A chess fairytale: Ali Hazelwood's novel "Check & Mate"

by Johannes Fischer
12/25/2023 – "The Queens Gambit" has been one of the most successful series in recent years, and now chess has also made it onto the bestseller book lists. Thanks to author Ali Hazelwood and her book "Check & Mate", a modern romantic fairytale set in the world of chess.

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"Chess is sexy!" At least in the novel Check & Mate by bestseller author Ali Hazelwood. World chess champion Nolan Sawyer is particularly sexy - 20 years old, good-looking, intelligent, quick-witted, with a subtle sense of humour, successful, cool. Prince Charming. 18-year-old Mallory Greenleaf, the novel's first-person narrator and main character, thinks so too. But she doesn't want to admit how attractive she really finds Sawyer, because despite her outstanding intelligence, Mallory is blind to some - important - things in her life.

She used to be a successful chess player, but after the death of her father, who was also a strong chess player, she gave up the game. One day, however, Mallory is reluctantly persuaded by her best friend, Easton, to take part in a charity tournament which, because it is for a good cause, features some of the best players in the world, including Sawyer.

Check & Mate is a modern version of the Cinderella story, and so fairytale things happen in this tournament: Mallory, who hasn't played or trained for four years, beats the world champion! Shortly afterwards, the head of the New York chess club "Zugzwang" turns up on her doorstep and offers the young hopeful a scholarship that would allow Mallory to do nothing but train and play chess for a year.

But Mallory is stubborn - she turns down the scholarship, just as she has turned down three scholarship offers from universities, because she feels she must look after her two younger sisters and her sick mother, and earn money as a car mechanic in a garage. But when she is fired for refusing to cheat a customer, she reluctantly accepts the chess scholarship. And in no time at all, her career takes off.

Although she has little success nationally and none internationally, she is soon allowed to take part in a tournament to determine the challenger to the world champion. In the final of this knockout competition, however, Mallory is defeated by a player called Koch, a sexist creep who, after beating Mallory, is allowed to play Sawyer for the world title. Mallory becomes part of the team that prepares Sawyer for the match against Koch, and in the course of this intense collaboration she comes to realise what the reader has suspected all along: She loves Sawyer, he loves her and they become a couple. But before they can live happily ever after and play chess together, Mallory has some inner work to do.

She soon finds herself facing a challenge unlike any other in the history of chess: after the creep Koch is convicted of cheating, Mallory becomes Sawyer's new challenger and must play against her friend and lover for the world championship. She also learns that it was Sawyer who paid for her chess scholarship after he lost to Mallory in the charity tournament.

Mallory feels betrayed by this generous gesture - she breaks off contact with Sawyer and retreats to her sulking corner. But in this crisis Mallory is helped by fairy godmothers in the form of her sisters, her mother, her friend Easton, her coach and her training partner. This support allows her to mature inside: she overcomes the trauma of her father's death, she can let go of the obsessive thought of having to look after her family, and she manages to find herself and do what she loves: play chess.

Ali Hazelwood, Check & Mate, Penguin Young Readers Group, 2023, 368 pages

So far, so romantic, so unrealistic. However, Hazelwood did not want to write a realistic novel about the world of chess, but rather a story about female self-discovery and self-realisation. As Hazelwood explains in a short epilogue, not without a touch of irony:

"Full disclosure: when it comes to 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. I hope you were still able to enjoy Mallory and Nolan's journey."

In her epilogue, Hazelwood also reveals how she came up with the idea for the novel:

"In 2008 I was trying to decide what to focus on for my postgraduate thesis, and in one of my classes I came across the concept of stereotype threat: when people find themselves in situations in which their social group is stereotyped to be inferior, they are more likely to perform poorly ... I was immediately interested in the idea ... [and] came across the chess study. … The idea of writing a story set in the world of chess percolated through my head for years - until 2021."

However, Check & Mate does not address the question of why far fewer women than men play chess and why, apart from Judit Polgar, no woman has ever made it into the world's top ten. Instead, Check & Mate is a novel written with a light touch, with language and characterisation aimed primarily at a young audience, and in which the self-deprecation of the first-person narrator is particularly amusing. What is remarkable, however, is that Hazelwood has chosen chess to tell a modern tale of a young woman's self-discovery.

Perhaps Hazelwood was inspired by the success of the Netflix series The Queens Gambit, but in any case both the series and this novel show that the image of chess has changed in recent years and continues to do so. Unlike many older books and films about chess, the main characters in the novel are not introverted nerds teetering on the edge of madness, or highly intelligent psychopaths who mix criminal energy with chess talent, but gifted young people who find happiness in chess and each other through the game.

About the author

Ali Hazelwood | Photo: Official website of Ali Hazelwood

The name "Ali Hazelwood" is a pseudonym, but on her website Hazelwood characterises herself as follows:

I’m originally from Italy, lived in Japan and Germany, and eventually moved to the US to pursue a Ph.D. in Neuroscience. I recently became a professor, which absolutely terrifies me. When I’m not at work you can find me binge-watching shows with my three feline overlords (and my slightly less feline husband), running, or eating candy.


Johannes Fischer was born in 1963 in Hamburg and studied English and German literature in Frankfurt. He now lives as a writer and translator in Nürnberg. He is a FIDE-Master and regularly writes for KARL, a German chess magazine focusing on the links between culture and chess. On his own blog he regularly publishes notes on "Film, Literature and Chess".