Hou Yifan Interview: 'Competing With Top Males Is Talent And Opportunity'
Hou Yifan. Photo: Maria Emelianova / Chess.com.

Hou Yifan Interview: 'Competing With Top Males Is Talent And Opportunity'‎

DavidC2
DavidC2
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273 | Chess Players

Hou Yifan, the youngest women’s world champion in history, tells David Cox about her journey to become one of the strongest female players of all time. Find out her thoughts on a "battle of the sexes" match against Magnus Carlsen, and why she’s determined to combine her ambition to crack the 2700 rating barrier with her academic pursuits

Since the official FIDE rating list was first published in July 1971, just three women have ever made it into the world’s top 100: Judit Polgar, Maia Chiburdanidze, and Hou Yifan. Why chess, giving no obvious gender advantages, is still dominated by male players has long been a matter of intense debate, but Hou is regarded as a special talent.  

A child prodigy, she became a grandmaster at just 14—the youngest female player in history to do so—going on to become the second-strongest female player of all time, with her peak rating of 2686 surpassed only by Polgar. But while Polgar famously achieved her success while eschewing women's-only competitions, Hou has taken her own path.

Hou Yifan. Photo: Maria Emelianova / Chess.com.
Hou Yifan. Photo: Maria Emelianova / Chess.com.

The interview was conducted via phone, and text may have been edited for clarity or length.

I play chess for myself, no one else.

Chess.com: Do you think that a female player could become world champion in the future?

Hou Yifan: Theoretically, there should be a possibility that a woman can compete for the title in the future, but practically I think that the chances of this happening in the next few decades are very small. I do think the average rating of female players could improve, but the gap between the top women right now and the players competing for the world title is really quite large. But if you look at any sport, it’s hard to imagine girls competing at the same level as men.

But why is that the case in chess, given that there appear to be no obvious advantages of being a male player? Is it simply a matter of statistics? Far more men play, and so the chances are that someone with the natural attributes to become a 2800+ player will be a man rather than a woman?

This is true, but it’s just one of many reasons, and I’m not sure which one is the most important. I think there is a physical aspect because chess exhausts a lot of energy, especially when games last 6-7 hours, and here women could be more disadvantaged. But in general, I think women train less hard at chess compared to men while they’re growing up.

In China, girls tend to think more about university, and then things like family, life balance...while boys are more focused and persistent on that one thing. This makes a big difference. The ones who put greater effort in achieve better results. But I also think there are external factors too.

Growing up, female players are told, "If you win the girls’ title, we’ll be really proud of you, and this is a great job!" It’s unlikely that any of them were told, "No, you should be fighting for the overall title!" Girls are told at an early age that there’s a kind of gender distinction, and they should just try their best in the girls' section and be happy with that. So without the motivation to chase higher goals, it’s harder for girls to improve as fast as boys as they grow up.

Do you think there are any intrinsic differences between how men and women approach chess?

I’m just speculating but I wonder whether there is a gender difference when it comes to natural intuition or feel for the game. Because to me, in all aspects of life, sometimes women and men tend to see the same thing from completely different perspectives, and that also comes into chess. I suspect that the male perspective on chess favors men, perhaps when it comes to the emotional aspect of the game and making practical and objective decisions. To put it simplistically, I think male players tend to have a kind of overview or strategy for the whole game, rather than focusing too much attention on one part of the game. It could be interesting to explore this further. I need to do more research to answer this properly!  

You and Judit Polgar are by far the two strongest female players ever to have played the game. What has enabled you to buck the trend, go on to reach the higher echelons of the game and compete with top male players?

I think it comes down to a combination of talent and opportunity. If you get more chances when you’re younger and better training conditions, it’ll be easier to improve faster and further. Some of the girls are probably lacking some of these conditions. When I was seven, I got the opportunity to move to another province to study chess with a grandmaster. And then after I won the World under-10 girls' title in 2003, I got invited to the national training center, which earned me opportunities to play tournaments all over the world, and then more tournament organizers noticed me and invited me to strong international tournaments.

So even as quite a young girl, I was already playing 2700+ GMs. Later on, I got invitations which allowed me to play Magnus, Fabiano, and many other top-10 players while otherwise, I would have encountered them very rarely. And this precious practical experience has really helped me improve.

Tell us more about that experience of leaving home to another province at the age of seven. How hard was that for you?

Initially I left my parents behind. I was living at the home of a local chess player, but I was also too young and curious about this new world to be suffering too much. But it wasn’t a boarding school; it was just a chess club and so there wasn’t anyone taking care of my daily life. After two weeks my mother made the decision to quit her job in a hospital and accompany me. From then on, she came to most tournaments, especially important ones, which helped me a lot as a person. There are lots of stories of Chinese athletes who get into the national team at a young age, grow up with their teammates and only see family a few times a year. Psychologically this isn’t ideal. I was lucky enough to always grow up with family support.

From a psychological perspective, how do you feel this support helped you?

One thing which has been very important to my success is my mental mindset. I have a relatively positive and quiet one, and while I’m not the kind of person that spends 10 hours per day studying chess, when I do study, I can be fully concentrated for 4-5 hours, and I maximize that time. I think this is because I play chess for myself, no one else, so I know that if I’m going to do this, I want to try my best. I think that comes because my parents don’t care so much about my chess development; they care more about me as a person.

