Why Hou Yifan has dropped out of the cycle

by Frederic Friedel
5/20/2016 – At fourteen she was the youngest female player ever to gain the title of grandmaster, and at sixteen she became the youngest Women's World Champion in history. She has won the title four times and is the reigning champion. Now Hou Yifan, 100 points stronger than any of her colleagues, has abandoned the Women's Championship cycle. She tells us why and calls for a reform of the system. Her proposal is amazingly simple.

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Skype interview with Hou Yifan

Hou Yifan

Frederic Friedel: Hello Yifan, can we talk?

Hou Yifan: Hi Frederic, sure. But give me a minute – I’m in a library and will find a quiet spot.

FF: A library? But isn’t that the quietest of places?

HY: Not this one. But now I am in a quiet room and we can speak.

FF: So how are you in general? What are you up to?

HY: I’m busy with my graduation thesis and a presentation for an award of my University. Later this month, I will play Shamkir. And how are you doing? How is your knee?

FF: [had an accident and badly injured his knee – gives Yifan a brief medical rundown] But now to the questions that is burning on my mind: you have dropped out of the FIDE Women’s Grand Prix 2105/16 circuit. Actually, you played in the first leg in Monaco, and won it by two full points. The second event in Tehran was won by Chinese GM Ju Wenjun by half a point, and the third in Batumi by Russian GM Valentina Gunina – in both these events you did not play. Normally you would now be tied with these two at 160 points. But the current WGP standings have left you out.

Hou Yifan won the Monaco Women's Grand Prix last October by two full points,
earned 160 Grand Prix points and €10,000 in prize money

HY: I decided to drop out from WGP cycle after I received an unclear answer from FIDE regarding the possibility of a change in the current Women’s World Championship system. I participated in all previous cycles, since 2009, and the main reason in recent years was that the overall winner got the right to play the Women’s World Championship match. I didn’t think this was actually reasonable, but it was the only option I had. Now the situation is different. I do not see any point in taking part in the different stages only to be able to play in the WWCC, especially when the opponents usually are at least one hundred points below me. For years now I have expressed my deep dissatisfaction to FIDE about this, but they didn’t accept anything I said. So I won’t consider staying in a system with which I completely disagree.

FF: Will you be playing in the knockout Women’s World Championship, which is scheduled for later this year?

HY: No, I won’t even think about it. I can’t agree with the current system. I would like to mention that since the previous WWCCh Match was postponed to this year, the knockout tournament should be held at least one year later. I mentioned this to FIDE, last year before I signed the contract of the Lviv Match, and the reply was that they had received my request and “would discuss it at the next board meeting”— same answer as always. Okay, back to your question: already in 2012 I hesitated with my participation. I had won the match against Humpy in Tirana, and then reluctantly played in the knockout world championship in Khanty Mansiysk, Russia, with a very unsatisfying result. Then the knock-out tournament in 2015, which was supposed to be held on late 2014, clashed with the Hawaii Chess Festival. This time I had no choice as I promised to play in Hawaii before FIDE announced the new dates of the event.

FF: You clearly don’t like playing in the knockout world championship…

HY: I’m flexible with any formats of chess events. The thing I can’t agree with is that such a knock-out tournament will decide who is the World Champion. A 64-player knockout event is mostly a lottery: you play two games, and if you lose the first for some reason you have good chances to be eliminated. It is something that can happen in any of the five rounds required to reach the final. I was lucky in 2010 in Turkey, but in Khanty-Mansiysk I was knocked out by Monika Socko in round two. In the same round the other top seeds Humpy Koneru and Anna Muzychuk were also eliminated, all three of us by players rated 150 points lower. The winners of previous knockout world championships have been Xu Yuhua, Alexandra Kosteniuk, Hou Yifan, Anna Ushenina, Mariya Muzichuk – strong players, but in some cases not close to the strongest in the world.

