- Pages: 368 Pages
- Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group
- Imprint: G.P. Putnam's Sons Books for Young Readers
- ISBN: 9780593619926
An Excerpt From
Check & Mate
“I am reliably informed that you’re a Gen Z sex symbol.”
I nearly drop my phone.
Okay: I do drop my phone, but I save it before it splashes into a beaker full of ammonia. Then I glance around the chemistry classroom, wondering if anyone else heard.
The other students are either texting or puttering around with their equipment. Mrs. Agarwal is at her desk, pretending to grade papers but probably reading Bill Nye erotic fanfiction. A hopefully-not-lethal smell of ethanoic acid wafts up from my bench, but my AirPods are still in my ears.
No one is paying attention to me or the video on my phone, so I press Play to resume it.
“It was on Time magazine two weeks ago. On the cover. A picture of your face, and then ‘A Gen Z sex symbol.’ How does that feel?”
I am expecting to see Zendaya. Harry Styles. Billie Eilish. The entirety of BTS, crammed on the couch of whatever late-night show the YouTube autoplay algorithm decided to feed me after the pH experiment tutorial ended. But it’s just some dude. A boy, even? He looks out of place in the red velvet chair, with his dark shirt, dark slacks, dark hair, dark expression. Intensely unreadable as he says in a deep, serious voice, “It feels wrong.”
“It does?” the host—Jim or James or Jimmy—asks.
“The Gen Z part is correct,” the guest says. “Not so much the sex symbol.”
The audience eats it up, clapping and hooting, and that’s when I decide to read the caption. Nolan Sawyer, it says. There’s a description explaining who he is, but I don’t need it. I might not recognize the face, but I can’t remember a moment in my life when I didn’t know the name.
Meet the Kingkiller: The No. 1 chess player in the world.
“Let me tell you something, Nolan: smart is the new sexy.”
“Still not sure I qualify.” His tone is so dry, it has me wondering how his publicist talked him into this interview. But the audience laughs, and the host does, too. He leans forward, obviously charmed by this young man who’s built like an athlete, thinks like a theoretical physicist, and has the net worth of a Silicon Valley entrepreneur. An unusual, handsome prodigy who won’t admit to being special.
I wonder if Jim-Jimmy-James has heard what I’ve heard. The gossip. The whispered stories. The dark rumors about the golden boy of chess.
“Let’s just agree that chess is the new sexy. And you’re the one who made it so—there has been a chess renaissance since you started playing. Someone was running commentaries of your games, and they went viral on TikTok—ChessTok, my writers tell me it’s called—and now more people than ever are learning how to play. But first things first: you are a Grandmaster, which is the highest title a chess player can achieve, and just won your second World Champion‑ ship, against”—the host has to look down at his card, because normal Grandmasters are not as famous as Sawyer—“Andreas Antonov. Congratulations.”
Sawyer nods, once.
“And you just turned eighteen. When, again?”
“Three days ago.” Three days ago, I turned sixteen.
Ten years and three days ago, I received my first chess set— plastic pieces, pink and purple—and cried with joy. I’d use it all day long, carry it everywhere with me, then snuggle it in my sleep.
Now I can’t even remember the feel of a pawn in my hand.
“You started playing very young. Did your parents teach you?”
“My grandfather,” Sawyer says. The host looks taken aback, like he didn’t think Sawyer would go there, but recovers quickly.
“When did you realize that you were good enough to be a pro?”
“Am I good enough?”
More audience laughter. I roll my eyes. “Did you know you wanted to be a pro chess player from the start?”
“Yes. I knew all along that there was nothing that I liked as much as winning a chess match.”
The host’s eyebrow lifts. “Nothing?”
Sawyer doesn’t hesitate. “Nothing.”
“Mallory?” A hand settles on my shoulder. I jump and tear out one pod. “Did you need any help?”
“Nope!” I smile at Mrs. Agarwal, sliding the phone into my back pocket. “Just finished the instruction video.”
“Oh, perfect. Make sure you put on gloves before you add the acidic solution.”
The rest of the class is almost done with the experiment. I furrow my brow, hurry to catch up, and a few minutes later, when I can’t find my funnel and spill my baking soda, I stop thinking about Sawyer, or about the way his voice sounded when he said that he never wanted anything as much as chess. And I don’t think of him again for a little over two years. That is, until the day we play for the first time.
And I wipe the floor with him.