Waverly parents move to a new country having left China. This creates a constant struggle between their American lives and Chinese values. Chess is seen as a compromise for Waverly but it is also subjected to scrutiny by her mother.
Even though Lindo loves her daughter, she cannot accept her living a life based on foreign American morals and preferences. Waverly, on the other hand, feels pressurized into adopting Chinese values which are alien to her.
Independence & Restriction
The topic of independence is central to Waverly’s life. As a kid, she loves the freedom to play on the streets. However, she has to give that all up for a chess career. Her brilliance becomes a barrier to her freedom.
Her mother keeps a constant oversight over all her actions and this further suffocates her life. This comes to a head when Waverly ends up running away from her mother at the supermarket.
Since chess is a pivotal part of the story; many of its characters are shown to be manipulative and controlling. Lindo is a controlling mother who tries to manipulate her kids in order to inculcate good values in them.
Even though her intentions are pure, she uses mind games and manipulation to obtain her goals. Waverly learns the same from her mother. This ability to calculate helps her become a skilled chess player but corrupts her childlike innocence.
This constant warring of minds creates a rift between the two and seeds distrust. Finally, Waverly acknowledges her mother as her biggest competitor and then her well-wisher.
Experience & Childhood
Waverly’s success robs her off her innocence. Even though she is just a kid, she is expected to behave like an adult. All her victories pile up more pressure her to work harder and improve. This limits her time to do the mundane stuff that other kids do. Her childhood is arrested by her experience as a gifted chess player and competitor.
Home is where people find refuge from all the anxieties of life, however, for Waverly; home is the main cause of her anxieties. Her family and especially her strict mother become a cause for worry and tension rather than a source of trust and support.
As she succeeds in chess, she gets more alienated from her mother and family. This rift destroys her young life and she becomes more manipulative and distrusting. In the end, she starts to view her family members (esp. her mother) as an adversary rather than her beloved.