Waverly lives in San Francisco Chinatown with her parents and two brothers. Her mother tells her lots of things she thinks Waverly needs to know to survive in the big world, but unfortunately, Mom's advice comes across as passive-aggressive nitpicking.
Waverly reminisces about her childhood neighborhood, where she played with her brothers in the alley behind their apartment. She also remembers the playground at the end of the alley and various Chinese shops selling all sorts of exotic goods.
Life changes for the Jongs at Christmas when Waverly's brother receives a chess set from the Chinese Santa Claus. Despite Mom's pride about not accepting somebody else's hand-me-downs, the small Jongs catch the chess bug, especially Waverly. Soon she is really good at chess, so much so that she goes to the old man in the park and challenges him to a game. He beats her, but also sees her potential and teaches her the ways of the chess Jedi.
While Waverly spends all her time winning, Mom keeps telling people that Waverly's just lucky. Ouch, right? It's Mom's way of pushing Waverly to do better. And in a way, it works—Waverly keeps improving, and soon becomes a wee genius at chess. She beats grown-ups at high-end tournaments and even gets her picture on the cover of Life.
Despite Waverly's success, though, Mom continually tosses out little passive-aggressive put-downs. Waverly realizes that she's lost out on a lot of cool childhood activities because she has to come home and practice chess every day, too. There may be a few perks, like never doing chores, but Waverly increasingly feels like it isn't a square deal.
Eventually Mom pushes one button too many when she watches Waverly's every chess move at close range and insists on showing her off like a prize pony at the local shops. Waverly finally snaps and runs away when Mom gets angry. When she comes home, she's greeted by a roomful of stink eyes and no dinner. While alone in her room, she imagines her mother as an unbeatable chess opponent with scary eyes—and begins to ponder her next move.