Ten-year-old Maxine Kuftinec (known as Max by one and all) lives in Greenwich Village, with her overworked parents and her little sister. Max is happily ensconced at her local public school, but when the opportunity arises for her to switch to the Blackstone Academy, a prestigious uptown all-girls private school, she feels obliged to do so. Max doesn't fit in immediately at the Blackstone Academy, amidst the privileged girls who get picked up in giant black SUV's every day. She stops by the chess club one day, thinking that someone there can teach her how to play - but she is humiliated by Isabella, the alpha girl among her new classmates (and Max's nemesis), who quickly ascertains Max's ignorance, and publicly ridicules her for it. Eventually, at the Washington Square chess boards, she meets a grizzled codger named Norman who may be able to help her, in learning both how to play chess and how to deal with her new life. But Norman's way of teaching her is very... unusual.