Year Type Won by (report link) Venue
2004 64-player knockout Antoaneta Stefanova Elista, Russia
2006 64-player knockout Xu Yuhua Ekaterinburg, Russia
2008 64-player knockout Alexandra Kosteniuk Nalchik, Russia
2010 64-player knockout Hou Yifan Hatay, Turkey
2011 ten-game match Hou Yifan Tirana, Albania
2012 64-player knockout Anna Ushenina Khanty Mansiysk, Russia
2013 ten-game match Hou Yifan Taizhou, China
2015 64-player knockout Mariya Musichuk Sochi, Russia
2016 ten-game match Hou Yifan Lviv, Ukraine

FIDE had a similar system for the Men’s World Championship in the past, with 128 players starting a knockout tournament. But this was abandoned since similarly the title was won by players who were not in the top ten or twenty in the world.

FF: If you do not play in the next 64-player knockout event we will have a new Women’s World Champion, and you will not be able to challenge her in 2017, since you have left the Grand Prix cycle that selects the challenger. You will lose your title without playing a match, and would also be out of the WWCC cycle for the near future.

HY: That’s true according to the current Women’s system, and that is why this is the right moment to improve the system. I’m not proposing this after my first title win – I’ve been doing it for six years now. Apart from the previous reasons I have given, the general point is that the overall system is not logical: the winner of the knockout tournament will be called “World Champion” and the previous World Champion loses her title. By the way: what happens if I played the knockout and won it? Would I challenge myself? No, the challenger will be the runner-up of WGP. My match with Humpy was because she’s finished second in the WGP cycle at that time – I had 465 points and she had 380. Anyway, I have showed my performance in the different tournament formats, including knockout, closed tournaments and matches, for the past six years, and now is the time to make a change. I have had this idea for a long time, but until now I kept thinking to myself “you are not strong enough to ask for changing the system”, and “probably FIDE will seriously consider it if you win more events”. These and similar thoughts encouraged me to continue playing in the World Championship cycle, but after winning three matches, and with FIDE still rejecting all my proposals, I did not see any point to continue playing in an illogical and unfair system.

FF: How exactly would you like the system to be modified?

HY: Basically it should be held like the men’s World Championship: qualification tournaments, a Candidates tournament, and the winner plays the reigning World Champion. This is the way the World Championship was handled for most of chess history. However, if FIDE says it is too complicated or too difficult to find sponsors, I have a very simple solution: keep the current system, exactly as it is, or even extend it, as in the men’s Grand Prix, so that more women players can participate. But there should be one important difference: the lucky winner, at the end of the cycle, is not the new Women’s World Champion but the Challenger. She gets the right to play the reigning Women’s World Champion in a ten-game match.

FF: So a full WWCCh match every two years instead of every year?

HY: Yes, of course. Having one every year – or in fact two Women’s World Championships in a single year, as is theoretically possible in 2016 – reduces the value of the title. Magnus is the perfect example: he is the strongest player (by far) in the world, and has won two World Championship matches against a qualifier who was picked by Grand Prix, World Cup tournaments and Candidates. Last month Sergey Karjakin was the lucky winner of the 2016 qualification cycle. He became the third Challenger and gets to play a 16-game match against Magnus in November. Why can’t we have a similar system for women?

FF: Sounds perfectly logical. However FIDE has said that the current Women’s system is very popular amongst the girls since they get to play a lot of interesting events …

HY: Yes, but that would stay exactly the same, except that the lucky winner doesn’t get the highest title in women’s chess, but only the right to challenge the current title holder for it.

FF: What does FIDE say about your proposals?

HY: They keep promising to consider my requests, to discuss them at Presidential Board meetings and talk with the other women players. They will try to figure out a solution later on. That has been going on for three or four years now. So I have decided to exit the WGP and wait to see if it will be reformed.

FF: FIDE says that it is impossible to get funding for the knock-out event, which the other women love, if it is not a world championship but only produces a challenger…

HY: Yes, of course you can make any tournament more interesting by making it a world championship. Just imagine if Wijk aan Zee, St Louis or Norway Chess would produce world champions and the reigning World Champion would automatically lose his title. Naturally the organisers and the players might love it, but it would very much reduce the value of the title.

FF: Yifan, if you drop out of the women’s cycle you could become a kind of Judit Polgar: you would be the strongest female on the planet, a hundred points ahead of everyone else, but only playing in men’s tournaments?

