Wang Hao - Profile of a chess prodigy (1/2)

by Diana Mihajlova
3/28/2016 – Every prodigy has their story, how they started, what took them to chess, and more. In this profile and interview, the elite Chinese player Wang Hao is revealed to the readers, from his first steps as a youngster in a country where western chess is a distant third to Go or Chinese Chess, to his fantastic leaps as he became a grandmaster almost overnight. | Photo: Wang Hao's personal archive

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Often, at big, high rated tournaments, grandmasters keep to themselves. They rarely mingle with others. It is a somewhat accepted norm for the ’ordinary’ players to leave them alone. They need their mind clean and rested for their games. Amidst a crowd of strong opponents, each one drawn by the attractive prize fund, every point counts towards the size of the slice.

Wang Hao receiving the winning cup at the Al Ain Classic, 2015 | Photo: Diana Mihajlova

At the latest Al Ain Classic in the UAE (22 – 31 Dec 2015), Chinese GM Wang Hao cut such a typical figure of a solitary GM. At the eighth round, when it was clear that he was a winner, with a round to spare, I approached him, a bit apprehensively, thinking that I would have a hard time breaking the ice, but Wang Hao quickly demolished my preconceptions.

He started quietly, almost cautiously, but soon he warmed up and his usually sombre face and startled look lit up in a serene grin. First on a bench by the hotel entrance, then on a walk under the palm trees that line the alleys along the hotel, our conversation turned into a friendly and animated chat. He is a person with a composed manner but strong convictions. He joins the belief of many that chess does not bode wefor in the company of computers, but he goes a step further and is actually convinced in his own prediction: chess is doomed. (Before the alarm starts sounding too loud, I need to clarify that he refers to 'classical chess’)

Wang Hao in Al Ain, December 2015 | Photo: Diana Mihajlova

First steps

Born in 1989, in Harbin, a large city in northeast China, his chess career started early. At 6 years of age, he learnt chess at his local primary school. He initially was attracted by xiangqi, the Chinese version of chess, but the school’s western chess teacher told him that good western chess players have the opportunity to travel abroad. That swayed him to turn his interest towards chess and to study it voraciously. The results were astounding and unexpected even to himself. 

In the 1999 World Youth Championship, he won bronze in the U-10, after which he was admitted to play regularly in the Chinese Youth Team. This meant that the Chinese Chess Federation would take him under its wing and help him to reside in Beijing. Two or three years later, his parents moved to Beijing as well and Wang Hao’s chess life started in full.

In the early stages of his chess career, he made spectacular progress justifying thus the trust bestowed upon him by the Chinese chess officials. He confirmed his talent by winning the strong Qingdao Zhongfand Cup (July 2002), at the age of12. It would be his earliest big success. A month later, he played on the national team’s fourth board at the Chess Olympiad U-16. The following year, 2003, with excellent results at the Chinese Team Championships (5/7), the World Youth Championships, U-14 (6/9) and the Chinese Individual Championship (6/10).

In the span of just a few months, he accumulated an impressive 210 Elo points to bring his rating to 2425. The following year, 2004, Wang Hao won the youth tournament ’Children of Asia’ with a perfect 5/5 score. The same year, as a 14-year-old, he played on the first board at the U-16 Chess Olympiad winning both team and individual gold (8.0/9).  

The Chinese emerging talents at the 2002 U-16 Olympiad: (from left) Zhao Jun, Wang Yue,
Zhou Weiqi, Wang Hao and Li Chao 
| Photo: Wang Hao's personal archive

Straight to Grandmaster

Wang Hao was still untitled when, in 2005, he won his first major international tournament, the 7th Dubai Open, leaving behind 53 grandmasters and 30 international masters, with 7/9 and a 2731 performance, The same year followed another big success: 1st at the Malaysian Open, with 10/11, two points clear ahead of the rest of the field, and an even greater performance: 2843. These two tournaments, together with the Aeroflot Open, A2 group (6.5/9), which preceded earlier in the same year, provided him with the necessary three GM norms and, in 2005, at the age of 16 years, Wang Hao was a full-fledged grandmaster. He is one of the rare ones in the history of chess to have jumped straight to the GM title, bypassing both the FM and IM titles. Garry Kasparov, Vladimir Kramnik and Boris Gelfand are also known to have become grandmasters without the IM titles.

