan are sleeping together.
“Check & Mate” was thoroughly predictable, but that didn’t make it any less enjoyable. Like a true hopeless romantic, I was giggling and kicking my feet in the air like a giddy child every time Mal and Nolan interacted. I wouldn’t even call this a rivals-to-lovers story because there was so much mutual pining. Mal and Nolan haven’t played together since the charity tournament, but Nolan desperately wants to. He doesn’t even want to beat Mal, he just wants a worthy opponent to play against. It is this crackling tension that underlines the entire novel.
If you’re a fan of Hazelwood — or even if you aren’t — you won’t regret reading “Check & Mate.”
Books Beat Editor Ava Seaman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.