ESPN portrait of the strongest female player

by ChessBase
9/12/2017 – "She has never really worked extremely hard," said Vladimir Kramnik, "and, of course, that's a big compliment — never working like the professional male top players and yet achieving so much." Chinese GM Hou Yifan, the greatest female talent in chess today, wants her life to be to be "rich and colorful, not narrow." In 2012 she enrolled in Peking University, and is now scheduled to do a course at the University of Chicago. Read all about her in this extensive ESPN article.

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The exceptional genius of Hou Yifan

Read the full article on the ESPN.com

Hou's talent was undeniable from an early age. At 3 years old, she was beating her father and grandmother. By age 5, she was working with a professional coach... It soon became clear that Hou was unlike the other chess players her age. For one thing, she was far better than they were. Her natural skill was enough to overpower even the hardest-working competitors. But more important, Hou recognized a fundamental difference of personality between herself and her peers: While other players shunned the world outside of chess, Hou embraced it. Even while traveling and competing, she continued to pursue her studies, sampling a wide array of subjects and disciplines, from science and politics to social entrepreneurship and business. For her, chess was a window into the wider world. "There are two different personalities," she said. "Some players only see chess, but others see chess in all things — beauty, fashion, strategy. I'm clearly the second type."

In 2012, Hou chose to attend Peking University, one of China's top universities, to study international relations. It was an unusual move for a rising chess star; most forgo higher education to train and compete full time. Her coach strongly disagreed with the decision. "Use your best years for chess," he told her. "Improve as much as you can." For Hou, the choice was about forging a life beyond chess. "I want my life to be rich and colorful, not narrow," she said. "I knew it would impact my chess, but that's how I wanted to live my life."

At university, Hou continued to train and compete. But chess was not her priority: She took a full course load, joined several extracurricular activities and devoted as much time as possible to meeting people outside her sport... After graduating in 2016, Hou took yet another step away from chess by applying for a master's program in social work at the University of Chicago. She saw a future for herself, one in which she was working with disadvantaged communities to effect change at an international level. It was an intoxicating vision, the fulfillment of years of hard work and devoted study — but in July she deferred acceptance for a year to keep pursuing chess full time, determined to prove she could compete with the very best if she put in the time...

Thus far, Hou has relied on natural talent and intuition to carry her forward. "This very natural feeling of the game is hard to describe," Kramnik said. "She doesn't need to calculate, to come logically to a certain good move — she just feels it. That's a sign of big talent. I experienced something similar when I played [world champion] Magnus Carlsen for the first time... If she wants to stay the best female player, she can probably do nothing. If she wants to achieve her potential, she must concentrate fully on chess, at least for the next few years. But she has to choose — she can't study and compete. It's just too tough — the competition is too tough."

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