Hou Yifan, a Chinese chess prodigy

by ChessBase
2/5/2009 – If a player were to be awarded a prize for an overall most successful year, then 2008 would most certainly belong to Hou Yifan. The 14-year-old Chinese girl with two trademark hair clips in her hair, has been gracing many of the major high class tournaments. Her impressive performances at most of them culminated in the GM title and a 2620 performance in Wijk aan Zee. Portrait and interview.

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On the current FIDE rating list (women) Hou Yifan has shot to the third place with a rating of 2571, only behind Judit Polgar (HUN, 2693) and Humpy Koneru (IND, 2621). We do not wish to indulge in debating the gender question in chess, but it would seem that Magnus Carlsen, the young phenomenon in the ‘male’ chess has a counterpart in the world of women’s chess.

Hou Yifan in Budapest, July 2008

A recapitulation of last year’s events in which Hou Yifan participated starts with the Corus tournament in Wijk aan Zee, Holland, in January. Her noteworthy performance of 2598 in the Group B includes a win over GM and former World Champion contender Nigel Short.

Hou is she? 13-year-old Hou Yifan in round two of Wijk aan Zee 2008

The Aeroflot Open in Moscow followed in February where she got her first GM norm, with a performance of 2605.

Yifan at the Aeroflot Open in February 2008, juat before her 14th birthday

In March she particularly shined at the 1st Atatürk International Women Masters Chess Tournament  in Istanbul, Turkey. In a strong competition  which included former women world champions Pia Cramling and Zhu Chen, she did not lose a single game and won the tournament a full point ahead of the field, with a performance of 2674.

Yifan receiving the trophy for the Atatürk International from the Turkish Sports Minister Murat Basesgioglu

In April she participated at the 2nd Ruy Lopez Chess Festival in Merida, Spain where she suffered a slight decline finishing only seventh out of eight players – only to rebound in May-June at the Chinese Championship in Beijing becoming the Chinese Women's Champion for a second time.

In July, driven by the desire to speed her up on her path towards the GM title, the Chinese Federation arranged for Yifan to participate at the renowned First Saturday tournament in Budapest, Hungary. The coveted norm eluded her by just half a point.  This was quickly recouped the following month. In August, for the first time in her career, she decided to compete in the boys’ section at the World Junior Chess Championship in Gazientep, Turkey. Her performance of 2661 and shared 3-7 place provided her with a second GM norm.

Yifan and her mother sightseeing in Gazientep, Turkey

At the Women's World Championship, August-September in Nalchik, Russia, Yifan particularly impressed by saving games with virtuoso endgame techniques. She only narrowly lost the championship title to Alexandra Kosteniuk.

"Hou do you think will win the Women's world Championship?"
asked Nigel Short at the start of the event. Yifan almost did.

At the 1st World Mind Sports Games in Beijing in October she was a member of the Chinese team which won the silver medal in the Women's Teams Blitz event and the gold medal in the Women's Teams Rapid event. Paired with Ni Hua they won the gold medal in the Mixed Pairs Rapid event. She won the bronze medal in the Women's Individual Blitz event.

The Cap d'Agde Rapid tournament in France followed in October-November where she was part of a very illustrious group of top players including Ivanchuk, Carlsen, Radjabov, Nakamura and Karpov. She won the second tie-break but lost to former world champion Anatoly Karpov in a tie-break and unfortunately did not reach the qualifying stage.

November was the time of the 38th Chess Olympiad in Dresden, Germany. Yifan played at the first board for the Chinese women's team. She won bronze as an individual 1st board prize. It was during the Olympiad that FIDE has approved her final GM norm and title.

