Yifan on training, travelling and Oliver Twist

1/31/2011 – There is nothing in the slightest bit ordinary about the achievements of Hou Yifan, the Chinese chess prodigy who stunned the world just before Christmas by becoming the youngest ever women's world chess champion at the age of just 16. And yet, In appearance at least, it is a quintessentially ordinary Chinese teenager. Must-read portrait in the Telegraph.

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In appearance at least, it is a quintessentially ordinary Chinese teenager that shuffles in through the door at the Chinese Chess Association in Beijing, feet clad in Nike trainers, colourful scarf draped around her neck and a trendy purple beret holding back neatly bobbed hair. As her mother looks on, Miss Hou greets us with a bright but bashful smile and an easy-going "hiya" showing off the English language skills she's picked up from her travels on the international chess circuit where she has been playing since the age of nine.

"We weren't rich, but we weren't poor either," says Wang Qian, Miss Hou's mother, a 42-year-old nurse, "but you will have heard of China's one-child policy, and like every other parent we were always thinking of ways of to improve our child's development. "There was no dream or great plan, but one day when Yifan was aged five a neighbour's older child taught her how to play draughts (checkers). After only being taught once, Yifan was winning easily against the older child, so we decided to pick on board-games to broaden her thinking. "We took her to a local games club but she always showed fascination in the Western pieces, the horses and the castles," adds Mrs Wang, "so we decided that chess was the one for her. But back then it was only about broadening her mind, and helping her education, we never dreamed we would come so far."

Hou Yifan dismisses the suggestion that her mother was a "Tigermom" in the mould of Amy Chua, the Yale Law professor, whose unapologetic paeon to tough Chinese parenting, Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior, caused such furore recently. "My parents always gave me a choice about playing, but they said that if I wanted to play chess, then I should focus on it completely," she says, adding that such attitudes and parental expectations are simply the norm for Chinese children. The difference is her success.

"I also have my other studies and I still have some time to do other things, like swimming, listening to music and reading books. I love to read. I recently just finished Oliver Twist for my English studies which is a great book."

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