Pushing Pawns: The Chess Club Book One
Together with his crew -- charismatic psychopath P.D. Morales, gifted violinist and expert fencer Esther Toussaint, shy anime fan Maggie Wang, and the new boy, Albanian chess wizard Zamir Hoxha -- Moses vows to take the world of New York City scholastic chess by storm. But trouble’s on the way, in the form of neighborhood bullies, a vengeful vice principal, racist gentrifiers, the snooty rich kids from Galton Prep, and, worst of all, a sexual predator who could destroy a young woman’s life and the team’s newfound solidarity.
Perfect for young fans of The Queen's Gambit, this innovative YA novel combines humor, drama, and social insight.
Fortunately, socialist sympathizers have interesting friends and connections, one of whom is Viktor Fleishmann, an elderly Soviet chess grandmaster who now spends frosty mornings in New York parks playing games and reading old papers written in Cyrillic. I imagine him as the type of man who never irons his pants and breaks the filters off American cigarettes, so they taste more like the ones he smoked in Novosibirsk when he was 12.
Readers can guess early where this story heads, but what separates it from being a typical hero’s journey with an eccentric mentor, or a clumsy Ayn Rand-like political missive, is Novak’s ingenious setup. Chess is not an allegory for the state of affairs between great nations. Rather, chess philosophy and playing style help explain the unique ways the two superpowers interpreted life and society in the late 20th century. It makes a powerful argument for the virtues of both.
These story elements are timely, with renewed interest in both chess (the Queens Gambit) and Soviet Russia (Chernobyl, the Americans), but if chess strategy and political allegory sound too heady for an engaging young adult read, fear not. Novak creates a fun, fast-paced, high-stakes narrative that requires no advance knowledge of either chess or the cold war. His game descriptions are masterful and exciting, even to the layperson. Soviet chess playing method becomes the ancient religion our heroes unearth to give them an advantage against a well-funded preparatory school. If that isn’t a great hook, I don’t know what is.
The universe of PUSHING PAWNS is one I’d like to inhabit, with characters I’d love to befriend. Middleton is mixed race but phenotypically black with hyper-educated parents — worth mentioning when so much literature expects black teen characters to be touched by gun violence and broken families. His friend Esther is a masterful violinist and sabreuse; P.D. is a gay Judd Nelson; and my favorite character, Zamir, is an Albanian immigrant with the sort of amazing tee shirts I know southeastern Europeans to wear.
Written during a time of extreme isolation, the concept of a gang of friends who support each other is appealing. It’s nice to crawl into a book where teens can hang out together, unmasked.
Novak’s use of expository dialogue and narrative occasionally feels a bit more “telly” rather than “showy,” but it’s fascinating enough to be forgivable. The only thing I wish might have been different — and this is a small quibble indeed — was the resolution of a subplot in which Mose’s friend Molly is vulnerable and in imminent danger of falling into the hands of a leering uncle. I won’t spoil how it shakes out, but I’d prefer if she had a little more agency. Hardly a dealbreaker.
All the best teen reads today are indie, and PUSHING PAWNS is no exception. Novak executes his story with a clear love of chess, a deft understanding of Soviet society, and a keen openness to reevaluating cold war history. Smart middle graders and young adults will enjoy the primary storyline, while aging GenXers will recall — and question — the world of their youth.
Don’t miss it. As clever as it is smart, Dima Novak’s PUSHING PAWNS twists a tale of public school chess competitions into a gratifying story of classism, teamwork, loyalty, friendship, and sweet, sweet revenge.
- Plotting that pulls you through the book in one sitting if you have time
- Politics! And people who care about politics.
- The real stakes of real lives in contemporary America, urgently felt
- Vivid, plausible, engaging characters whose trajectories are open, not predestined
- Great sense of place and time: diverse NYC neighborhood undergoing gentrifying invasion
- Social issues handled unsentimentally but hopefully
- High schoolers realistically taking action
- Chess written with excitement!
- Cultural references, from Opera to B movies, you want to follow up
The chess play is plausible and exciting, but should be no bar to readers who aren't especially interested in the game. The real draw is the characters: they're a diverse bunch of very smart kids who transcend the usual urban stereotypes. The narrative voice is uniquely endearing: the protag is like a contemporary urban Holden Caulfield, a funny, vulnerable dreamer.
You care about these kids and root for them as they struggle and triumph. Touching, funny, exciting, and ultimately rewarding.
Smart, unusual characters that defy stereotypes