Top ten in women's chess today – click to enlarge

HY: Well, not exactly. Of course Judit represents a great example for women’s chess to encourage girls to play, but I am looking forward to making my own way. If the system could be improved in a reasonable way I think I would not entirely quit women’s chess, at least not right now. But as long as the winner of the World Championship match automatically loses her title, without a match, I unfortunately have no other choice than to stop participating in the cycle. However, thinking positively, this may not be that bad. It would allow me to focus on the top level, on the “men’s” field. I could try to become stronger, to be more efficient, as there would be no obligation to play the women’s tournaments anymore.

FF: A final question: if FIDE accepts your proposal, if they agree to make the winner of the knockout tournament the Challenger and not the World Champion, would you be willing to re-join the cycle? Would you defend your title against the Challenger in 2017?

HY: Of course. Please remember that I did not quit the whole system, I only withdrew from WGP cycle. If the winner of the next knockout championship will only be the Challenger, then I will continue my participation for sure. The logic is like this: if FIDE keeps the current world championship system I will drop out from it all together. But right now I have the World Championship title and am willing to defend it in a match against any Challenger.

See also

  • Interview with Hou Yifan
    4/2/2016 – In March Hou Yifan, number one on the women's ranking list, regained the world title, which she had lost when she did not take part in the knock-out World Championship the year before. In an interview with Dagobert Kohlmeyer the World Champion criticises the mode of the Women's World Championship and reveals that her proposals for a different system were made in vain.

Editor-in-Chief emeritus of the ChessBase News page. Studied Philosophy and Linguistics at the University of Hamburg and Oxford, graduating with a thesis on speech act theory and moral language. He started a university career but switched to science journalism, producing documentaries for German TV. In 1986 he co-founded ChessBase.


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carlsenM2016 carlsenM2016 12/2/2016 06:54
Hou Yifan has called it right! "A 16-game match against Magnus in November" 12 games + 4 tie break. Qh6+!!!
genem genem 11/17/2016 07:39
From FIDE.com, an embarrassingly lame attempt to distort and dismiss Hou Yifan's concerns:


Quote: {The current Women’s World Chess Champion Hou Yifan (China) has dropped out the cycle. According to Hou, there were several reasons to do so. The main of them was the lack of motivation.}

"lack of motivation". Hey FIDE, the only reputation you damage by this silly Fox News -like statement is your own.
- - - - - - -

"Who will challenge the World Champion?"
basler88 basler88 5/23/2016 07:44
Bravo Hou!! I fully support you as the current FIDE system for women as no logical point behind it and to have the excuse for money and sponsorship missing is absolutely ridiculous! The women should have the same rights, system and money as the men and we shouldn't make any difference in the rules, however I understand the FIDE is powered by "old" and rich men and they can't change or wouldn't as they like the way it always was, it looks like the FIDE in football. Hou keep up fighting!! By the way, I'm a man.
kyi kyi 5/23/2016 02:11
Instead of knockout system, it will be a fair game to replace with Swiss system. Even world chess champions can make mistakes or blunders and if they make mistakes with low level players in the beginning of the tournament, they will be eliminated but in Swiss system if they make mistakes, they can still play and hope to catch up. In Swiss system, the player who scores the highest points will win the tournament.
bachma1 bachma1 5/22/2016 02:52
koko48 got it right!
The_Tenant The_Tenant 5/22/2016 04:37
Would be interested to hear what some of the top level men GM's have to say about all this. I'm pretty sure most of them would support what Yifan is proposing here. Good on her for speaking out.
scoobeedo scoobeedo 5/21/2016 07:08
She is on the spot right!

I said the same before. The winner of this is the challenger. FIDE ... wake up.

The FIDE betrays every time the current female world champions with this knockout lotteries.

- - -

You, I extend your idea:

What you think if the male and female world championship match get on the same place at the same time played?

Sponsors for a male WC would very likely add some money to get this package.

