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Check & Mate: Part 3 – Chapter 29


I enter the press conference a little like Meghan Markle would: flanked by two FIDE people whose names I didn’t catch, followed by a burly man who, I suspect, has something to do with security. The camera flashes explode the second I step into the room, but in a subdued way that’s more middling politician announcing long-shot presidential run than BTS land at LAX.

I know, then and there, that I’ll never, ever, ever get used to this. And that I probably shouldn’t have worn my green Chucks with the hole in the left pinkie.

A couple of journalists in the first row greet me. I’ve never met them before, and yet they smile at me like I’m the distant cousin they see only at weddings and baptisms but nevertheless like. This is . . . weird. Much weirder than casual chess fans asking for autographs.

Never, ever, ever.

“Hi, guys.” I wave awkwardly and glance around. There’s no one I know here: press passes were required, and Defne didn’t get one. I’m crowdedly alone in a fancy Italian room full of antique velvet curtains, and the worst is yet to—

In the last row, someone is grinning and waving at me. Eleni from the BBC, half submerged by the small mountain of equipment she’s carrying. Clearly, still an intern. I smile back at her and feel marginally better.

The table on the podium is long and narrow, with three sets of mics and plaques. The middle one is already taken by the moderator, a middle- aged man who happens to be one of FIDE’s many VPs and whom I vaguely remember from the Challengers. The one on the right bears my name, and that’s where I sit.

The remaining one, at the moderator’s left, is empty when I arrive.

And stays empty for one minute.

Two.

Two and a half.

Three, and I was already a bit late, because the ferry system is not exactly straightforward, and Easton and I needed a fourth breakfast. We’re now almost ten minutes past schedule, which is why the journalists, and there are dozens of them, whisper like this is a scandalously juicy Victorian ball.

I look at the moderator in panic.

“Don’t worry,” he whispers conspiratorially, hiding our conversation with a sheet of white paper. “He won’t dare no-show. We’ve learned our lessons with him.”

“What do you mean?”

“He hates press events and always tries to skip them. But”— he points behind us, to the panels decorated with sponsors and brands— “FIDE makes lots of money from them, especially this year. So we write steep fines into his contracts that make it impossible for him to avoid them.” He gives me a cunning, if warm, smile, and lowers the paper before clearing his throat and turning on his mic. “Well, everyone. It seems like there are some delays. Why don’t Ms. Greenleaf and I entertain you all with a game of chess. I’ll take White.”

The murmurs get louder. I glance around, find no set, then realize what his plan is when he says into the mic, “d4.”

“Oh.” I scratch my nose. “Um, d5?”

“c4.” His eyes shine and he turns toward the journalists. “Will she accept my gambit?”

I usually don’t. I usually decline the Queen’s Gambit with e6 and then build up a solid position, but he looks so hopeful, and people do love an accepted challenge, so I grin and say, “c4, take pawn.”

People cheer. My grin widens. The tension in the room melts a little as the moderator laughs and nods, pleased. “e3,” he says, and I’m considering moving my knight to f6 just for the fun of it when—

A door opens.

Not the door I came in from, but one on the side that I hadn’t even noticed. The cameras start again. A red- haired woman whom I recognize from Philly Open— Nolan’s manager, who must be better than Defne at obtaining press passes— walks briskly into the room, looking less than happy, and right behind her . . .

I thought I had successfully fortified my defenses. Because I spent those three minutes with Easton in the bathroom, following her instructions on how to brace myself. I squared my shoulders, took a deep breath, and repeated at her insistence: I’m a big girl, and I can handle a reunion with my ex in front of a dozen countries’ major TV outlets— okay, Easton, no. This is counterproductive.

Still, I did think I’d be fine. But when Nolan enters wearing his usual combo of dark shirt and dark jeans, eyes guarded, hair shorter than the last time I ran my fingers through it, I’m not fine.

I’m not okay at all.

He doesn’t glance in my direction, not once. He calmly steps onto the podium, and when a woman from the fourth row says, “You’re late, Nolan. Everything okay?” he just answers, “Yeah.” He speaks into the microphone, effortlessly confident. He’s done this before. He might hate it, but he has a decade of experience on me. “My car broke down,” he adds, and everyone laughs.

I fist my hands in my lap until I’m sure they’re not shaking. By the time the moderator goes through a few introductory words and picks the first question, I’ve recovered. At least a little bit.

“Karl Becker, DPA. Nolan, you haven’t made a statement about Malte Koch’s cheating scandal. Is the three- year suspension he received fair? And what do you think about him?”

“I try not to think about him at all.” People chuckle. “And it’s up to FIDE to decide what’s fair.”

