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.
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.