Hou Yifan and the first Wait for Chess world champion


Even by the standards of chess prodigies, Hou Yifan stood out. It wasn’t so much the way she played the game, dynamically but not dazzlingly, with an aggressive but flexible style. It was that she was a girl. Thirteen years after she became Grand Master, at the age of fourteen, we still talk about the two large barrettes that held her hair cut back. “I never felt any restrictions or limitations,” she told me recently, from her home in Shenzhen, China, where she is a professor at the Faculty of Physical Education at Shenzhen University. . (Last year, at twenty-six, she became the youngest full professor in college history.) “My parents never taught me that as a girl you should do this. or that, ”she said. “Teachers never shaped my point of view that way. These days, her hair falls over her shoulders and black cat-eye glasses frame her face. She speaks English quickly and precisely; she spent a year at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, studying public policy. She is the only woman among the top 100 chess players in the world, ranked 82nd. The second woman, Aleksandra Goryachkina, a Russian in her twenties, is outside the top 200.

Chess is not like basketball or football. Men and women compete on an equal footing, and no one can tell a player’s gender from the moves on a scorecard. However, of the seventeen hundred and thirty-two Grand Masters of the world, only thirty-eight are women. Much of this discrepancy stems from the number of women competing, compared to the number of men who do: around sixteen percent of tournament players identify as women, and most of them are children. . From a purely statistical standpoint, you would expect few, if any, women at the far ends of the rankings. Still, that seems like an incomplete explanation for the disparity at the top of the game, which Hou is blunt about. “You can’t deny it, you can’t pretend it doesn’t happen,” she told me, of the lack of women at the top of chess. For years, she was the only one with a chance.

Hou was born in 1994 in Xinghua, a small town near the Chinese coast. As a child, she spotted a chess set in a display case and loved the shapes of the pieces: the sturdy pawns and slender-necked bishops, the crenellated towers and the knights with horse heads. At the age of five, she started playing with other children at a chess teacher’s house and showed enough talent that her parents had enrolled her a year earlier at the local school, which had a chess program. She and her classmates consulted a large chess dictionary and wrote the famous first openings – the Scottish, the Ruy Lopez – on a sheet of paper. Then they would set up their boards, dutifully execute their copied instructions, and launch their savage attacks.

Hou liked to calculate how one movement would cause another, and began to think in terms of sequences. She developed a sense of where to push and when to defend. Her trainer at school could only take her so far, but at a tournament she met an international master and former national champion named Tong Yuanming, who taught chess in Shandong Province, a few hours north. Tong said he would consider taking it. He made Hou sit on a board and made him face his best students, all boys. They had studied chess theory; they knew how to checkmate with only, say, a madman and a knight. Hou didn’t know the finals, but she beat most of them anyway. She was seven years old.

She moved to Shandong with her mother and took chess lessons. Two years later, she joined the national team and her family moved to Beijing. Her parents told her that she could “go back to a normal life” whenever she wanted, but she was not a normal talent. She won the women’s under-ten championship in 2003 and the following year finished the men’s under-ten tournament tied for first place, for third after the tiebreakers. In 2005, she was the youngest player on the women’s team at the World Team Chess Championship in Israel. She lost her first two games and, while sulking, got beaten in the third, despite starting with the white pieces. (The player with the white pieces always moves first, which gives her a slight advantage.) The experience hardened her state of mind, making her more disciplined and professional. She was eleven years old.

Hou’s competitors began to take notice not only of his performance, but also of his disposition. Irina Bulmaga, a contemporary of Hou who lives in Romania, said: “My parents and coaches would always tell me, ‘Look how focused she is during games.’ “Bulmaga, like most young players, struggled to contain her emotions and concentrate throughout matches that could last five hours and were sometimes played back to back. Hou was stoic. “My personality wouldn’t take me to extremes,” she told me. It’s not that she’s never been emotional or distracted, or that she hasn’t felt pressured. It is because these experiences were so rare that she can cite them whenever they happened.

In some ways, China was a great place for a girl to indulge in chess. The International Chess Federation, known by its French acronym, FIDE– has overseen a women’s world championship since 1927. For years it was dominated by the Soviets. Then, in 1991, a young Chinese player by the name of Xie Jun qualified for the final against Maia Chiburdanidze of Georgia, who had held the title since 1978. China had never had a contender for the championship, and the preparation de Xie has become a collective project. The best male players in the country have helped her coach him. She won, becoming a source of national pride and setting a path followed by other female chess champions. For a long time, the best Chinese men and women trained together in Beijing, although that has changed since China placed two men in the top twenty.