Wang Hao, as an untitled 16-year old, was the surprise winner at the 2005 Dubai Open | Photo: Wang Hao's personal archive

Another 2005 success for the young newcomer – first at the Malaysia Open | Photo: Wang Hao's personal archive  

The astounding early successes encouraged him and Wang Hao embraced the existence of a young chess professional. For the next ten years, he would play at most prestigious Opens and Closed tournaments, more often than not, ending on the winners’ podium.

A brief selection of some of his other career highlights include: a bronze medal at the World Junior Chess Championship (2007); second at the 2007 Asian Individual Chess Championship (he lost the first place on tie-break to his compatriot, GM Zhang Pengxiang, both having scored 8/10.); winner at the 2008 Reykjavik Open (7/9); winner at the 2010 Bosna International Tournament; Chinese national Champion, 2010; and notably winner of the Grandmaster section of the Biel Chess Festival, 2012, ahead of Magnus Carlsen, Anish Giri, Hikaru Nakamura, Etienne Bacrot and Victor Bologan. At Biel, which counts as his finest performance, he had lost both games against Carlsen but had won both games against Giri and Nakamura.

Wang Hao snatched victory in Biel in the last round scoring his sixth win out of ten games | Wang Hao on Facebook

And so, we come to 2015, which Wang Hao rounded off nicely, on December 31, winning impressively the 4th Al Ain Classic (UAE), with 8.0/9, 1.5 points ahead of the nearest followers.


Wang Hao is relaxed before the last round having already won the tournament

Having started as a child prodigy, he consistently climbed up reaching the echelons of the world super grandmasters. His peak rating was 2752 in January 2013.

One would rightfully conclude that Wang Hao’s chess career is quite envious and that he would be happy to maintain it and work towards further improvement.

But, in a frank mood and to my astonishment, Wang Hao announced resolutely that he is tired of chess. He is seriously looking for ways to get out of the ’traps’ of being a full-time, chess professional. In a way of testing, he already took some time off and for the last year he only played the games in the Chinese league, out of duty, for his team Hebei.

’Chess is contradictory’, he says. ’It offers an opportunity for travel, but when playing a tournament one is in no mood for enjoyment.’

He tells me that, usually, he does not prepare much for tournaments. He prefers to spend time playing video games. Video games?!  ’Yes!’ He is surprised that I am surprised. He regards highly the aesthetics and intelligence that video games provide, but for the Al Ain tournament, he dedicated more time to preparation. He was aiming at bringing home some hefty income and justifying his participation at an Open tournament.

Wang Hao with the huge shining cup, in Al Ain, after the prize giving ceremony | Photo: Diana Mihajlova

Further, in our conversation, it becomes clear that Wang Hao has reached a point in life where he needs to think more seriously about the future in terms of financial stability. 

’We can go on enjoying some fantasy, however, the reality is something else. People have no time to make a mistake. Too much pressure from society.’

As a professional chess player, it means no chess no income. Wang Hao’s idea of a good life is no need to work, no duty, only pleasure. Well, most of us would agree with this. But, he intends to achieve a financial freedom with the help of chess as a means. He is hoping to play a bit longer, to make some more money thanks to winning large prizes, and then – quit. Since his life and income have been cemented by chess, he must make the most out of it.  

Of course, he is aware of the precariousness of being a chess player and depending on the wins for his livelihood. He is not always that ’lucky’. ’Even here, my last two games were not very good, I started making some mistakes. At the Thailand Open (2015), I was leading throughout the whole tournament, but then I lost in the last round.’

At Thailand’s biggest tournament, Wang Hao, who was the highest seed, didn't leave the top board until the penultimate round when he beat Germany’s GM Jan Gustafsson. He almost felt a winner, but in the last round, lost to Ganguly from India. He was relegated to the fourth place, behind GM Nigel Short, GM Surya Shekhar Ganguly and IM Kamil Dragun.

Surya Shekhar Ganguly and Wang Hao chilling out during Thai Open, 2015 | Photo: Wang Hao on Facebook

None the less, he even has some financial advice, which he applies himself: ’Make money and invest; no money in the bank, better to invest in insurance or in stock markets.’ Is it not too risky? ’Yes, it is risky but you can choose the right cycle – too much gas and oil.’ I comment that I am far removed from financial know-how, and stock markets are too abstract an area to be able to understand. But, isn’t chess an unpredictable and emotional affair to be used as a sound means for survival?