Think about it ...
ChiliBean ChiliBean 5/21/2016 04:12
Too bad FIDE lowers the standards for women's chess to become the world champion by having a knock-out tournament. It should only be earned through match play.
vladivaclav vladivaclav 5/21/2016 10:29
"a 16-game match against Magnus in November" ??
HarryHaller HarryHaller 5/21/2016 07:19
Yes, a very logical suggestion. I am sure FIDE never considered it..(sarcasm). The problem, which is clearly stated in the article, is that there is not enough funding to make a challenger's tournament rather than calling the winner the 'women's world champion'. This is because there would not be enough money to satisfy the female elite players, who receive vastly more than any male near their rating (or even far above it) could dream of.
And this is only natural. There is not going to be as much interest for a tournament that is open to only 15% of the chess world, and excluding all of the top players, compared to a tournament that is open to everybody and which produces a champion of all humanity. Instead you have a tournament for one gender (which also happens to be the one which, on average, plays worse chess).
Absurd constructs result in absurd outcomes. It is time to recognize, and reward, players for their skill, not their gender. Do away with women's chess entirely and there will be more funding for chess in general. You are taking big pieces of an already very limited pie and giving it to weaker players purely on account of their anatomy. Stronger players than most of the female "elites" are suffering as a result.
koko48 koko48 5/21/2016 06:24
We've been through this before.....With Fischer, then Kasparov, now Yifan

Once again the Real World Champion has to break away from FIDE, and tell them to give their title to some weaker player

In this case (as in Fischer's case) I think FIDE doesn't mind the break up. Truth is FIDE is still controlled by Russians and imo they want to see the WC title go to one of their Russian or Ukrainian women....and this is the only way they can get their WC title, because none of them can beat Yifan in a match
Peter B Peter B 5/21/2016 04:38
Hou Yifan has done everything there is to do in women's chess. It's time for her to follow Judit's lead, concentrate on open events only. It would be wonderful for chess to have a woman near the top again.
ex0 ex0 5/21/2016 04:00
Yep, agree 100% with Hou Yifan. The current system is a joke and completely gives no respect to the world championship title, or the qualification process. Like she said, the ideal solution would be to just emulate the mens one, where whoever wins that gets to play in the candidates and the winner of that can go on to challenge the world champion.. like what Karjakin did or is doing with Carlsen in the coming months..
ubernomics ubernomics 5/21/2016 03:18
In the NBA and MLB (baseball) the leagues are run as "business first" (or business only, in actuality.) And not pure sport. Chess has that same decision to make.

Two unenticing events:
1. A sixty four player knockout that costs a million dollars in prize money and organizational expenses (the prize money must cover hotel, airfare, and something extra). This is not cheap. But who'd want to sponsor the event? Not the overall world championship. Not even the female championship, but candidates. Not a proper selection system, for the chess purist. FIDE faces that issue, in each cycle.

2. Hou Yifan versus [random 2500-2580 player] match. Who's paying for that? to see a one-sided match? For the next ten years, perhaps? (Judit reigned as undisputed number one for twenty years, so who knows how many pointless matches.)

So, to be practical (and play devil's advocate), this is FIDE's view of the situation. How does FIDE raise money for two low popularity events?? Chess is not a money-rich sport.
babycroc babycroc 5/21/2016 03:15
They should keep tweaking the system until Harika wins the World Championship. That should be the sole objective of all systemic reform.
dysanfel dysanfel 5/21/2016 02:36
The Women's champion loses her title by default? That is insane. I would do exactly what she is doing.
Vernunft Vernunft 5/21/2016 02:01
Oh, is she going back to the open tournaments again, or?

And someone said Magnus and Hou Yifan are currently way above anybody else...really? What happened to Caruana? Wasn't Nakamura way up there at one point? They all fell?!
Moab2021 Moab2021 5/20/2016 11:42
Hou Yifan is absolutely right. World champion titles should always be decided by matches. Challengers can be chosen by tournaments. Why would FIDE treat women any differently than men? It is fair to use the same system for both titles. Damian Nash
bachma1 bachma1 5/20/2016 11:39
FIDE seems taking too long for the decision, should there be some kind of "courts" and judges to decide it? When majority of world players are agree to it, it should be taking more serious. Wondering if these input here ever read by FIDE?