“Lucia Montresor, Ansa. Nolan, how is your playing shape compared with the Pasternak?”

He half huffs, half winces. “Can’t possibly be worse, can it?”

More laughter. Nolan hasn’t changed much since that talk show interview several years ago, the one that makes me think of Mrs. Agarwal and baking soda. He’s still charismatic, almost despite himself. He still doesn’t want to be here, doesn’t mind admitting to it, and yet manages to navigate the questions in a relaxed, charming, uncomplicated way.

I look at him not looking at me, and my heart squeezes.

“And a question for Mallory: This was your breakout year. How does it feel, being here?”

“It’s . . .” Everyone turns to me. Except for Nolan, who keeps looking straight ahead into the crowd.

He hates me. For what I said. For leaving. I screwed up, and he hates me, and he’s right.

“It’s an honor.” I attempt a smile. “I am happy and grateful.”

“AFP, Etienne Leroy— question for both. You two have close family members who used to play chess at high levels but are not here anymore. Does that make your championship more meaningful?”

I stiffen. I can’t talk about Dad. Or: the last month has shown me that I can talk about Dad, but I don’t want to talk about Dad in front of dozens of people who—

“Nope,” Nolan says flatly, saving us both. The moderator picks another journalist, and I’m flooded with relief.

“Reuters— Chasten. Nolan, there is a rumor that Ms. Greenleaf was part of your team of assistants before the cheating scandal came to light and she became the challenger. Care to confirm or deny?”

“Not particularly, no.”

Laughter.

“Either way, some say that having been your second will give Ms. Greenleaf an unfair advantage.”

Nolan shrugs. “If some think that she needs an unfair advantage, then they need to pay better attention when she plays.”

The room drops into murmured quiet. My heart beats into my ears.

“Mallory, Fox News. You are the first woman to make it to the World Championship. What do you attribute it to?”

“I just . . .” I bit into my lip. “Only to the fact that I had a nontraditional path to chess. And didn’t have to suffer through the sexism of this environment as much as most female players do. Didn’t have a chance to get discouraged.”

“So you don’t think you’re better than all the women who came before you?”

“No, not at all. I— ”

“Then, since you have never even been part of a supertournament, what makes you qualified to be here today? Why you and not someone else?”

I swallow. “I just . . .”

Nothing. I got lucky. It’s a mistake. I’m not good enough and—

“Man”—Nolan snorts into the mic— “she literally won the qualifying tournament to be here. Keep up, will you?”

Fox News lowers his eyes, chastised. I glance at Nolan, who really works the crowd like a stand-up comedian. People laugh, and a couple even clap, because they find him amusing and like him even when he’s not likable. I want to scream at them, I know. I’ve been there.

I still am.

“Mallory? AFP again. Does your past romantic relationship with Nolan make this championship more complicated for you? Will it in any way affect your play?”

Well.

Probably stupid of me, but I really didn’t think they would go there. And I’m positive the moderator didn’t, either, because I feel him tense next to me.

I almost turn to Nolan. Because, let’s be honest: every other hard, difficult question that might have made me stumble, he took, blocked, deflected. This one, though . . . he simply can’t. And even though I could probably deny that our relationship was ever romantic, or straight-up refuse to answer, or even tell the truth, I’m not prepared for any of this. So I take the easy way out, and hear myself say:

“No.”

It echoes in the murmuring room like a slap, and I immediately want to take it back. I want to look at Nolan and say . . .

I don’t know what. But it’s okay, because I don’t get the chance. “Very well,” the moderator interrupts. “We seem to be pressed for time. I think we’ll call it for today, but— ”

“One last question— Trent Moles, the New York Times. In the name of good sportsmanship, could you both say what you admire the most about your opponent’s play?”

The moderator hesitates, like he knows this question is a bad idea. But then he looks to his left. “Of course. Would you like to take it?”

Nolan wouldn’t. At least, that’s what I assume when he stays sprawled back in his seat, like we’re back in New York and he’s watching Emil fail at making sourdough, like the entire world and dozens of Instagram accounts dedicated to his hands and dimples and gambits aren’t watching like hawks.

But then he shifts. I watch him lean forward, just an inch, then another, and inhale minutely before speaking into the mic. “Every last thing,” he says. Simple. Decisive.

Heart shattering.

It’s followed by a moment of silence. For the first time, no one laughs. No one speaks. No one scribbles notes on their pad. No one raises their hand for another question.

My heart presses desperately against the borders of my chest.

The moderator clears his throat and turns to me.

“Mallory,” he asks. “What do you admire the most about Nolan’s play?”

“I . . .”

What do I admire the most? What?

He is so dynamic.

