Hou Yifan: was not as easy as people might think

by ChessBase
9/24/2013 – At the age of 12 this extraordinary Chinese chess talent became the youngest player ever to participate in a FIDE Women's World Championship. At 16 she actually won the title, defended it once and then lost it in a knockout tournament, regaining it again last week. "It’s time to look for new things in chess, in studies, in other parts of life," the 19-year-old says in this indepth interview.

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Women’s World Chess Championship Match 2013 between the current World Champion Anna Ushenina of Ukraine and her challenger, Hou Yifan of China (former World Champion 2010-2012), took place from September 11th to 20 in the Taizhou Hotel (Taizhou, China). The time control was 90 minutes for the first 40 moves, followed by 30 minutes for the rest of the game, with an increment of 30 seconds per move starting from move one.

The match was won convincingly by GM Hou Yifan:

Players Rtng
Total Perf. +/–
Anna Ushenina 2500
Hou Yifan 2609

This match was not as easy as people might think

Interview with the Women's World Champion 2013

The interview taken by Anastasiya Karlovich on the day after the decisive seventh game of the Women’s World Championship Match. 19-year-old World Champion Hou Yifan talks about her preparation, her opponent Anna Ushenina, the match and her attitude to chess and life.

Anastasiya Karlovich: When I saw you in Beijing in July during the Grand Prix tournament it seemed you were not really busy with preparation for the match. Was it just my impression?

Hou Yifan: Actually I started my preparation few days after I came back from Tromsø. In total it lasted less than one month. The only difference in my preparation was that I knew my opponent and it was a bit more specific. We didn’t have much time, so we worked on some basic things, some openings.

There is an opinion you don’t really try to outplay your opponent in opening. Do you try to prove you are better in middle game and endgame, same way as Magnus Carlsen does?

Carlsen is famous for being very powerful and much stronger than most of the players in the world in the middle game and endgame. I’m not such a high level player. I believe openings are important, but for me it’s also not the most important part of the game. It’s only the first stage, and then we have two more.

What do you think about your opponent?

I think she is a strong player. We’ve played several games in the past, but for few years we didn’t play at all. I thought if she managed to win the World Championship in knockout it means she is a fighter, she cannot be weak.

After few years break you had a chance to play against Anna during Women Grand Prix in Geneva and you lost that game. What did you feel after? Did you draw any conclusions?

At that tournament I lost not only against her, I also lost to some other players. The most important thing was my bad performance, I was not in a good shape and played just terrible. This game didn’t change my attitude to match, in any case I was going to prepare seriously, as I try to do before any official event. Anybody who plays not only for fun should pay attention to preparation.

How can you explain your results during the last year? Was it in some way connected with the forthcoming match?

I was not in a good shape for a long period. I don’t really know the reason, but I thought it was normal in sense that in some moment it was supposed to happen. You cannot always play well and show great results. It also could happen here, but what can you do about it, except try to do your best to get ready for the tournament. I cannot also say that I pay too much attention to the match and I didn’t care about other tournaments. No, my results were not connected with the match. In 2011 I showed good results before the match with Koneru, so I think I just had a bad period.

Did your results during the last year influence your self-belief?

I’m not the person who cares so much about the results, even though I take chess seriously.

Was this period connected with changes in your life? As I know, you started to study in the university.

Yes, I cannot pay as much attention to chess as I did before, because I have to study as a normal student. The only advantage I have is an opportunity not to attend lessons when I participate in tournaments, but I still have to study myself if I miss anything. Also it depends on professors – if the person is quite strict and pedantic so I cannot miss a lot.

What did it mean for you to play in Taizhou? What do you think about conditions? Is it important to play on “your field” as in football?

In fact, Taizhou is not my native city. I was born in Xinghua, which is one hour by car from here. Xinghua has at least one million inhabitants, and many of my relatives still live there. South of China is not so polluted; there is a fresh air here, better food, vegetables. Of course, while playing here I didn’t need to change my schedule due to time difference, and food was ok for me, but in general I think the organization was more or less the same as for any other chess event.

What was your reaction when you learnt that Khalifman and Korobov [above] were going to help Anna Ushenina during the match?

At first when I saw her team I said, as many other people did: “Wow! Her team is so strong and so powerful!” I thought at that moment: “Maybe I should be more serious about it? Maybe I should do something different?” (smiles) But then after Tromso I just decided to hire a second by myself to help me preparing.

Did you expect the match to finish so quickly?