Board 1 prize winners in Dresden: second IM Martha Fierro Baquero, 2361, Ecuador 7.5/8 (performance 2613); first: GM Maia Chiburdanidze, 2489, Georgia, 7.5/9 (performance 2715!); third: WGM Hou Yifan, 2578, China, 7.5/11 (performance 2563)

What an envious jet-set lifestyle of a successful chess player! And already from the beginning of this year the cycle started rolling all over again. Yifan has only just finished competing in the prestigious Corus tournament in Wijk aan Zee, where for a second time she played in the group B. She held strenuously throughout the event against very strong opponents and emerged with 6/13, including notable wins over Sasikiran, Valejo Pons and Mecking, and draws against Short, Navara, Caruana and D’Ami. Another hard working year for a young chess professional is on its way.

I met Yifan and her mother Wang Qian last year in Budapest and conducted an interview, which she had granted me in her ever friendly and courteous manner.

Diana Mihajlova and Hou Yifan in Budapest (Photo: Benjamin Chen)

Her seriousness at the board flares up in a serene smile and she joyfully welcomes the opportunity to socialize and make friends. We have spent a very pleasant, chatty summer afternoon along the banks of the Danube. Yifan is great company; she is friendly, spontaneous and charmingly polite. She makes an honest effort to express herself in English but she is not yet confident enough. I was greatly helped by Benjamin Chen, an American/ Chinese living and teaching in Budapest, himself a keen chess player, who acted as our interpreter.

Benjamin Chen, Yifan and Wang Qian in front of the famous Hungarian Houses of Parliament

Competing in the GM group of a First Saturday event in Budapest Yifan scored 9/12 missing a GM norm by just half a point. This elusive ‘half a point’ has been a bad destiny for many a player coming to try their luck at the First Saturday tournaments in Budapest. I mention this to Yifan trying to sense how she feels about the missed opportunity.

‘It doesn’t bother me at all’, she says. ‘Not at all!?’ I obviously sound incredulous, and so her mother offers an explanation: ‘Yifan has a good inner strength and is not bothered by a loss now and then. She just lets it go.’ How lucky! I feel envious of such freedom. But then again, why should a paltry ‘half a point’ bother her? She did not manage on this occasion, but time is on her side. Yifan is only 14! 

Hou Yifan at the July 2008 First Saturday tournament in Budapest

How did you start your chess career? – "I started as a hobby, at school, where the kids were given an opportunity to play chess in the free school time. I was about six." Her mother adds: "The school coach very quickly noticed that Yifan had talent and urged her to play. He helped her to start her chess career."

So did you first start playing in some school competitions? – "No, I first played in a bigger competition in my town."

What about your home town? Is it far from Beijing? – "It is a little town in the Tai Zhou province. If we take a train it is about twelve hours from Beijing." Our interpreter, who had already had a brief chat with them, pre-empted me helpfully: "I think that she lives in Beijing now". Actually Yifan has been living in Beijing for the last five years. She likes living in the capital because it offers her greater opportunities than her little birthplace. "Also the Chinese Chess Federation helps me a lot," she says.

After Yifan’s unusual talent had caught the attention of the school coach she was whisked to youth tournaments around China, where she confirmed time and again her extraordinary skills. Soon her foray into international chess tournaments started. In 2003, when she was nine, she won the first place in the girls' under ten section of the World Youth Championships in Halkidiki, Greece, scoring 9.5/11.

Following this success the Chinese Chess Federation stepped in to offer practical support. The officials decided that ‘little Yifan’ or ‘the big headed doll’ – the pet name she has been given because she is the youngest among them – deserved all possible assistance. In consultation with her parents they concluded that it would be much more beneficial if she and her family moved to Beijing where more opportunities would open up and the Federation could monitor and support her success more effectively. The Federation helped the family with the move and initial accommodation in the capital. First only the mother and daughter moved to Beijing and later, after sorting out his job duties, her father joined them. Yifan’s father eventually managed to continue his job as a magistrate, but her mother, a nurse, has abandoned her profession and assumed a role of a travelling companion to her prodigy daughter. 

