Hou Yifan: "I want to be happy and honest with myself!"



“I want to be happy and honest with myself!”

Text and photos: Evgeny Atarov

I was planning to publish this interview a bit later, in early December, before the final of the KO world championship, when 18-year old Hou Yifan would be defending her world title for the third time. Howeverthe best laid plans…!

It was hard to believe that, after winning confidently in the first game against Marta Socko, the world champion should lose so badly in the next three games, and show such a low standard of play, but such is fate… One bad day is enough in the knockout system. In one day at Khanty Mansysk, all of the favourites went out.

But…Hou Yifan? It seemed that this past year, she had begun to re-think the path of her chess career, and had begun to seek new aims and approaches, and move up to a new level. Her old app[roach had been good enough to demolish all her rivals, as was shown by the crushing match result against Humpy Koneru, and her win in the second Grand Prix. But she wanted something new. Isn't that why she started playing in men's events so often?

In recent times, she has been playing not so much against her opponents, as against the history of womens' chess, in which, on the basis of results, only one rival stands ahead of her – Judit Polgar. The Hungarian never wanted to play for the "junior" crown. Hou Yifan did not scruple to do so, but now she wanted to move on.

Is it possible that this was the problem? The goal in the women's championship was not as important as before, and she weakened internally, considering that she could be her opponents anyhow? But no, of course, she could not think like that! More likely the culprit was the harsh climate, as she has never had to play at temperatures of “-20”. One should not judge her career on the basis of one game against Socko – at the end of the day, she won the Grand Prix cycle and assured herself a match against the new champion, who, all experts are sure, will have no chance against Hou.

She is changing, growing up. And not just as a chessplayer, but as a person. She is no longer the girl who was 100% devoted to chess, and for whom the rest of the world did not exist; she is delighted, like any 18-year old girl, that she has been able to achieve everything she could only have dreamed of: travel the world, see new places and make new friends. Her "lucky" hairclip and clothes are long gone, and now she changes her outfits and hairstyles like a real model, and shows all around her that she is not just a chess robot, but a living person.

She has had to lose before to get the desire to achieve new heights. I am sure the youngest-ever world champion will still accomplish much more and that in a year or two, we will look on the Khanty Mansysk knockout event as a turning point in her career, a slight pause in her upward trajectory. Would you argue?

However, at the end of October in Eilat, this was hard to believe. Hou Yifan and her Monte Carlo team had just become champions of Europe, and the world champion herself only missed out on the top board prize by a miracle. It was a warm evening, the surf was rolling in a hundred meters from us, and the future looked serene.

- This is probably a stupid question to ask a double world champion, but do you regard yourself as the strongest women player in the world, the real number one?

- Probably not number one, no – may current rating is not first. Two players are higher than me, Koneru and Judit, of course. As to the strongest, I don't even know what to say…Right now, I do not feel some great gulf between myself and the others. I see many young talents appearing, who are all trying to become better and better. But for me, this is just a stimulus to work harder.

I have been told that maintaining your position is harder than achieving it, and in recent times, I feel this is right…

- What are you doing to maintain and strengthen your position?

- As before, I study a lot. I realise that one is not given anything, and every day, I want to improve my play, look for something new, learn. I am still focussed on chess, and I still enjoy playing, everything is fine. If that stopped being so, I would feel that I needed to change my approach to chess.  But right now, I am enjoying everything.

- Do you think that women are gradually getting?

- Yes, this is the only process. Men also now play better than before. Many things affect the game, including the use of computers.

- How many hours a day to you usually devote to?

- Until recently, four hours a day. When I am preparing for a big event, it is more. At weekends, I generally don't do anything, it is necessary just to relax. .

- “Until recently"? Has something changed in your life?

- Starting in September, I went to university. This takes up my time. But I am trying not to get too lost, and still get the time for chess.

- How do you trainers take your wish to?

- They understand.

- Didn't they try to talk you out of it, and say that it could harm your career or your future level of play...

- No, they can see it is not affecting my responsibilities.

- And how do you yourself feel?

- I don't know yet. 

I am trying to enjoy everything that I do – both when I am at the board and when I am studying at the university. 

- What profession have you chosen?

- I am studying international relations.

- Do you like it?

- Yes, I have been interested in this for some time...

- Are you thinking of pursuing this is the future, or is it just for general development?

- I don't know, We will see. I am ready to play chess for a long time.

- Successfully?

- I hope so.

- Are you happy with being number 2 or 3 in chess, or in only number 1 sufficient

- I don't think about it. I have been near the top for a long time and have never learn what it is like to lose and to feel that you can't beat someone. I know there is such a  feeling and I do not want to become familiar with it.

- How would you describe your aims in chess?

- Globally? Hmmm... As I have already said, I was too young ever to think about this. I just played. Now? I want to get better, to raise my rating. Maybe to remain world champion as long as possible…

I think I have many tournaments ahead of me – both womens' events and open events. I want to show the highest results in them. I don't know….

I have never had any special dreams in chess. In any event, those I did have gone. 

- Many talented kids, who spend their childhood achieving something notable, later say that they have lost something valuable. Do you personally have any regrets that you started studying chess so young and so seriously?