Hou Yifan. Photo: Maria Emelianova / Chess.com.
Hou Yifan. Photo: Maria Emelianova / Chess.com.

I heard that for a period growing up, your chess career was interrupted by an epidemic crisis. Can you tell us more about that?

After I moved to that new province when I was seven, I was supposed to stay there training for longer, but 2003 was a very difficult year for the Chinese people due to the SARS crisis. It wasn’t one of the areas of the country where there were the most severe outbreaks, but I just remember one day, my mom and I went to the shopping center and it was quite eerie! There were normally a lot of people, and it was almost empty. Then I realized how severe the situation was, which was quite a scary moment. So we returned to our hometown because there were less people, less transmission risk, and it was considered to be more safe. I only started competing again once the worst of the crisis was over.

Returning to the psychology theme, when you became the youngest women’s world champion ever in 2010, you did so by winning through a month-long knockout tournament. How did your strong psyche help you then?

There was actually a big moment in the final when I realized the importance of psychology. I was playing Ruan Lufei in a best-of-four-games match, and after the first three games I only needed a draw to secure the title. But then I lost the fourth game, which was a huge disaster. You go from having your goal within your grasp, to needing to restart everything going into the rapid playoffs. It was incredibly frustrating and there wasn’t much time to recover and forget about how many drawing chances I missed.

I was lucky that I had my mother, coaches and club president with me, and I remember clearly that we only had this tiny garden in the hotel where we could walk. That evening we just walked around that garden in circles for hours, talking about all kinds of things, but not mentioning chess at all. That worked because I then felt, "Ok, life goes on!" and I went on to win the playoff. If I’d been alone, I don’t think I would have dealt with the pressure in such a good way.

China has increasingly dominated women’s chess since 1990, more than any other country. Why do you think this has been the case?

Historically, one of the Chinese traditions used to be that the strong male GMs would help the female players to prepare for tournaments and train together. It was all arranged by the national federation, and connected with the political system back then. There are such trainers in western countries, but the players will either need to pay for it themselves, or those strong GMs will want to prioritize preparing for their own tournaments. In China, we had a couple of GMs who sometimes sacrificed their own performance to build the Chinese women’s team. I know that some of the male players disagreed with that, but the flexibility of being able to make your own decisions wasn’t huge compared to western democracies at that time.

Has this system now changed? Chinese men’s chess has become so much stronger in recent years, illustrated by Ding Liren’s rise to the very top.

Yes, it slowly disappeared between 2004 and 2010. These days, male GMs are focusing more on their own tournaments, which makes it hard for the female players to improve, but as you say, the men’s performance is now much better. And I think that’s a good thing, as it makes a bigger difference in putting China as a whole team on the global stage. When they won the Olympiad for the first time in 2014, everyone was super happy because it showed that the entire Chinese team is more competitive and well-rounded. But the other reason why Chinese chess is improving is due to the availability of information. What matters these day is how well you handle AI, and use it as a tool to help you improve your playing strength. This is why there are more strong players from relatively new chess countries.

The deeper you go, you realize there’s more things you don’t know.

Hou Yifan. Photo: Maria Emelianova / Chess.com.
Hou Yifan. Photo: Maria Emelianova / Chess.com.

Ding’s peak rating of 2816 makes him the joint 10th-highest rated player in history. How much of a goal is it for you to surpass 2700?

It’s a goal but I would need to improve a lot of things. Firstly I’d definitely need to be more professional than I am now, because while studying at Oxford University over the past year I’ve only played one tournament, a few rapid-play events, some blitz games. With playing so little, I’m not that up to date. If I really want to seriously break this barrier, I need to put more effort in. I think I can still combine high-level chess with my studies but maybe I’d need to spend set periods, like summer break or Easter break playing. If I set up my schedule to include chess study every week, maybe not every day, that would be better than now!

You’ve always made it clear that you have other ambitions outside of chess, while for example Ding is entirely focused on the game. Can you perhaps describe why you see chess differently?

For me, chess is mostly a passion. It’s never a career for me. I love chess; I like to try and explore new stuff, and the deeper you go, you realize there’s more things you don’t know. I really enjoy playing but because it’s a passion; sometimes in tournaments I don’t always make the most practical decisions. I’ve had events in the past where I only need a draw in the last round to secure first place. But if there’s even the tiniest of chances, I still want to fight for a win. So I’ve had experiences where I’ve kept pushing, and ended up being worse and having to struggle for another 4-5 hours to make that draw to win the tournament!

The only other female player in history who has been stronger is Judit Polgar. Would the idea of a Polgar-Hou match ever excite you, a match to decide the strongest woman of all time?

Yes, sure, I would be happy to accept, if there was an invitation for a match like this. Why not?

What about a battle of the sexes match between the women’s world champion and the overall world champion? Could the publicity from, say a Hou-Carlsen match, benefit chess?

I think it could really attract attention, but there would be some big challenges, such as the format of the match. If we’re talking a world-championship-style match, then I think the gap between Magnus and me is currently too big to make this a good idea! Right now it’s 200 points, but if the gap between the top female player and the world champion were 100 points or less, then this could be a serious idea. But if the two players aren’t really at the same level, it wouldn’t be good for chess because after a few games it would get boring for everyone. But if I can improve my rating by 100 points, then who knows? Maybe this should be a long-term goal! 

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