When Hou was fourteen, she shared third place in the open section of the World Junior Chess Championship in Turkey and became the fifteenth youngest person to reach the rank of grandmaster. Later that year, she reached the final of the Women’s World Chess Championship and finished second. She has developed a reputation on tour for her kindness and mental toughness. In 2010, she returned to the final and entered her fourth game with just a draw to win and lose. It was one of the rare occasions when a game happened to him. That night, she walked with her mother and her trainer in the garden of their hotel until she calmed down. The next day, in the tiebreaker, she crushed her opponent and compatriot Ruan Lufei. At sixteen, Hou was the youngest female world champion in history and one of the best teenage players in the world. It was possible to imagine other peaks that she could climb. But Hou had his own ambitions.

The most famous chess player in the world does not exist. Beth Harmon, the protagonist of “The Queen’s Gambit”, is a fictional character, invented by novelist Walter Tevis, in 1983, and recently given new life in a Netflix mini-series. Harmon conquers the chess world of the fifties and sixties and faces only the mildest sexism along the way. The Hollywood version of her story, while fanciful in many ways, evokes the glamor of Lisa Lane, who became a media sensation in the early ’60s but left the game in 1966 unhappy with the emphasis on her looks and love life, and unable to make a living as a pro. Lane was a two-time National Women’s Champion, but never beat the best women in the world, let alone the best men. (Tevis also appears to have been inspired by Bobby Fischer, the eccentric American champion, who was a chauvinist.)

Shortly after the publication of Tevis’ novel, three women emerged whose stories rivaled those of Harmon. They were sisters from Hungary: Susan (née Zsuzsa), the eldest; Sofia (née Zsófia); and Judit, the baby of the family. Their father, László Polgár, believed that geniuses are made, not born, and set out to prove it. He kept his daughters on a strict educational schedule that included studying chess for up to six hours a day. There was also a twenty minute period devoted to telling jokes.

“We say ‘Thar she’s blowing’ — not ‘Ooh, look, the whales.’ “
Caricature by David Borchart

In 1950, FIDE had regularized the titles applied to the best chess players, and created a title only for women: Woman International Master. The bar was two hundred points lower than that of a standard international master, the title below Grandmaster. Twenty-six years later FIDE introduced the title of Woman Grand Master and placed this title also at a lower threshold not only that of Grand Master but also that of International Master. Polgár wanted to protect his daughters from the ill effects of low expectations: the sisters sought out titles available to men, and with few exceptions, they avoided women’s tournaments.

Some of the men they were playing didn’t want to shake their hands. One, after losing to Susan, threw pieces in her direction. In 1986, when Susan was seventeen, she should have qualified for a regional tournament for the World Chess Championship, based on her result in the Hungarian national championship, but the Hungarian federation, angry with her insistence on playing men, refused to send it. FIDE finally intervened, officially opening the future world championships to female competitors. Susan became the third woman to win the title of Grand Master. Sofia, who at the age of fourteen won a tournament against respected Grandmasters in spectacular fashion, rose to the level of International Masters. Judit eclipsed them both.

A little girl with long red hair and striking gray eyes, thirteen-year-old Judit had a chance to break Bobby Fischer’s record for the youngest grandmaster in history, and Illustrated sports ran a story about her. “It is inevitable that nature will work against it, and very soon”, the world champion Garry Kasparov told the magazine. He added: “She has fantastic chess talent, but she is, after all, a woman.” Polgár breaks Fischer’s record; two years later she beat Boris Spasski, former world champion. The first time she played Kasparov, in 1994, he changed his mind about moving a song after raising his hand, breaking the rules; Polgár eyed the referee questioningly, who appeared to see the infraction but did nothing. Kasparov won that game and, for seven years, every other game they’ve played except for a handful of draws. Then, in 2002, at a tournament in Moscow, she faced him in a game of quick chess. The format gave each player about half an hour to complete their moves. At that time, Polgár was ranked No. 19 in the world. Kasparov was still No. 1. Playing with the black pieces, he deployed a defense that was unusual for him, and Polgár, an aggressive and psychologically astute player, noted that he opted for a line that his rival Vladimir Kramnik had once used against. him. Seeing what was to come, Polgár took control. With his towers doubled to seventh and chasing the exposed king of Russia, Kasparov resigned.


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