Yifan’s life has changed drastically and become an endless travelling experience at ever more prestigious chess events. I ask Yifan’s mother: Are you happy to accompany your daughter at her numerous tournaments? Does it not make you tired? Wang Qian smiles happily: ‘Not at all. The hardest thing is the jet lag. But apart from that I like it very much. How else would I have visited so many places in the world!?’

Do you always accompany Yifan to tournaments? – "At international tournaments I am almost always with her. If it is not international, within China, she mostly travels with her coach."

You must be very be proud of your wonderfully talented daughter!? – With our interpreter we got stuck briefly at the meaning of the word ‘proud’, which carries some negative connotations and apparently in Chinese does not have a literal translation. After some deliberations among themselves, Wang Qian, having grasped the meaning of the word, flashed her contagious smile and, rejecting resolutely whatever negativity the word might imply, declared imperatively: "Of course, I am proud!"

Proud of each other: Mother and Daughter

What about school? With all your tournaments around the globe you don’t have much time for school, do you? – "For the time being I don’t go to school. I try as much as possible to do some home schooling. I study a bit by myself."

What are your intentions about acquiring further academic education? Or… as a grandmaster you probably don’t care much about school? – Yifan laughs at the ‘don’t care about school’ attitude. But she composes quickly. "If I have a chance I would like to go to university."

What would you like to study? – "Maybe… maybe…"  She seems caught unaware. Studying prospects have obviously not been much on her mind and she was trying to ‘decide’ there and then. I felt compelled to ease her helpless search for words:

You don’t know. You have not decided yet? – With a relief she says: "No, not yet!"

I turn to her mother: What do you think about your daughter dedicating her early life to chess and missing out on school? – "I am not really worried about that. She studies a lot in her own time; she reads a lot of extracurricular books. And… she has a mind of her own; she can decide what and when, if she wants to study."

Is there any secret behind your extraordinary progress? You are obviously very talented, but what else? – "My coach helps me a lot. Apart from that… I am not sure…"

Who is your coach? – "My coach is the Chinese Federation’s president who helps all Chinese players. But I also have as my personal coach, GM Ye Jiangchuan." 

Do you work very hard? Do you spend a lot of time on preparation before a tournament? – "I check my opponents’ games. But…(she laughs) I don’t really work very hard at all." Yifan was keen to convince me that she hardly prepares before a specific game and that at tournaments she mainly plays by instinct. Yes, she works regularly with her coach, but she never spends much time immediately before a particular tournament or game.

What would you say was your greatest success so far? – She again appears confused by my question. I am trying to help: Maybe Wijk aan Zee…? " Maybe…" she is still puzzled and searching for an answer. Ah, probably the tournament in Turkey?, I press further remembering her winning the Atatürk super-tournament. "Ah, yes!" She seemed to have just realized. You don’t remember your best tournaments?! This one was quite recent though… "I have not been thinking about that question. I take every tournament as a fresh challenge."

Yifan, highly engaging and helpful, analyses her win against Erik Kislik (USA)

Your successful chess career makes you travel a lot. Which place have you found most interesting? – "I like travelling very much. Paris is my favourite city. I played there in the France-China match in 2006. I would like to go again to Paris."

But playing chess does not really allow much time for making new friends. – "I still have some friends. But now a bit less. Not so many as when I was going to school." Her mother joins in: "When she plays chess she is very focused. But when she has a free time she likes to meet up with her friends and go out. And she is as passionate about that!"

In your family are you the only one that plays chess? – "Yes."

What is your next tournament? – "Maybe the World Youth Championship in Turkey. I would play in the boys’ section."

Would it be a bit boring to play with the girls? – "No, but I want to try something else. I want to challenge myself. I want to try the boys."

Your current ultimate goal is to become a GM, isn’t it? (In the meantime she has received the title) – "Maybe." Why ‘maybe’? "Okay, it is. (She laughs.)