’From a technical point of view, I feel no emotions during the game – only tiredness. A state of a body desert. Previously, my mood was not that stable. And that is no good; it is much more difficult to win. Now, I am really stable. I don’t like to gamble. I need to calculate well, not play moves that I am unsure of. But, life is different…’, which takes us out of the financial concerns and we enter into philosophical musings on the theme life – chess – future.

Continue to part 2...

Topics: wang hao

A former university lecturer in Romance philology, she is currently a painter as well as a chess journalist, and reports regularly from the international tournament scene.
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bmws88 bmws88 3/29/2016 05:13
The Chinese government supports their most talented players from a very young age and it is no coincidence you see Yue Wang, Chao Li in the same picture. But the side effect is these players have achieved so much and they feel they didn't get to enjoy a normal childhood, they don't feel as motivated to keep improving themselves. Several of them, including Hao Wang, have decided to enter college at the height of their chess and Chinese players do not enjoy the longevity frequently seen in western players, such as Topalov, Gelfand, Anand. Also, Chinese professional players are supported by Chinese federation and have low but steady income. The top players used to always have the option of turning into sports officials but now many have chosen to open their clubs/schools to training young players. Hao is super talented but it feels he chose to not reach his full potential.
ulyssesganesh ulyssesganesh 3/29/2016 03:36
a good, frank interview!
Paranga75 Paranga75 3/28/2016 11:39
This is a great interview and looking forward to see the rest of it. It is actually the best interview i have ever read on this site, dealing with fundamental matters and not superficial stuff
duellum duellum 3/28/2016 10:12
Saw him play in the Tal Memorial, solid player, though eclipsed by the younger talent from his home country. It seems China's top players (men and women) only have a shelf life of a few years before being dethroned. Wang Yue was the top guy, but has since fell. Russia for some reason has a bit more stability at the top level. Of course, Yifan may be the exception, which would be great for the country.
gmwdim gmwdim 3/28/2016 04:58
Thanks to ChessBase for this fascinating interview. Please publish more articles like this, and fewer like the "women and aesthetics" garbage.
Magic_Knight Magic_Knight 3/28/2016 04:50
It's okay to be burnt out with chess. The game/sport is simply not lucrative and you have to be at the very top of the standings to make a decent living. No one can blame Wang Hao if he doesn't feel like staying in this field. He's already made superb accomplishments in the game and I'm sure he's plenty jaded by now.
dkindle dkindle 3/28/2016 03:29
Wang Hao has put in some impressive performances, even scoring wins against Carlsen. However, this article seems to portray him as a professional that has lost some steam. He seems a little burned out with chess.
vladivaclav vladivaclav 3/28/2016 01:24
Another cool thing about Grischuk is that he and his wife (GM Natalia Zhukova) make the strongest ELO couple in the world. Giri (ELO 2790) and his wife (ELO 2360) are adevertised as the strongest couple. Lame
digupagal digupagal 3/28/2016 09:25
Its a right thing to do for him. Ppl. who come from poor background realise the importance of money and financial stability while many youngsters now receive everything on platter only to be short tempered and having a go at anyone just to alleviate their anger.

All they do is sit at home, watch chess and comment. He has taken a right decision and also he is wise about finances. Only if all other chiense were so wise abt. their economy.
Aighearach Aighearach 3/28/2016 08:59
Grischuk dropped to 2752, but his peak rating is 2810. Ding Liren's peak rating is 2782. It doesn't really matter what the current rating is; all the top players who are capable of passing 2800 also sometimes drop down near 2750, except Carlsen of course.

Grischuk remains a top player, with a large fan base. Invitational tournaments are not just about paying more money to the winner. There are other reasons they are held. ;)
Hawkman Hawkman 3/28/2016 08:48
I would prefer a profile of #8 Ding Liren. Are the Chinese invited to less top tourneys than the Europeans or do they decline? I may be wrong, but sometimes it seems like I see lower rated European players such as #17 Grischuk at more top tourneys than Ding Liren or #14 Li Chao.