Waverly Jong narrates her experience as a child chess prodigy, saying that her mother Lindo was the one who taught her the art of “invisible strength.” As a child, Waverly tries to get treats at the grocery store by demanding Lindo’s attention, but Lindo tells her “[the] strongest wind cannot be seen.” The next time they’re at the store, Waverly stays quiet and patient, and Lindo ends up buying her the treats. These traits informed her future playing style.
The novel suggests that the most important teacher to a young girl is her mother, who imparts wisdom in small lessons throughout childhood.
One Christmas, Waverly’s older brother receives a used chess set with missing pieces as a holiday gift from their church. Lindo wants to throw the chessboard out because it’s clearly been worn down and discarded by a richer family, but Waverly replaces the missing pieces with her Christmas candy in exchange for a chance to play with her brothers. At first, she doesn’t understand the game’s complex rules and loses. When she complains to Lindo, her mother wisely compares it to the random rules imposed upon immigrants, and advises Waverly to learn “all the whys” thoroughly to succeed at the game.
Immigrants are automatically at a disadvantage when arriving in the United States, because they don’t know the cultural etiquette of American society and “lose the game” of social success. It is not that immigrants are any less intelligent than American-born citizens, as the chess analogy proves – it’s simply a matter of access to and understanding of the rules of the game.
Waverly goes to the library to research chess strategies and game theory in her free time, and slowly starts beating her brothers. She loves the feeling of winning, and daydreams about chess moves. When her brothers get tired of losing, Waverly starts playing against an old man in the Chinatown park. Through him, she learns master-level strategies told in Chinese proverbs.
A running theme in the novel is the transfer of wisdom through storytelling, and Waverly’s chess lessons continue this theme in a subtle way. The strategies she learns from an old man are rooted in Chinese tradition, yet still benefit her modern sensibilities.
Lindo notices Waverly’s talent and signs her up for neighborhood chess tournaments. At the first tournament, Lindo gives Waverly her jade pendant, the same piece of jewelry Lindo’s mother gave young Lindo for good luck; Waverly easily beats her competition that day. Waverly gets increasingly better with every tournament, and by nine years old, she is a national chess champion featured in the popular “Life” magazine. Part of her championship strategy involves playing up her youthful innocence so that her opponent, a 50-year-old chess master, underestimates her abilities. Lindo is so proud of Waverly that she attends every event and covers every surface in their small apartment with chess trophies.
As with the other immigrant mothers, Lindo wants her daughter to achieve maximum success in America, and pushes Waverly to higher and higher triumphs. Waverly’s style of chess-play subtly comments on sexist attitudes. Just because she is young and girlish, Waverly seems beatable, but she takes advantage of the arrogance of such assumptions to surprise and win.
After becoming a national champion, Waverly takes advantage of her mother’s vanity in her by getting out of chores and getting her own bedroom. Waverly enjoys the benefits, but grows increasingly irritated by her mother’s overbearing presence. Lindo takes Waverly on walks through Chinatown’s markets to show her off, inflating Lindo’s own ego.
Lindo’s bragging is her way of showing love and pride, though Waverly doesn’t interpret the actions that way. The miscommunication in expectations leads to a rift between mother and daughter.
On one trip, Waverly loses her temper and tells Lindo that the bragging is embarrassing. Lindo angrily asks if Waverly is embarrassed to be her daughter; and Waverly replies “that’s not what I meant.” Still, unable to stop complaining, Waverly says that if Lindo wants to show off so badly, she should learn chess herself. Lindo has no words in reply, shocked.
Waverly sees her achievements as purely her own, an American-learned belief, and dislikes her mother taking credit. But according to Lindo’s values, her daughter’s success could not have happened without the family’s support. The embarrassment is therefore an insult to everything Lindo has done for her.
Waverly runs off, ignoring her mother calling her back, and hides in an alley. Hours later, she returns home to her brothers telling her that she’s in deep trouble. However, Lindo doesn’t acknowledge her, saying the family has no concern for Waverly if Waverly has no concern for them. Waverly goes to her room and dreams of a chess game against her mother, where she’s not only losing the game, but floating away from the world, blown away by the wind.
Waverly calculates her interactions with Lindo in terms of wins and losses, rather than emotions. She cannot understand Lindo’s brusque style of love as a child, and resentfully casts her mother as a constant opponent.