sranj sranj 5/20/2016 11:37
A ridiculous proposal - The designated challenger as the winner of the Women's Grand Prix like event will be as randomly weak as the "knockout-WC".
Hou Yifan will have fun crushing such a "challenger"
murali100 murali100 5/20/2016 09:56
I agree with Yifan...She totally makes sense...Its the job of FIDE to find a sponsor, if they can't, better give the job to someone else like Kasparov who would certainly market it well and find a sponsor.
Martas Martas 5/20/2016 09:44
In the end this is just a question of money and negotiations from both sides. Fide wants to have format attractive for sponsors, best player wants to have format with better probability of staying world champion. And of course Fide would like to have best players in the format so it's just about agreement.
But there is nothing like the best system. Match with challenger is good when having outstanding player like Magnus or Hou Yifan. If top10 would be players with almost equal strength, match with challanger could be considered as not the best. Each sport has it's own fair format, it's nice if the format is stable for decades.
Aighearach Aighearach 5/20/2016 07:19
Thank you so much, Hou Yifan! You are a true Chess Champion, and will remain so even after they hand the crown to the Knockout Champion.

FIDE is too corrupt to use the logical system except by force. Lets not forget, they only stopped using the knockout format for the open Championship because it was not producing World Chess Champions, but rather FIDE Chess Champions. The chess world viewed Kasparov as Champion until he lost a match to Kramnik, and Kramnik until title unification via a match. They switched because having a tournament produce a paper champion is not actually as beneficial for a sponsor as it to sponsor a real, fully-recognized Championship.

In the eyes of the chess world, it is likely that Hou Yifan will be Women's World Chess Champion until the last of a string of paper champions eventually plays against her to unify the title.

And "we can't find enough sponsors, so instead of every two years we're going to hold it once a year, or twice if it is a player from a country that doesn't pay FIDE bribes" does not make logical sense. If they have problems with sponsors, they should be going the other direction and extending the times between the cycles.
ff2017 ff2017 5/20/2016 06:43
Great interview, as is any interview with Hou Yifan. Love the start of the interview, where she had to "sneak off" to a quiet room. Kind of forget the World Champion is a student primarily, and kind of just beats up people at chess on the side.

I have mixed feelings on this situation, while seeing her have the crown for 15 years straight would be nice, seeing her go out and compete primarily against the men would overall be more satisfying to see.

Even listening the commentary in womens' event is absolutely terrible unless Evgenij Miroshnichenko or Adrian Mikhalchishin are involved, and those guys are only available for the two championships. I mean sometimes they it's like they literally put no technical effort into making the commentary actually be allowed to be physically heard sometimes as evidenced in some grand prix events. Max volume and still can't hear a thing let alone the repeat of engines lines.
LetoAtreides82 LetoAtreides82 5/20/2016 06:23
I agree with Hou Yifan, it would only be fair for the women's championship cycle to be similar if not exactly the same as the men's championship cycle.
x_ileon@yahoo.co.uk x_ileon@yahoo.co.uk 5/20/2016 06:13
I'm glad that most comments are in support of Yifan! I totally agree with her too, and it's time that arcane bureaucratic organisation known as FIDE pulled their head out of their a__ for a change
imdvb_8793 imdvb_8793 5/20/2016 05:58
"has never made it past the first round of any world cup."

For accuracy's sake: they did make the quarterfinals in 2002 and, I believe, the last 16 on a number of occasions.

But, of course, that's very little compared to the women's team, so your point stands.
treetown treetown 5/20/2016 05:03
Nice article. Unfortunately this makes too much sense so FIDE being FIDE - it has almost no chance of being accepted!

