Check & Mate Summary, Characters and Themes

Check & Mate is a young adult (YA) romance novel by Ali Hazelwood, the author of the bestselling The Love Hypothesis. It follows Mallory Greenleaf, a young woman who has sworn off chess after it caused her family trauma. 

When she reluctantly agrees to play in a charity tournament, she unexpectedly defeats the arrogant world champion, Nolan Sawyer. As she ascends the ranks, Mallory grapples with protecting her family, rekindling her love for chess, and navigating a budding romance with her rival.


In New Jersey, 18-year-old Mallory Greenleaf, a gifted chess player haunted by a painful past, works as a mechanic to support her family. 

Her mother suffers from rheumatoid arthritis, and Mallory feels responsible for their well-being. However, her past trauma, linked to her father’s affair and subsequent death, has made her swear off chess.

Her best friend, Easton, persuades her to participate in a charity chess tournament, where Mallory unexpectedly defeats the world champion, Nolan Sawyer. 

This victory catapults her back into the world of chess, leading to an offer of a fellowship at the prestigious Zugzwang chess club in New York City.

Despite initial reluctance, Mallory accepts the fellowship, viewing it as a means to financially support her family. 

As she immerses herself in the chess world, she grapples with the resurfaced pain from her past and the growing attraction to her rival, Nolan.

Mallory’s talent shines through, and she quickly rises in the ranks. 

However, she faces challenges and setbacks, including a controversial loss due to a technicality and persistent doubts about her abilities fueled by misogyny in the chess community.

Through it all, Mallory finds support from Defne, the head of Zugzwang, and Nolan, who harbors feelings for her. Their relationship develops amidst the backdrop of intense competition and media scrutiny.

When Mallory is chosen to compete in the prestigious Challengers tournament, she faces immense pressure and self-doubt. 

Nolan, despite being her rival, provides unwavering support and helps her prepare for the tournament.

Despite the challenges, Mallory performs exceptionally well, eventually securing a place in the World Championship against Nolan himself. 

However, a shocking revelation about Nolan’s involvement in funding her fellowship tests their relationship and leaves Mallory feeling betrayed.

As the World Championship approaches, Mallory confronts her past traumas and reconciles with her family. 

She also realizes the depth of her feelings for Nolan and resolves to compete with everything she has.

In a dramatic showdown at the Championship in Italy, Mallory and Nolan play an intense and emotional game, culminating in Mallory’s victory. 

This win not only marks a personal triumph for Mallory but also signals a shift towards a more inclusive and accepting chess community.

Check and Mate Book Summary


Mallory Greenleaf

Mallory, the protagonist, is an eighteen-year-old auto mechanic who prioritizes her family’s well-being above all else. Having experienced the trauma of her parents’ divorce and her father’s subsequent death, she carries a deep-seated guilt, believing herself responsible for their family’s misfortunes. 

This guilt fuels her determination to support her mother and sisters, even at the cost of her own dreams and aspirations. Despite her initial reluctance to re-enter the world of chess, Mallory rediscovers her passion for the game, showcasing her natural talent and strategic brilliance. 

Throughout the novel, she grapples with vulnerability and trust issues, stemming from past betrayals. However, she gradually learns to open up and rely on others, ultimately finding love and acceptance.

Nolan Sawyer

Nolan is the reigning World Champion of professional chess, initially portrayed as arrogant and aloof. 

Beneath his self-assured exterior, however, lies a genuine admiration for Mallory’s talent and a growing affection for her. He recognizes her potential and actively supports her chess journey, offering guidance and encouragement. Nolan’s character arc involves confronting his own vulnerabilities and learning to express his emotions honestly. 

He demonstrates unwavering support for Mallory, even when their relationship faces challenges, ultimately proving his loyalty and love for her.

Mrs. Greenleaf

Mallory’s mother suffers from rheumatoid arthritis, a chronic illness that significantly impacts her daily life. 

While she loves and appreciates her daughter’s sacrifices, she also harbors guilt for being a burden on her family. Mrs. Greenleaf’s character highlights the complexities of chronic illness and the emotional toll it can take on both the individual and their loved ones. 

Through her interactions with Mallory, she reveals a deep understanding of her daughter’s pain and insecurities, offering wisdom and guidance when needed.