He fights to the last point, using every piece, every moment, every resource, bleeding the chessboard dry.

He is deadly and meticulous.

He is fun and interesting and unpredictable.

He is an adventure.

And that frown on his forehead, when he’s thinking about how to make the next move as nuclear and chaotic as possible. It makes me want to reach out and pull his visor- hands away. It makes me want to smooth it. It makes me want to play my own best chess and—

“Mallory?”

I look up from my Fiji water bottle. There are a million eyes on me. I swallow.

“Right. I . . .”

I am lost for words. I am overwhelmed, swept away, disoriented. And the moderator nods, then smiles kindly.

“Well, I guess her answer is nothing.” A few forced chuckles. Then more journalists raise their hands, clamoring for one last question that isn’t to be. “Thank you for coming, everyone. Of course, we’ll have longer press conferences after each game, so I’m excited to . . .”

A FIDE employee asks me to stand. She takes my elbow to guide me off the podium. I follow her past Nolan’s chair, and when my hand brushes against his shoulder blade, I’m not sure whether it’s an accident or desperation.

I step out of the room knowing that he hasn’t looked at me a single time.


I STAY AT THE GALA FOR LESS THAN TEN MINUTES. I’M chewing on my fifth bruschetta and craning my neck, on the lookout for broad shoulders and cropped dark curls, when Defne whisks me away with a hand on my wrist. “Okay, you made your appearance. Now we leave.” Her bright red lips stick to a polite smile as she crisscrosses me through the crowd.

“But I only just got there. And the bruschetta is amazing.”

“And you gotta be in bed by nine, since tomorrow’s the most important game of your career.”

“Is it? Because as far as I know, I have twelve coming up.”

“The first one sets the tone, Mal.”

“I . . . Won’t it be rude to leave?”

“Maybe.” She pulls me up the stairs. “But your opponent didn’t even bother showing up. As long as his rudeness eclipses yours, you’re golden.”

That’s how I end up wearing my jammies at 8:53, tucked in, pillow punched underneath my head. Easton slides in on her side of the bed, Darcy curls right between us, and Sabrina settles at the foot of the mattress.

A veritable slumber party.

“According to my trainer, I should be asleep in five minutes,” I point out.

“Ah, yes.” Sabrina doesn’t look up from her phone. “Is Defne going to come burp you, too?”

“Come on, Sabrina,” Easton scolds her. “You know she first needs a diaper change.”

We argue for the longest time over what to watch on the 8K TV. Then we give up on finding a movie that won’t be vetoed by at least one other person, and settle for pulling up random You-Tube videos. After nine centuries of surprisingly violent roller derby footage that have me worried for the state of Sabrina’s brain, Easton blesses me with a Dragon Age playthrough. For a minute it feels like it used to be— the two of us, and Solas being an asshole on screen. When I turn to grin at her, I find that she’s already grinning at me. Then I remember something, and my smile slips.

“What?” she asks.

“Nothing. Just . . .” I shrug. “I watched one with Nolan once.”

“A playthrough? Is that gem of a boy into DA?”

“Not really.”

“Ah. I’ve seen your press conference, by the way. Nice job making it look like you totally despise him even when he said nothing but super- nice things about you.”

“I didn’t.”

“Yes, you did,” Darcy and Sabrina say in chorus, without tearing their eyes from the TV.

“Whatever.” I roll my eyes. Because they’re right. “He hasn’t really . . . Maybe he said mediumly nice things, but don’t be fooled. He hasn’t acknowledged my presence.”

“Mmm.” Easton nods. “Have you considered acknowledging his first? Maybe be like, ‘Hey, whadup, I didn’t really mean the many horrible things I said about you.’ ”

“Right.” I clear my throat. Look away. “No.”

“Did you call him a bitch, too?” Darcy asks.

I tilt my chin up and groan. “I refuse to engage on this topic with anyone who’s under eighteen, or with anyone who’s over eighteen but needs a twenty- five- minute pep talk to add a heart emoji to a text,” I declare. But ten minutes later, while a Texan lady nurses an injured bat back to health (Darcy’s selection), I start composing a text. The most recent blue bubbles are dated January 9, middle of the night: the response to my Either Emil’s really good at sex or he’s gutting Tanu, was You mean, it’s not a foghorn that woke me up? I half smile and write:

can we talk?

Then I delete it. And type again:

you’re right about some things. maybe not all of them. but I overreac

Delete.

did you know in your 2016 game against Lal you missed a checkmate. nice queening, though.

Delete, delete, delete.

im sorry about

Delete.

hi.

I don’t hit Send. But I leave it there, in the typing box. And when I set my phone against my chest and go back to watching TV, it feels several pounds heavier than ever before.


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