For those who argue economics - a valid point but unfairness exists and if there are parallel events at least have equivalent structures. A glaring example in the US is with the national football teams. Consider the situation of the USA football teams, the women's team has won the world cup many times, sells out stadiums in the US and has vast popular support but is underfunded and under supported by the US Soccer as compared to the men's team that has never made it past the first round of any world cup. The women's team is forced to play on artificial turf, gets less basic support like hotel quality and per game pay despite being the real economic popular part of football in the US.
blammular blammular 5/20/2016 04:47
Elo does not say everything, that's why we play the games.
Chess should not be a business first. Money isn't everything. That is a trap many sports fall into. Next thing you know cheating is rampant because "business" is more important than the sport, than sportsmanship. Then comes corruption and then comes the day when you can't stand to look at what your beautiful Caissa has become. We should not forget that even as we chase a bigger piece of the sporting world's attention. Chess doesn't need gimmicks to make it "fun." It's already fun. That's why it has survived hundreds of years.
hserusk hserusk 5/20/2016 03:54
If she's unhappy with the way it's done, why can't she just compete for the 'standard' world championship title again? (AKA 'men's WCC' -which is strange)
idratherplay960 idratherplay960 5/20/2016 03:07
Great interview and as always Hou Yifan is perhaps the best spoken chess player out there. I hope FIDE does as FIDE always does and doesn't fix anything because I would really enjoy rooting for Yifan as she focuses solely on open events. Let's call it what it is, she's a top 100 player and should finally get to the business of breaking 2700. Clock is ticking, after her degree it needs to happen within 2-3 years or it may never happen.
Rfield Rfield 5/20/2016 02:45
The bait is the "title" used to entice investors. In the absence of investor a "title" is lacking in flavor. She longed for a little more exciting at FIDE title not in accordance of their rules. Tweaking of rules to imitate the men's cycle, then Ms. HY should play in the men's not in women. That retired lady Polgar played in men's no big deal. She don't need any of the "title" of Women's/Girl's Champ or that of women's challenger.

Ms. Hou's mother country resources require no FIDE unlike Ukraine not able to pay dues to FIDE was stripped of rating. FIDE controls all the rights on wood pushing game, really?
Queenslander Queenslander 5/20/2016 02:37
Of course any qualification cycle (whatever it gets called) should be to find a Challenger for the World Champion. It is absurd to say the winner of such a cycle is the new Champion.
michaelriber michaelriber 5/20/2016 01:53
Good for her! I don't consider the knock-out tournaments real world championships anyway, just like I didn't with the open equivalent in the 90s. Hou has proven repeatedly that she is by far the strongest female player in the world, on rating and in both tournament and match play. As long as FIDE insists on using this system, the women's title is meaningless, so she should just quit it altogether and focus exclusively on open tournaments...
Duckangelito Duckangelito 5/20/2016 01:27
To begin with I don't really understand the idea of having a women world championship in chess.
algorithmy algorithmy 5/20/2016 01:12
when will they cancel the women events?? it's absurd Idea, chess is a mental game, why do we need tournaments for women only?? what makes it more absurd is that the women world champions are hardly in the top 100 and through history women world champions were taken lightly by men players who are not even in the top 10!!

let's cut this crap and save the money for improving chess.

Chess tournament for women are absurd, least interesting and big waste of money and effort and above all humiliating for women and so is these stupid titles of WGM, WIM.. etc
Mr TambourineMan Mr TambourineMan 5/20/2016 12:31
Why cant Hou Yifan do like Bobby Fischer, but in a Little smarter way? I can see Bobby looking on this and shouldnt be embarrassed. Hou Yifan should insist of keeping her titel as long as no one has taken it away from her in a match regardless what corupt FIDE says. Thats the Fischer way. But Hou Yifan should make it a Little bit smarter by not have hundreds of demands like Fischer but just one "I regard myself as WWCC as long as Im not beaten in a match" and to top that even try to fix a match against Judit Polgar! Here we can talk about sponsors and media intrests... and also I know that FIDE has opened up for private Wch matches!
CostaMaison3 CostaMaison3 5/20/2016 11:50
Happy to read from this interview that, we gonna have a new women world champion. The speculation of the new world champion is fun in itself.

If the knockout system will bring more speculation and enjoyment, why should we reject it? We are aware that there is no perfect system and every system has its limitations.

FIDE must not amend the women world championship cycle for the benefit of one play.
rich1chess rich1chess 5/20/2016 10:19
A good article, I totally agree with the arguments put forward by Hou Yifan. The Women's World Championship must have the same status and format as the Men's.
thlai80 thlai80 5/20/2016 08:32
Agree 100%. Exactly what I had said in http://en.chessbase.com/post/interview-with-hou-yifan

Best of all, Hou Yifan doesn't just slam the door, she's fine with any system, but the KO tournament should be just challenger at max instead of World Champion. Karjakin for example needs to win both the KO and also the candidates to be just a challenger (not even World champion yet), I don't see why women's edition can take the short cut by just winning the KO to be world champion.