Hou Yifan: The World Champion title did not change me

11/26/2011 – At 14½ years she became the youngest female grandmaster in history; at seventeen she has already played in three world championships, losing one and winning two. She admits to a burning desire to become stronger in chess, but does not want the game to dominate her life. A day after her match in Tirana she the old and new world champion gave our colleagues this indepth interview.

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Hou Yifan: “The World Champion title did not change me”

This interview was conducted by WGMs Anastasiya Karlovich and Anna Burtasova on the day after the decisive eighth game of the Women's World Championship match. In it the 17-year-old world champion Hou Yifan from China talks about the match, the hospital story, her hobbies and her view on life.

Karlovich + Burtasova: Congratulations on the victory! Can you now reveal some secrets of your preparation? Who helped you?

Hou Yifan: I played European Club Cup which finished at the beginning of October. When I was back to China, I also had to participate in a special gathering for the Mind Games to represent chess. It took a few days. When I came back from there I started my preparation for the match but I had only less than a month left.

How did you prepare?

It was just a normal preparation. First of all I wanted to rest because I played a lot of tournaments recently. I worked on the openings and made some physical exercises. I like swimming so I went to the pool. Here in Tirana I went to the hotel pool once, too.

Who helped you? During the tournament we saw only grandmaster Ye here.

There was no one of the foreign grandmasters. Ye was here from the beginning. Yu Shaoteng, who is my coach for many years, is here too, but he was not here from the beginning. He took part in some competition in China and as it finished only in the middle of the match, he came later.

Did you ever think of using the help of foreign grandmasters?

I never thought of foreigners to help me. Usually our chess federation decides on such things. I also have a coach in China so he decides together with the federation and I follow their advice.

We saw you in a good mood smiling before every game, although the match is very tough. How can you combine this with concentrated play?

You can see it before the game or after the game but not during the game – during the game I am concentrated. But besides the board I want to be in my natural mood. I also like to smile for journalists when they make pictures because I think it is good for media.

Did something in your life change when you became world champion for the first time in December 2010?

In my opinion the World Chess Champion title did not change me. Like before, I try to practice chess and study something new, study English, read books and meet with friends. Maybe after I won the title for the first time I had a period with many interviews, especially in China. In that time I was busy with this attention. But in my mind nothing changed.

Did you always have this desire to become world champion?

I believe that every professional player has this goal, so if you have decided to go this way, you should try your best. It was my goal but not my final dream.

So what’s you final dream?


Yifan in Jinan in April 2005, when she had just turned eleven

I don’t know. I think that maybe you should not have one. If you want something in life and you reach it, what about the rest of your life? So I believe you should have goals and reach them step but step.

What is your next goal?

Now I just want to improve my play, get a higher rating.

Do you consider yourself a professional?

I have played chess for more than ten years so in some way it is my profession. But it is not the only thing I care for. I agree with Anatoly Kaprov who said “Chess is my life, but my life is not only chess”.

You played two other matches for the world championship. First one was the final of knock-out championship against Alexandra Kosteniuk when you lost, and the other one was against Ruan Lufei in the final of the next knock-out when you won. This match was the third one and the longest one. Which of the three you consider the most difficult?

None of them was easy. The first one, when I played against Kosteniuk, I did not have experience. She played very well in that match. With Ruan Lufei, after I won the first game, I did not play very well in the next games. But this match is different. With Ruan Lufei, for example, I played only four games. Here the match was for the best of ten.

That was special about this match?

I never played such long matches before. But it was okay.

Do you like the match system?

I think the players should like any kind of tournaments. You should not choose what you like but try to prove you are the best in any system.

But if you could choose, which system would you prefer?

There is no system that I prefer, I like to play any kind of competition.

What do you think about your opponent?

I played with Koneru many times before. Her rating is always on the top level. She is a strong player and her opening preparation was also very good. You could see that I spent a lot of time in the openings. It was just that she was making mistakes in the time troubles that decided the match.

Don’t you think her mistakes were also caused by the psychological pressure as you have won a lot of games against her before?

Maybe she felt this way, but for me it was nothing like that. During the game I concentrate on the game and moves, I don’t think about the history of our competition.

Didn’t you feel you needed to improve your openings?

Maybe not only the openings [smiles].

You said before that the preparation is not the most important aspect of the game for you…

Well, it is important. But the first thing is that you should rest well, your head should be fresh.


Exhausted: during the Atatürk Women's Tournament in Istanbul in 2008

So what happened in the hospital – you won two games after you went there…

Actually my coach was joking about this – next days he asked: “What’s the time now? Maybe we should go to the hospital?” In fact I got this pain in the stomach area early in the match, too, but it was not that severe. After the fifth game it happened again, a worse feeling than the previous time. I felt very bad so I thought it was the time to visit the hospital.

There they offered you some pain killers but you did not take them, why?

First thing they did was that they checked everything. And I did not want to use any medication before they declare the exact reason of the pain.

Was it because you were afraid the pills would affect your thinking?

Not really, just I try to use less medicine recently, not only during the match. If I felt really bad, I would have taken the pills of course.

Who is your favorite chess player?

Bobby Fischer. I admire his playing style. I also like that when he got the world champion title he was the only one to compete and win over the hegemony of the Soviet players.

Do you want to play every game for win like Bobby Fischer? For example at Rostov Grand Prix stage a draw was enough for you to be first, but you continued to play your last round game against ex-world champion Stefanova…

In the last game in Rostov I played on because I thought I had some advantage. Normally when I come to the board I don’t have this feeling that I have to win whatever the cost, I just want to play normally, according to the position.

What do you think about Facebook, Twitter?

Yes, I like social networks. I use Facebook when I am abroad because in China it is a little bit difficult as it is banned. There are messengers of the same kind as Twitter in China so I use them.

Did you check all the congratulations with this success that are written on your Facebook wall? There are plenty of them!

I did not have time because there were a lot of journalists from China contacting me through Internet, so I used all the time after the last game of the match to answer them.

Your English is improving with every tournament. Is it your hobby to learn it?

I like to learn English, it is one of my interests. I went to a school with English classes.

Are you interested to study more languages?

Maybe English is enough to use. But if I have a chance in the future, then maybe I would like to study other languages.

Because of the WWCC match you did not join university this year. What do you want to study when you enter it?

When I go to university I will decide, but right now I do not have a clear picture of what I would like to study.


Doing martial art exercises with a master of the Shaolin Temple

What music do you like?

Mostly I listen to Chinese pop music. In recent years I also listen to some English songs. For example, I like the band called “Groove Coverage”. “God is a girl” is one of their most famous songs.

Do you sing during the game?

Not really.

Do you play on ICC, Playchess or other chess servers on Internet?

A long time ago I did, but now I participate in so many tournaments that I do not have any more power to spend my free time playing blitz.

What is your favorite book or the last book you read?

Recently I read a book that is called “Window boy”. It is from an American writer. It is a story about disabled boy who had a dream. From the window near which he was sitting every day he could see the school yard and the basketball team training there. In the end he became the captain of the basketball team. When you read this story, you see that this boy overcame all these difficulties. At one point he almost gave up but still he continued with his dream. A famous basketball player of China wrote about this book that it is for the people who want to reach their goals. My friend from the same sport agency gave me this book.

Do you have any sayings or particular historical figures that inspire you?

I do not remember the names of the people who said different things, but I memorize the sayings. For example, recently I read such a sentence: “You hate today, but the people who died yesterday were hoping for this day to be their tomorrow”.

Photos and news from Tirana by WGMs Anastasiya Karlovich
and Anna Burtasova, with kind permission of FIDE


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