- I would not say that I missed out on my childhood. I started studying chess at five and a half, but I would not say that I saw nothing but the board and pieces after that. I was a perfectly normal child, and spent time on other things that I liked. I liked draughts, I played various musical instruments. I can not remember ever being made to study. Everything was just a pleasure.

- How would you explain your chess successes, is it just that you are so talented?

- I don't know. When I moved to Peking at the age of 10, my trainer praised me and said I had talent. Usually you study things you are good at, and that's that. But I have never really thought much about this question. 


- Even when you got into the Chinese womens' Olympiad team? Or when you became the youngest GM in chess history at the age of 12?

- As I said, when you are 10-12, you don't worry about such things.

And when I got to the final of the world championship for the first time at 14, I did not attach great important to this. Of course, I understood that it was good, but that was something exceptional 

I don't know. I saw how my opponents suffered when they played me, but I didn't feel anything special myself. I just played.

- Maybe not thinking about it is the greatest secret of success?

- Maybe. You should do what you can.

- From the point of view of such young professionalism, it is like gymnasticsthere they work from a very young age for the sake of results

- No, it is not that. I would repeat – yes, I worked hard, but it was no against my wishes. Nobody forced me to or pressurised me. I liked it. Maybe I was not so upset about losing the final, because I was just happy to have achieved so much. For me, it was all very unexpected.

- And do you love chess as much now as before?

- It was always different: when I first started, at 14, at 16 and now. Much depends on the chess atmosphere, it is constantly changing for me. When I was small, it was just a relaxation, an interesting puzzle…A bit later, when people starting paying attention to me, I very much liked the process itself and was happy when I managed to win. When I became world champion, everything became a little different: I was given to understand that now I was part of the chess world, and was not just my own boss anymore. I had many responsibilities.

- Do you feel some champion's responsibility always to be first?

- Дyes, but it does not interfere with my life.

- In the sense that you have not had to change anything in respect of your relation to yourself?

- Correct.

- And when you notice other people looking at you?

- Notice what?!

- Well, people being afraid of you, or wanting to be like you…I mean your opponents.

- A…nothing has changed here. 

I do not feel that attitudes to me have changed in recent years.

In any case, it has not changed me.

- Do you often feel that your opponents are afraid of you?

- Sometimes. But it does not influence my play.

- What do you expect when you sit down at the board?

- A new experience, something special. I find it interesting to play!

- What do you prefer: playing or studying chess?

- Both are interesting. But probably, playing.

- When you are studying, do you try to use your own head as much as possible, or rely on computers and trainers?

- It all depends on the situation, but mainly I try to use the whole arsenal. I recent times, chess engines have become extremely powerful, and just trying to use their suggestions gets very confusing. But of course, one should expect the machine to answer every question. You have to think for yourself.

- Would you describe yourself as a product of computer chess?

- No, no, I am not strong enough yet to play like a computer. In my play there are many weaknesses, which I am still trying to battle.

- Would you say you are trying to play like a computer?

- I would say I am trying to play as well as possible.

- Are you trying at the same time to preserve some kind of personal style?

- I am not sure we are talking about the same thing. I try to find the best move in every position. I have certain favourite opening schemes, no more. I do not strive with all my efforts for the endgame, because I am stronger than my opponent there, nor do I try in every position to keep the queens on. I play according to what is required.

- Do you think all players will soon end up playing like each other?

- I don't think so, Everyone plays somewhat differently.

- Do you have an impression of what an ideal game looks like?

- I value beauty in chess, unusual ideas…

- Tactics or strategy?

- Both.

- And do you have a favourite player?

- No one individual, no.

- Do you like playing against men?

- Yes. Playing against them gives me great experience and a lot of information about myself. They play better than women, they play differently…Different styles, different approaches to chess. This is very useful. Over the past year, I have played a lot of games against men, and will do so more in the future…It is also a good way to increase one's rating. I would like sooner or later to become number one on the women's rating list.

- What do you think about Koneru, who you have beaten three times (twice in knockouts and once in a match), and yet who stays ahead of you on rating?

- I think she is a very strong player, who is far from having said her last word. She plays a lot and very successfully, hence her high rating.

- But you have not been so lucky recently against men. Especially Chinese men!

- You mean the Chinese Championship? (laughs) We have a lot of young talents! Who would have known that they were so strong? (at the start of the event, Hou lost to the two players who ended up in last places. EA).

- Have you ever thought of giving up playing women, as the Polgar sisters did? Judit still doesn't play in women's events....

- I don't share this point of view.

Why deliberately deprive yourself of the chance to play women? I play with women and men. I don't see any problem. 

- But can you learn anything new from women?

- One can always learn. Of course, one can learn more from strong men players, but I don't see why I should stop playing strong womens' events. That is my way. 

- Have you thought about one day playing Judit Polgar?

- I have already played her.

- No, no, not just a tournament game. A match?

- If such a chance came up, I would be very pleased, of course.

- Do you think you would have any chance in such a match?

- I have never thought about it, but it would be interesting to try.

- What thoughts come into your head when you think about Judit?

- I cannot say I have ever done so.

