Throwback Thursday: 17-year-old Hou Yifan ties for first in Gibraltar

by Carlos Alberto Colodro
10/3/2020 – A 17-year-old Hou Yifan, already the women’s world champion at the time, tied for first place with Nigel Short at the main event of the 2012 Gibraltar Chess Festival. Short won the playoff, but Hou’s performance was a milestone in her career, as she proved she could compete neck-in-neck with the very best in the world. Hou also defeated Judit Polgar in their first-ever encounter. | Photos: Zeljka Malobabic / Ray Morris-Hill

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Passing the torch

Hou YifanJudit Polgar is undoubtedly the strongest female player of all time, but since her retirement from competitive chess a new leader emerged among women chess players — Hou Yifan. The Chinese star, born in 1994, is head and shoulders above her competitors in the women’s circuit. In fact, after having all but dominated the Women’s World Championship cycle between 2010 and 2017, she decided to retire from the cycle, first to focus on playing against the best players in the world — men or women — and then to pursue an academic career, which led to her being named the youngest-ever full professor at Shenzhen University.  

Hou only overtook Polgar as the highest-rated female player in the world in the March 2015 FIDE rating list, but she left a strong mark already in 2012, when she defeated the Hungarian in their first direct encounter at the Gibraltar Chess Festival.

Not only that. Hou went on to score 8 out of 10 points for a 2872 Tournament Performance Rating in an event that included the likes of Peter Svidler, Shakhriyar Mamedyarov and Michael Adams. Usually that score should be enough to win the tournament outright, but that year British ace Nigel Short also had a remarkable performance and collected the same amount of points.

As Short has demonstrated once and again, the atmosphere created in Gibraltar helped his sportive results greatly, as he came from finishing in the podium of the event in every participation since 2003. In 2012, he beat Hou in the playoff.

[Photo: Ray Morris-Hill]

Rounds 1-5: A strong start, followed by a loss

Hou was sharing the lead with ten other players in the massive event after four rounds. However, she was the player who had the highest TPR (2900) at the moment, as she had faced third and fourth seeds, Zoltan Almasi and Michael Adams, in consecutive rounds — beating Almasi and drawing Adams.

In round 5, she was paired up against the then 2700-rated Krishnan Sasikiran, who beat her with the white pieces. The fact that Hou lost this crucial game and anyway went on to score 8/10 while also getting the highest TPR speaks volumes about her remarkable fighting spirit.

Hou Yifan, Gibraltar

With the Barbary Macaque monkeys | Photo: Zeljka Malobabic

Hou’s games - Rounds 1 to 5


Select an entry from the list to switch between games

Rounds 6-9: Beating Polgar and Shirov

The big sensation came between rounds 6 and 9, as the young star defeated Mariya Muzychuk, Polgar, Le Quang Liem and Alexei Shirov consecutively. 

Her wins over Polgar, Le and Shirov all featured Sicilian Defences. Note that her games against Polgar and Shirov include expert annotations by Alejandro Ramirez and Simon Williams in the replayable board below. The end of Ramirez’s analysis reads:

A solid effort by Hou Yifan, who was completely merciless after Polgar’s weakening d4 push.

Hou Yifan, Judit Polgar

A clash of generations | Photo: Zeljka Malobabic

Hou’s games - Rounds 6 to 9


Round 10 and playoff: Short’s final sprint

Hou was the sole leader going into the last round, but she had five strong players lurking a half point behind and a tough last-round pairing against second seed Shakhriyar Mamedyarov. She managed to draw the Azerbaijani, but one of the five chasers managed to win and catch up with her in the standings — Nigel Short, who defeated Sasikiran with the black pieces.

As our report from the tournament concluded:

Nigel won the first game of the playoff, in which both players had ten minutes for the whole game and five seconds increment per move. It was a convincing win in a Grand Prix attack, though we must mention that at one stage Yifan had clear winning chances.

In the second game it was all Nigel, whose blitz skills, honed in over 32,000 games on the Playchess server, were clearly visible. With just seconds left on her clock Yifan forced a draw by perpetual and gave Nigel the overall victory in this tournament.

Hou Yifan, Nigel Short

The final handshake | Photo: Ray Morris-Hill

Key games of the final round and the playoff


Final standings - Top 15

Rk. Name Pts.  TB1 
1 Hou Yifan 8,0 2872
2 Short Nigel D 8,0 2838
3 Adams Michael 7,5 2807
4 Mamedyarov Shakhriyar 7,5 2783
5 Bologan Viktor 7,5 2734
6 Sutovsky Emil 7,5 2669
7 Le Quang Liem 7,0 2733
8 Almasi Zoltan 7,0 2730
9 Howell David W L 7,0 2725
10 Sasikiran Krishnan 7,0 2717
11 Movsesian Sergei 7,0 2711
12 Svidler Peter 7,0 2700
13 Negi Parimarjan 7,0 2694
14 Polgar Judit 7,0 2693
15 Laznicka Viktor 7,0 2681

...256 players


Carlos Colodro is a Hispanic Philologist from Bolivia. He works as a freelance translator and writer since 2012. A lot of his work is done in chess-related texts, as the game is one of his biggest interests, along with literature and music.


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