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

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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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jonkm jonkm 12/4/2017 12:53
In the end it's her decision to be a more well-rounded person. Chess is a narrow focus that requires sacrificing other possibilities.
Aighearach Aighearach 9/15/2017 12:45
oldsalt7: You can keep your salt, sorry, being narrow minded or having a life filled with only narrow interests is not manly or masculine, it is only your own personal choice.
oldsalt7 oldsalt7 9/13/2017 07:11
'Never really worked hard' or ' I want my life to be rich and colourful, not narrow'. Etc etc. Ok. Nothing wrong with that. But it is man's trait to tread the narrow paths and women generally like to be more expansive. Perhaps that explains why there are more male chess players around from GM,s to enthusiastic Patzers!.
Alan Smith Alan Smith 9/13/2017 02:20
"She told me she never really worked extremely hard," said Vladimir Kramnik, the third-ranked player in the world. "And, of course, that's a big compliment to her -- never working like the professional male top players are doing and yet achieving so much."

Kraminik was repeating what Hou told him... he was not insulting her in the least.
NimzoCapa NimzoCapa 9/13/2017 01:53
The full Kramnik quote from the article is:

"She told me she never really worked extremely hard," said Vladimir Kramnik, the third-ranked player in the world. "And, of course, that's a big compliment to her -- never working like the professional male top players are doing and yet achieving so much."
Magic_Knight Magic_Knight 9/13/2017 02:38
Yeah, I can see how some would take Kramnik's comments as an insult. But in actuality it's quite the complement. And along those lines, if Kramnik is right about the level of her pure talent - then I can't wait to see the records she will break once she puts in the study time. She would easily make the top 10 in the world, if not more.
Frederic Frederic 9/12/2017 11:32
@exo: What Kramnik meant was that she has not put in the massive, systematic, well-organized and well-supported effort that most of her (male) colleagues have done. She didn't have the chance, plus her general interests are too wide. She spent a week in my house last October, immediately before her match against Nigel Short, and she did absolutely no chess during that time -- only applications to Universities, background research for her study plans, and general discussions on any subject you brought up (biology, medicine, politics, gender, astronomy, anything). My opinion, which has been confirmed by one of the best trainers in the world (who worked with her): she is cruising mainly on talent. Kramnik thinks that if she does nothing more she will remain the best female player in the world; if she can organize herself to do systematic training she can climb to the top or close to the top of the all-player scale.
ex0 ex0 9/12/2017 10:28
I guess i know why she never broke 2700 ages ago and has 'dawdled' around 2650~ for ages now.. it's only recently that she got back to the high 2600's, she was like 2620~ for awhile too. But yeah. I dunno why Kramnik can say "She has never really worked extremely hard", as that sounds highly belittling of her hard work.

Or what, everyone who decides to study and play chess professionally has also never 'worked extremely hard at chess' or it's impossible to? So i guess all the other chinese players(men) have also never 'worked extremely hard', including Wang Hao, Wei Yi, Yu Yangyi etc(all of whom i believe were, or still are currently studying)? I doubt Kramnik would make the same comments about them "never having worked extremely hard", no? Way to sound sexist or elitist(ie if he made that comment due to her being under 2700 and not about the men since they are 2700+) Kramnik. haha -_-
benedictralph benedictralph 9/12/2017 10:23
Even the very top professional chess players should have a decent education to fall back on.