“You?! You’re reading an Ali Hazelwood book?”
“Um, well, it is set around chess, so… yeah?”
Full disclosure, “Check & Mate” is the first Ali Hazelwood book I have read. I heard she generally writes steamy romance and that’s not exactly my preferred genre. This title is YA, and while there is romance and language, and even mentions of sex (fade to black), it is pretty tame. Whew.
So, why am I writing about this title you may ask? Chess. I love chess and have been playing for more than 25 years. Chess players generally can’t help themselves, we have to critique every mention of our game and we are perpetually frustrated by simple inaccuracies.
Oh, there will be spoilers, you have been warned.
Where do I begin? This is a romance with chess competition and family history being the complicating factors; the romance is sweet and pretty well done. The characters are mostly believable, once you get past the unbelievable bits. I will tackle the plot in sections mostly leaving my thoughts for the end.
Let’s start with Mallory Greenleaf, the protagonist. Spurred by her Grandmaster father, she played “unrated” chess as a child. After her parents divorced and her father later died, she gave up the game around age 14. Four years later, her friend begs her to compete one last time before going off to college and Mallory reluctantly agrees. It is stated that Mallory has not played or even thought about chess in those four years. Despite this extended break, Mallory is paired against Nolan Sawyer, the reigning World Chess Champion. Unexpectedly, she beats Nolan… by checkmate. After beating the World Champion in a charity tournament, Mallory is contacted by an ambitious chess club and offered a chess fellowship. The stipend is apparently enough to support a family of four.
Reluctantly, Mallory accepts the fellowship and she returns to chess.
After a few weeks of training, Mallory plays the “Philly Open” tournament. She wins the tournament, but is disqualified due to her doodling on her scoresheet. This is a real rule and I appreciated the inclusion! The Philly Open is described as being an open tournament (anyone can play), but then it says there are qualifications to enter?? Also, supposedly, the top 10 players in the world enter this tournament. No. Just, absolutely no. Top 10 RARELY play open tournaments (as individuals) and certainly, not all ten would play. One only has to look at the debacle of Leiner Dominguez to show why top 10 players don’t enter Opens (honestly, the “why” is exactly the premise of the Greenleaf-Sawyer game that started the action in this book). Ugh, then it mentions the Philly Open is a knockout tournament. Absolutely not. Ridiculous.
Ok, a non-spoiler-filled rant: Nolan Sawyer is 20 years old and has been World Champion for about 6 years. So, he won the title at about age 14? Hmm, unlikely, but more on this later. The youngest person to win the World Championship title was Garry Kasparov at age 22. Is someone aged 18, as Mallory is, able to beat the World Champion? Yes, absolutely. Can someone take their prime learning years of age 14 to 18 off and be prepared to beat a World Champion? Highly, highly, highly unlikely. Lastly, why was Mallory, whose father was already a seasoned international chess player, who could see his daughter’s generational talent, not playing rated tournaments? Mallory even mentions her father once stating, “I haven’t won a game against Mallory since she turned eleven a year ago. Extraordinary, isn’t she?” Good question. Here’s a possible reason, and it is not pretty. Though she is not the only woman to experience this nor the only person to fight against it, it would have been pretty cool to see Jennifer Shahade’s name in this discussion. WGM Shahade has done a lot to promote and protect women in chess.
Beyond this, there’s a bunch of chess-like nonsense. The book is pretty good at not bogging itself down with chess notation, but sadly, one of the few times it gets specific… it’s wrong.
Here’s the real spoiler-y section.
Seriously. Jump down if you want to avoid the spoilers.
So, Mallory gets a Wild Card invitation to the Challengers Tournament and comes in second to the mutual enemy of Mallory and Nolan. First, why rename it to “Challengers” when the actual name “Candidates” is fine and you’ve already used a bunch of real-world names already? The idea of a Wild Card entry into the Challengers tournament is a strange choice because Wild Card entries are usually used for tournaments leading to the Candidates (or Challengers, in this case). Had Hazelwood included one more tournament scenario before the Challengers it could have worked.
There has been a budding “friendship” between Mallory and Nolan and he asks her to be one of his Seconds (team of assistants and trainers) for the World Championship match. A few weeks into training, it comes to light that the Challenger Nolan is up against was caught cheating. As the second place finisher, Mallory is slated to face Nolan in the World Championship match, which she wins, thus creating a rivalry between lovers. The World Championship bit was utterly ridiculous and nearly pierced my veil of suspension of disbelief. I know it’s topical to mention cheating in chess, but the situation in the book was a bit too much. A hidden smartwatch? I mean, I guess that’s better than the Hans Niemann accusations, but the players are scanned before ever entering the playing area, specifically for things like this. There was so much nearly-correct chess material, it made the errors so frustrating.
Here’s where, as a chess fan, I must go on a bit of a rant. I go back to the age of Nolan, the World Champion, and his tenure. USA’s Abhimanyu Mishra is currently the youngest person to attain the title of Chess Grandmaster, at the age of 12 years, 4 months and 25 days. GM Mishra had been playing rated tournaments for at least five years before attaining his title. He is currently about the 125th highest-rated player in the world, nowhere near World Champion level and the likelihood of him beating Ding Liren, the current World Champion, is extremely slim, and even less likely is his beating Magnus Carlsen (the world’s highest rated player). In the defense of Nolan Sawyer, is India’s Rameshbabu Praggnanandhaa, who missed becoming the youngest to attain the grandmaster title by a few months. GM Pragg, as he is widely known, is now only 18 years old and has blossomed into a world-class player (Number 13 in the world) and has qualified for the Candidates tournament (the tournament held to determine the challenger to face the World Champion). But even in this instance, the time between attaining the grandmaster title and becoming in the discussion for World Champion is about 6 years.
Back to the un-spoiler-y bits.
To her credit, in the “Author’s Note,” Hazelwood admits to these discrepancies: “Full disclosure: when it comes to the chess, I took lots (AND LOTS) of poetic licenses to move the story along (plot before realism?) and if you noticed them… I’m so sorry.)”
Overall, I actually enjoyed the book. The romantic relationship was sweet and not too drawn out. The friends and family interactions were humorous and not too far-fetched — other than the love interest being a World Champion. If he had been a US Champion, or a champion of a foreign country, I could have been on board. This was kind of a page-turner for me, I read it in just over a day.
I appreciated the author’s note.
Yes, I am aware I focused on chess in a romance novel.
And, who knows? Maybe the whole thing is plausible; who am I, the chess police?