Young cham­pion takes time with her moves

Hou Yi­fan is ranked among world’s best chess play­ers, but the Chi­nese stu­dent is stay­ing grounded, Karen Kwok re­ports.

China Daily (Canada) - - EXPATS -

When Hou Yi­fan won the women’s World Chess Cham­pi­onship at the age of 16 she be­came the youngest com­peti­tor ever to do so. That was in 2010, and in Au­gust last year she made it into the rank­ings of the top 100 play­ers of the World Chess Fed­er­a­tion men and women.

But Hou, of Jiangsu prov­ince, ap­pears not to have let the suc­cess go to her head, and in fact in an in­ter­view with China Daily the 21-year-old seemed non­cha­lant about it all.

“Al­though I am ranked in the top 100, I still have a huge gap to fill when com­pared with the top 10 or top 20,” Hou said.

“I hope that I can im­prove grad­u­ally with the cur­rent pace. But for now it’s noth­ing spe­cial.” Hou said she is keen to pro­mote chess and en­cour­age more women to play.

But she has no grand strat­egy for making that hap­pen, which re­flects her beginnings in chess. She started play­ing when she was 5, she said, quickly dis­cov­er­ing that she seemed to have a nat­u­ral tal­ent for the game, and grad­u­ated to in­ter­na­tional class “by in­stinct”.

“When I was 5 my par­ents wanted me to work on all kinds of mind games, so they took me to the chil­dren’s palace, where I first saw in­ter­na­tional chess. I was at­tracted by the shape of the pieces, and I de­cided to take it up.”

She said she thinks of her­self as be­ing not par­tic­u­larly or­ga­nized, and does not push her­self to prac­tice ev­ery day.

“Prepa­ra­tion is not a pri­or­ity for me. I only prac­tice when I want to. In the past I might have played chess a couple of hours a day ex­cept at the week­end. But now the time is very ran­dom be­cause I’m study­ing.”

When Hou was 7 she had lessons at a chess club in Shan­dong prov­ince, where she met her first coach, one of the top play­ers in China. She im­proved sig­nif­i­cantly and even more coaches were on hand to help en­hance her skills when she be­came a mem­ber of the na­tional team.

“I was very lucky to get good train­ing when I was young. They pro­vided me with a lot of op­por­tu­nity to prac­tice. They also used lots of in­ter­est­ing sto­ries or ex­am­ples from their pre­vi­ous com­pe­ti­tion to ex­plain the game. … As I grew older I got less train­ing.”

Study­ing in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions at Pek­ing Univer­sity, it is hard for her to prac­tice chess ev­ery day or pre­pare for matches, es­pe­cially when there is course work to do or ex­ams loom. She mostly prac­tices on her own, she said.

“If I have noth­ing se­ri­ous to do I will play chess for sure, but it’s not as though I’m con­stantly sur­rounded by chess. There’s more to me than that.”

Hou said she usu­ally prac­tices for a month for world cham­pi­onships, and for in­vi­ta­tion games just a few days if time al­lows.

There is no right way of learn­ing the game, she said.

“Even when there are only five or six pieces left on the board, you can­not cal­cu­late all the vari­a­tions. It’s a sport where you need to adapt a mix­ture of prac­tice and the­ory with­out anal­y­sis and fun­da­men­tal the­o­ries.”

In­ject­ing some vari­a­tion in your mind can help save you time dur­ing the game, but mem­o­riz­ing all of them can­not help im­prove one’s chess skills.

“Controlling the time you prac­tice is very im­por­tant. Chess is also a mind sport that con­sumes a lot of en­ergy. It re­quires you to rest more to re­cover. You shouldn’t overdo it.”

She is keen on en­cour­ag­ing more girls and women to play the game, she said, and things are be­gin­ning to change, in China and else­where.

“In China the sit­u­a­tion has im­proved,” she said.

Many of the coun­try’s top uni­ver­si­ties are in­volved in the game, and re­cently there was a chess com­pe­ti­tion be­tween col­leges.

“Chess is go­ing into the world of stu­dents. It’s im­por­tant to the ed­u­ca­tional world.”

For Hou, chess is not only a sport, but also a tool for learn­ing to com­mu­ni­cate and an ef­fec­tive way of en­hanc­ing friend­ships.

“In uni­ver­si­ties around the world, many peo­ple can play chess. My friends from the chess world are not only from China. Some­times we play chess for fun; we just enjoy it.”

Chess also gives her the chance to travel around the world when she is com­pet­ing in in­ter­na­tional tour­na­ments.

“It al­lows me to meet lo­cals and understand their cul­ture. It’s amaz­ing and is one of the best things about play­ing in in­ter­na­tional chess tour­na­ments.’’

But Hou does not en­cour­age chil­dren in China to see chess games as a way to get a bet­ter life or to achieve suc­cess.

“You should fol­low your heart and your in­ter­ests, just like other as­pects in your life. Win­ning is not really my main con­cern. I enjoy the process of the game.

“Some chess moves and strate­gies can really help you understand life bet­ter. For ex­am­ple, the pawn can only move for­ward. It’s like you need to per­form the best in ev­ery step of your life be­cause you can­not re­gret things and go back­ward.

“Chess also teaches you not to give up eas­ily. Per­sis­tence is very im­por­tant when you are par­tic­i­pat­ing in a world tour­na­ment that can last for six to seven hours each game. You need to fight to the end.”

Hou has strong views on the abil­ity of males and fe­males to play the game.

“The truth is that men play bet­ter than women, as you might no­tice that of the top 100 most are men.

Men per­form bet­ter than women, just like in most of the phys­i­cal sports in the world.” Men have more stamina than women, she said.

“You should have a clear mind through­out the game, so you can find the right move im­me­di­ately even un­der the pres­sure of time. But if you are ex­hausted you can­not con­cen­trate and re­act quickly.”

How­ever, Chris­ter Gerdes, an an­a­lyst of chess play­ers’ be­hav­ior across gen­der at Stockholm Univer­sity, said he doubts that phys­i­cal strength is sig­nif­i­cant in play­ing chess.

“I think there are other as­pects that play a ma­jor role other than the phys­i­cal, not least the en­vi­ron­ment a per­son is born into and self­ful­fill­ing expectations. If women had the same kind of en­cour­age­ment to en­gage and de­velop their tal­ents we would see many more fe­male chess play­ers in the world elite.”


Chi­nese chess player Hou Yi­fan is among the top 100 play­ers of the World Chess Fed­er­a­tion.

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