Well, I was expecting any situation. I expected it would be difficult, or I would have some difficult moments.

Can you tell us which difficult moments you faceed during the match?

The first game was very complicated and the fifth game also.

You believed Ushenina’s team was strong. Why did you repeat Keres Attack in the fifth game? Wasn’t it a bit risky?

It was just reasonable, so I repeated it. How can you know that other surprises are not waiting for you in other variations, other openings? (smiles)

How did it happen that Anna lost three games with the white pieces? Do you think it was because of wrong opening choices?

In first two games there was Nimzo-Indian, my main weapon with black. She didn’t lose those games because of rthe opening. It happened later. I can only say that in the third game there was an obvious mistake made by her.

Are you satisfied with the level of play you showed here?

It’s okay for me, but not perfect. I didn’t make big mistakes, I didn’t blunder, but I also didn’t play precisely sometimes. I had worse positions in the games I’ve mentioned, and I think it was because of my inaccurate play.

You had already won two matches – one in Tirana against Humpy Koneru and another one just one day ago. How can you compare them?

I felt happy two years ago and I feel happy today, because in general I’m glad to win such important tournaments. The match in Tirana was more difficult for me. The last time in the first half of the match I had worse and difficult positions and I tried hard to fight back. This time it was more one-sided. At the same time this match was not as easy as people might think, judging only by the outcome. In Tirana I faced more problems in the openings, compared to this match. But it’s hard to say if I was better prepared in the openings for this match or not.

You had health problems in Tirana. Have you ever had that unknown pain in stomach again?

Sometimes I get sick during the tournaments. During this match I felt okay, but I had problems just few days before the start and had to take some medicines for 4-5 days.

Who was helping you this time?

I didn’t have a team this time, and as I mentioned before that I only hired a second a short time before the match started. Also you may know that GM Ye Jiangchuan is our Chinese team’s chief coach, so when he had time he also helped me a bit. But most of the time he had many other jobs to do besides preparing. That’s why finally I decided to hire a second by myself. And a lot of friends all around the world were helping, me whether with advice in chess or just support. They were cheering me up, and I feel very grateful. I really appreciate their help!

How do you mentally prepare yourself for the games and for the match?

Of course, I considered this match a very important event, but it’s not the most important thing in my life. For me it’s more important to be healthy, to be a happy person in my daily life. I will try to explain another way. Health and happiness means number “1” for me. Achievements, victories are the “zeros”. So I would add those zeros to the number “1”. The total can be 10, 100, 1000, 10000, but without the number “1” it’s nothing. I think my attitude helped me to enjoy the match and feel good. I try not to make it a tragedy if I lose a game. As long as the match is not over I would just focus on following games. In general when you win it doesn’t mean something crazy, if you lose it’s not the end of the world.

A boat trip on a free day during the match

A street scene in Taizhou, in the early evening ...

... and at night

But what if you lost this match?

Yes, I thought about it before the match and for me both cases were acceptable. I know many people contributed to organize this match, I appreciate the help of the government and the organizers, but still all results were possible. I was just trying to do my best and to be optimistic.

What does this title means for you? How is it important for you to get it back after nine and half months?

I’m happy to get the title of the Women's World Champion back. Last year my results were not so good and I hope it’s a signal that I have started to recover.

Do you feel you are the strongest player among women?

No, I don’t. There is no obvious difference in level between me and other players. There are many strong players who have rating over 2500, and against some of them I have a plus, against others balanced results. At the same time I don’t have an opponent among women whom I have difficulties playing against.

Does it bother you that you can lose your title in the next World Championship in a knockout system like it happened to you in Khanty-Mansiysk?

I have no idea if I’m going to play there or not, I don’t have clear schedule for the next year. You may know that I didn’t really want to participate in the World Championship, but had to go to play because of other reasons in the end. I don’t have clear idea which system should be used in women’s chess, but we can compare it with the system in men’s chess. I believe the organization of whole cycle in men chess is more reasonable, fairer. I would be glad if FIDE makes the same system for women chess.

You are young, beautiful and the World Champion! How can you describe your life at the moment?

It’s still long way to go and I have many years ahead to do almost everything I want. It’s time to look for new things in chess, in studies, in other parts of life. I just want to expand my life. Life is wonderful!

Information and pictures by Anastasiya Karlovich, FIDE Press Officer


The games were broadcast live on the official web site and on the chess server Playchess.com. If you are not a member you can download a free Playchess client there and get immediate access. You can also use ChessBase 12 or any of our Fritz compatible chess programs.

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