Hou Yifan in Conversation with Domimic Lawson

Hou Yifan in Conversation with Domimic Lawson

Nov 12, 2015, 1:05 PM |


Monday 25 October

The China Exchange is a charity based in Gerrard Street, London, in the heart of China Town. Founded to facilitate cultural exchange and understanding between China and the United Kingdom, its rather plush premises make an ideal setting for meetings, talks and concerts. As part of the Prudential series of talks, the China Exchange invited Hou Yifan who, at 21, is already something of a legend being the youngest women, at 14, to achieve the full GM title, having won the Women’s World Championship at 16 and now being the highest rated women player in the world. Whilst she has not yet reached the level that the now retired Judit Polgar managed at her peak, many experts believe she has that potential.

The talk was in the format of a conversation between Hou and ECF president, Dominic Lawson, followed by questions from the audience. The event was chaired by the very distinguished Sir David Tang, Chairman of the China Exchange, who introduced the stars of the show and then left the floor to them for most of the time, until the Q&A, whilst maintaining a formidable and slightly unnerving presence stage left. A slight problem with the format was that Sir David, as evidenced by his comments and interventions which occasionally elicited audible gasps from the knowledgeable audience, knows very little about chess and, given that he referred to it as a “pastime” in his closing comments, is not perhaps an enthusiast.. This issue became particularly troublesome in the Q&A session as we shall see.

During her discussion with Dominic, Hou talked about her development from a child prodigy, when at the age of 6 she chose chess over the Chinese game Go, and the early acknowledgement of her talents which led to her being coached by some of the foremost trainers in China, most notably, GM Ye Jiangchuan. She has certainly benefitted from being born just at the time when Chinese players, with the support of the state, have over her lifetime moved from being also-rans to the most formidable pool of trained talent since the rise of the USSR and a real threat to the already wobbly Russian hegemony. Unlike many of her male colleagues however, she has refused to dedicate herself to chess to the exclusion of all else, as she values a rounded personality and education above what she clearly views as over-specialisation in one field. On being pressed on this issue by Dominic, she expressed the view that to ensure herself a broader education did not threaten her rise to the top in chess and might even underpin it. She is currently managing to maintain a high-level globe-trotting chess carer with the life of a student at Beijing University where she is in the final year of a degree in International Relations; a subject which was itself suggested to her by her already varied experience of other cultures gained through her chess prowess. Asked whether she intended to pursue a career as a chess professional she agreed that she would play chess for the next few years but was also drawn to a diplomatic career. Suggestions that she might wish to get into FIDE politics were greeted by a somewhat nervous giggle.

When asked about women’s chess it became clear that Hou is at something of a crossroads. Unlike Judit Polgar, she has played in women’s tournaments throughout her career whilst also competing, generally successfully, in the male dominated events. Whilst she has won all there is to win on the women’s circuit and although she is now nudging the overall world top 50, she has yet to claim a major tournament success outside women’s chess. She recently came out as hands down winner of the latest women’s Grand Prix tournament but passed up the chance to play in the “Millionaires” chess event, taking place at the same time which, arguably, might have been more important to her career. Since she is easily the strongest active female player it would seem that she will have to concentrate on “male” tournaments from now on if she is to meet the best opposition and, therefore, gain the experience to reach her full potential.

Come the Q&A, a very interesting question was asked by composition GM John Roycroft about the apparent lack of study composers in China and what this meant for chess development there. The question clearly took Hou by surprise and was well worth pursuing but the topic was not allowed to develop by Sir David who described studies as “boring” and rather bluntly attempted to close the topic, clearly having no idea just how distinguished a questioner he was dealing with. IM Malcolm Pein’s attempt to resurrect the topic later met with a similar response and, therefore, the whole issue was never properly considered, leading to some consternation among audience members and considerable bemusement on the part of Hou.

But it it’s a very interesting question!

China is clearly vying to become the leading chess nation in the world and may well get there in the next decade. What has already been achieved in such a short span of time and the potential of chess in China to achieve even greater things clearly proves that the training methods being adopted have been and continue to be highly effective. That this training does not appear, from Hou’s rather shortened responses, to include in-depth analysis of studies or problems is puzzling as they are acknowledged in the all other successful chess nations as being pretty much essential to the development of a profound understanding of the game. I, for one, would have been very interested in a fuller consideration of this issue and I am certainly left curious as to what training methods are used in China as, whatever they are, they are clearly working!

This gripe aside, the event attracted quite a populous audience, especially given its early start time of 5.30pm, and was both enjoyable and informative. It was a pleasure and privilege to be there, I hope it serves as a blueprint for similar chess oriented events, and I hope all of the events the Chinese Exchange are organising are just as stimulating.


The next day, Tuesday the 26th, Hou Yifan played a 9 board simul against a very strong group of girls in the China Tang Chinese restaurant of the Dorchester hotel London. The girls were aged between 8 and 10 years old, and all came from London and near to London Counties. Whilst Hou managed a 9-0 score, the girls gave a good account of themselves, they clearly enjoyed the experience and learned a great deal. Some particularly interesting games were analysed afterwards by Hou and Malcolm Pein which was a very valuable addition to the event.

English Chess Federation's photo.

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