Eleven-year-old Marcus is an extremely troubled youth. His sister, with whom he was close, died the year before of a heart ailment. His father left. Marcus is big and gets teased and bullied about it – especially by a particularly mean kid named Latrell. He copes with his problems by either getting in fights or withdrawing from everyone.
After yet another fight in school, he is sent to the library to cool off. There he encounters “CM” or “Chess Master.” CM tries to teach Marcus chess, and show him the value in thinking ahead. He explains to Marcus:
“See, you think you’re a king, but you’re just a pawn. You’re not playing to your strengths. You got brains somewhere in that head a yours. You just gotta use ‘em.”
Marcus starts playing chess with CM every day after school, and starts to improve:
“Over the next month CM an’ me play every day after school. We even talk ‘bout stuff that’s botherin’ me, like Latrell an’ my sister, an’ Daddy not bein’ ‘round no more. He show me that all them chess pieces is like a family. That when one fall, the others carry on. They have to. But when one win, the whole family win.”
Marcus actually gets good enough to corral Latrell and challenge him to play. Pretty soon Latrell wants to learn also. CM tells Marcus he is starting a group of “chess warriors,” based on support and friendly competition rather than cruelty and violence. Marcus thinks he can do this, and even be good at it. CM tells him “Yeah, I think you’re figurin’ out your endgame.”
Evaluation: I love G. Neri. He has an outstanding ability to capture anger, hurt, and yearning, and the voices of poverty and broken families and gangs. He always makes me cry. A shout out too for Jesse Joshua Watson, whose illustrations are terrific.
Published by Lee & Low Books, 2007
Reading level: Ages 10 and up
Hardcover: 64 pages