Easton is Mallory’s best friend and a source of unwavering support. She encourages Mallory to pursue her passions and step out of her comfort zone. Easton’s character embodies loyalty and unwavering friendship. 

She challenges Mallory to confront her fears and embrace new opportunities, playing a crucial role in her personal and emotional growth.


Defne, the owner of the Zugzwang chess club, serves as a mentor and guide for Mallory. She recognizes Mallory’s exceptional talent and provides her with the resources and opportunities to flourish in the world of chess. 

Defne’s character represents the importance of mentorship and support in nurturing young talent. 

She encourages Mallory to develop her skills and knowledge, while also challenging her to confront the systemic sexism prevalent in the chess world.

Malte Koch

Malte Koch is the antagonist of the novel, representing the cutthroat and competitive nature of professional chess. 

He is portrayed as arrogant, manipulative, and willing to bend the rules to achieve victory. 

Koch’s character serves as a foil to Mallory, highlighting her integrity and sportsmanship. Through his actions, the novel explores themes of ambition, rivalry, and the consequences of unethical behavior.

Emil and Tanu

Emil and Tanu are Nolan’s friends and fellow chess players. They provide a supportive and encouraging environment for Mallory, embracing her as part of their team. 

Their characters emphasize the importance of camaraderie and teamwork in the world of competitive chess. 

They offer valuable advice and assistance to both Mallory and Nolan, contributing to their personal and professional growth.


Family as a Source of Both Support and Conflict

The intricate dynamics of family relationships form a central theme in “Check & Mate.” Mallory’s unwavering devotion to her family, particularly her chronically ill mother and younger sisters, is a driving force throughout the novel. 

She shoulders the financial burden and household responsibilities, sacrificing personal ambitions and educational pursuits for their well-being. This intense dedication stems from a deep sense of guilt and responsibility, believing her parents’ divorce and her father’s subsequent death were somehow her fault. 

This familial devotion, while admirable, also becomes a source of internal conflict for Mallory. Her fear of abandonment and aversion to change hinder her personal growth and romantic prospects. 

The novel explores the delicate balance between familial duty and individual aspirations, highlighting the challenges and sacrifices inherent in prioritizing family above all else.

Misogyny and Gender Discrimination in the World of Chess

“Check & Mate” confronts the pervasive issue of misogyny and gender discrimination in the male-dominated world of chess. Mallory’s journey as a young female player is fraught with challenges and prejudices. 

She faces skepticism, objectification, and unfair scrutiny solely based on her gender. Her success is often attributed to her perceived attractiveness or association with male players, undermining her genuine talent and dedication. 

The novel also delves into the systemic barriers women face in the sport, such as limited opportunities, unequal pay, and harassment. 

Through Mallory’s experiences, Hazelwood exposes the deeply ingrained sexism within the chess community and the resilience required for women to thrive in such an environment. 

The novel underscores the importance of recognizing and challenging these biases, advocating for equal opportunities and recognition for female players in chess.

Vulnerability and Emotional Healing

“Check & Mate” explores the theme of vulnerability and emotional healing through Mallory’s journey of self-discovery. Haunted by her past trauma and family struggles, Mallory has built emotional walls to protect herself from further pain. 

However, as she reconnects with chess and develops relationships with Nolan and her fellow players, she gradually learns to open up and confront her vulnerabilities. The novel highlights the importance of acknowledging and processing past traumas in order to move forward. 

Through therapy, support from loved ones, and self-reflection, Mallory begins to heal from her emotional wounds and embrace vulnerability as a path to personal growth and genuine connection. 

The novel suggests that allowing oneself to be vulnerable, despite the fear of rejection or hurt, is essential for forging meaningful relationships and achieving emotional well-being.

The Transformative Power of Passion

“Check & Mate” celebrates the transformative power of passion through Mallory’s rediscovery of her love for chess. Initially, Mallory views chess as a painful reminder of her past and a source of familial conflict. 

However, as she immerses herself in the game, she rekindles her childhood joy and fascination for it. Chess becomes an outlet for her intellect, creativity, and competitive spirit. It provides her with a sense of purpose, belonging, and personal fulfillment. 

The novel underscores the importance of pursuing one’s passions, even when faced with obstacles or societal expectations. 

Through Mallory’s journey, Hazelwood demonstrates how embracing one’s passion can lead to personal growth, self-discovery, and a more meaningful and fulfilling life.