What do you think will change for you when you become a GM? – "I don’t know about what will change, but if I become a GM it will be a great accomplishment, then I will see… " Probably more invitations for higher level tournaments? – "I hope so." More money? (Both mother and daughter burst laughing.)

Yifan, Wang Qian and Benjamin frolicking on the Budapest’s Parliament Square

Benjamin proved not only an excellent interpreter but also a good entertainer with very pleasant and humorous manners. The three compatriots bonded splendidly on a foreign soil.

For the time being I suppose you are fully concentrated on chess. But do you have any other ambitions? Do you want to be only a chess player? – "I don’t know. For now I want to learn more about chess."

I imagine you would like to go as far as your chess career can take you? – "Yes, I do." I wanted to know if her mother was alright about that. Wang Qian said: "For as long as she is happy I will support her."

On the last day in Budapest our little company gathered for a relaxed meal and more chit-chat

Over lunch Benjamin got well into a party mood and cheekily asked the ‘forbidden’ question: Do you have a boyfriend? Here the little girl buried her head into her mother’s chest giggling with embarrassment. But she recovered almost immediately and with a contrasting seriousness said: "I don’t have time to even think about it!" It is endearing to follow Yifan’s swings from sweet childish innocence to a maturity unusual to her age.

I was puzzled by the little metallic cup with a neat cover which she puts by the chess board as soon as she sits down to play. It sits there throughout the game, between the captured pieces. At lunch the ‘magic’ cup popped up on the table again and I had a chance to peek inside. It contains Chinese red chestnuts and other exotic nuts. Originally they would have been dry and small but now they were swollen from being kept for some time in water. Do they have some special property to enhance the brain power? – "Oh, no, unfortunately!" Yifan laughs, "they only serve to enhance the water; they give it special flavour. No dope!"

Deep in thought, Yifan has discovered an exciting move. The silver
drinking cup next to her accompanies her at every game.

Have you studied games of old grandmasters? – "A little bit."

Who is your favourite? – "Bobby Fischer."

Have you studied most of his games? – "Nooo! I wish."

Why do you like best Bobby Fisher? – "He was the best player."

Do you take an inspiration from Judit Polgar? – "I respect her very much and I would like to learn from her."

Do you play a lot on the internet? – "Not a lot. I prefer to spend more time with my coach and study from books."

Do you have any free time? What do you like to do in your free time? – "I sometimes meet with my school friends, but now there is not much chance for that. I go to cinema when I can and like to read books. I also like very much to jump with a rope."

Hou Yifan last week, at the end of the 2009 Wijk aan Zee tournament...

and after her final game, in the press room (photo John Nunn)

Final standings at the Wijk aan Zee 2009 tournament: GM Group B

Hou Yifan scored 6.0/13 points and performed at a level of around 2620 in Wijk.

At her tender age Hou Yifan has already paved her way to the heights of today’s chess. She has her GM title in her pocket, but Yifan is there for greater achievements. She is already close to the ranks of Judit Polgar and predictions voiced by many that she may even surpass as the best ever female chess player are not exaggerated.


About the author

Diana Mihajlova is a chess player and artist who has been exhibiting internationally (under the name Yana Mitra) since 1988. She was born in Macedonia (former Yugoslavia). A linguist by profession she started her working career as a university lecturer, which took her to extensive studying and working sojourns in various countries around the world. In 1989 after finishing a three-year lecturing contract in Perth, Australia, she decided to abandon her academic career and to dedicate herself to a full-time painting while still free-lancing in the languages field. She first started exhibiting while still in Australia where after winning some important national art prizes her work received a quick recognition and was included in important exhibitions and collections. After her return to Europe she continued her painting career by exhibiting in galleries in Paris, where she lived the following two years. Since 1993 she settled in London where she currently lives and works. You can see her paintings at the Yana Mitra web site.

Reports about chess: tournaments, championships, portraits, interviews, World Championships, product launches and more.


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