The Russian Defense
Dima Novak’s PUSHING PAWNS is a bold, smart YA tale about chess, friendship, and Soviet nostalgia.
The diverse, ragtag group of urban kids comprising a chess club at public school Q722 in New York are three decades too young to have any memories of the Cold War and the Collapse of the Soviet Union. However, for the narrator of PUSHING PAWNS — gifted 14-year-old Moses Middleton — latter-day evaluation of socialism and the Red Scare are the background chatter of his left-leaning parents and grandparents while he and his teammates try (and fail) to excel at competition.
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.
Pushing Pawns is available now as an eBook and in paperback at Amazon.