But of course, she is a great player! She is the best women who has ever played the game. 

It is hard to imagine ever getting into the world top ten, as she did. I like her play, her approach to chess. Everything associated with her deserves admiration!

- Would you like to repeat her path and maybe even go further?

- It is still too early to speak of that, but of course, I would like to!

- What is the difference between the two of you?

- It is hard to say. There are many differences. I don't know all the details of her career, but what I do know is a real miracle…She is very determined, and has given all her efforts to getting stronger. But so do I.

- Like you, she showed brilliant results from childhood...

- When you say "like you", I am a little ashamed. I think I am very far from her results. She broke Fischer's record, and played top board in the men's team of her country at the Olympiad at the age of 18. And she has done much else besides..

- But she was never women's world champion!

- She never tried.

- Do you ever envy her?

- As I have already said, I have my path. It is difficult to compare us, because we are from different generations, we play different opponents and different chess. There is a totally different atmosphere in today's chess than that of her time. But I am delighted that Judit still continues her chess career. We will play again. 

- Does the comparison of your careers bother you?

- No, not in the least.

- Did you speak after your game with her?

- Тwe exchanged a few words about the game.

- Did Judit show any interest in you or offer any advice?

- No. There was more interest in our game from the side.

- If you think of the tournament in Reykjavik, there was most attention to your last round game with Caruana!

- An interesting game. A shame I did not win it.

- The game and the tournament?

- Of course.

- Did you expect such a result in so strong an Open?

- I am not surprised by good results. I like many games from this tournament. It is just a shame that in the end, I missed first place.

- Have you ever scored a comparable result?

- Two world championships, the match against Koneru.

- You have spoken a lot about getting pleasure from playing and studying…How important is this for you are do you still get this pleasure from chess?

- It is important. I enjoy it when I show good results. At moments when I am not playing well it is sometimes difficult to work at full pace. In order to change such trends, one's mood is very important.

- Is there anyone or anything that helps with the mood?

- My friends and family...

- Do you ever get fed up with chess?

- Everyone does sometimes, but I do not recall a time when chess was 100% of my life.

I have never reached a situation when I could not stand looking at a board. 

Maybe, because I have never worked on chess from morning until night, I am not familiar with this feeling.

- You are a lucky person if you have never experienced this…  

- Thank you.

- But even so, you are world champion! Tell me, how popular are you in China? Do you get recognised on the streets, asked for autographs and photos?

- I am known, but I would not call it great popularity. Chess is far from being the most popular sport in China. Gradually the situation is getting better, but we are still far behind the Olympic champions. For them, it really is difficult.

- Hmm. ..I remember a time, when Xie Jun after winning the world title from Chiburdanidze, was told either you lay in hospital, or you tour the whole country! Admittedly, 20 years ago, China could not pretend to have a chance of winning the Olympiad…

- No, now it is different. I am pleased that every year, more and more parents send their children to chess schools, and consider the game useful. It is probably because of this that we now have so many talented young players in China.

- And do you consider yourself the "star" in all this?

- I have not thought about this. I like the fact that I can promote chess and that many parents make their choice after looking at me and my results.

- How do you see your life developing, say over the next 10 years? For example, will you continue to play and appear at events?

- I am not looking that far ahead. 

I have more short-term aims, which I am trying to concentrate on. Now, as I have already said, it is university. And chess. These two things occupy my interest

Maybe something else will appear soon?

- Are you glad that chess makes you feel free, compared to so many of your compatriots? That you can travel the world, get to know other countries and interesting people, earn money, etc?

- Yes, very. It is one of the main privileges that chess has brought me, and I am grateful to the game for that. I like to travel, see new countries and meet new people. Like chessplayers, people in different countries are very different from each other - their mentality, customs, languages.

- I must compliment you on your English. With the exception of Xie Jun, I cannot remember another Chinese player who spoke foreign languages so well...

- Oi, you exaggerate. My English is far from perfect. 

- Excuse me asking, but how far are you independent? Can you decide for yourself where you will play, which tournaments you will go to, and which not? Or does the federation do this?

- I can decide these questions independently…Of course, I cannot just suddenly change my mind and go where I want, nor would I wish to. The federation is involved in my affairs, which tournaments I am ready to play in. They help me a great deal, they always support me…I owe the federation a duty as regards world championships, Olympiads and other events, where I represent not only myself, but also China.

- Do you enjoy such a situation?

- Yes, anyone would.

- Can you imagine yourself living anywhere outside China?

- No. It is my country, where I grew up, here is where my family are…I like to travel, but I also enjoy returning home. I have never thought about going elsewhere to study or anything like that.

- And have you thought about your life after chess? When you will have a family, children?...

- O, I don't know yet! That seems a long way away to me. But in the future, I am sure only of two things – I want to be happy and be honest with myself. That is the main thing in life.

Hou Yifan said the last bit almost in a single breath. She smiled and got up to go – within a few hours, she had her flight. And here I asked about Khanty Mansysk, since I had no doubts over her success there. "Will you continue your victorious procession?" She just said cautiously "One must show one's best play", and added "The KO system can cause surprises. One must be ready for this. But, I will try to do everything within my power…"