I had the pleasure of having a chat with Hou Yifan, the current Women’s World Champion in Almaty, Kazakhstan after the Eurasian Blitz. This is her answers to my questions.
Jamie Kenmure: Thank you for taking the time to have this interview before catching a flight back to China. I understand you learned chess at the age of 3, a very young age.
Yifan Hou: Actually, I started when I was 5 years old, not 3. There were many people talking about me starting at 3 but this is some sort of urban legend. I am not sure how this came about but I started chess in 1999.
JK: Who was the person that got you into chess?
YH: My father and grandfather can play Chinese chess (Xiangqi). I got inspired because I was playing chinese checkers with a small ball. I played with my friends who were older than me and who taught me how to play but I simply crushed them easily. Later on, my parents thought I probably should learn some mind games and they took me to the children’s palace and let me choose and I simply chose chess.
JK: Chess has obviously proven to be the sport for you Hou. In regards to your chess achievements, you have accomplished just about everything possible in women’s chess. You are the current Women’s World Champion, won Grand Prix tournaments, the highest rated player and even top 100 player.
YH: I am not now in the top 100 players of the world. I dropped 10-20 points and that makes a huge difference in the open section. Luckily, I might step back into the August list.
JK: You have been a top 50 and top 100 player before. What more is there for you to achieve now?
YH: I hope to be more stable. I should keep level or slowly increase and improve my rating to become more stronger. I want to be more stronger to compete for the invitational events or open tournaments. Here in Almaty it is strong event but if it was a standard event there should be more participants to fight for the places to make the tournament into a different situation. I also hope my rapid and blitz could be more higher. It is supposed to be not so bad but you know it contains luck and form. Many things can happen compared to the standard form of the sport. It might be more interesting so I am open for all three formats of chess.
JK: You mentioned how you wanted to improve your rapid and blitz, did you feel that you were playing good chess here in Almaty?
YH: Not really. Of course I am satisfied with the way it started. I was winning some games and I didn’t make many mistakes but later on I lost twice to the players who showed a very good performance here, but it could have been better for me. There were some chances missed so the quality could be improved but we know in blitz the quality cannot be perfect as classical chess. Even in the last rounds there were chances for me to improve which would have lead to a better result. We can see from my rating performance that I performed a bit lower than my original rating. The first day was kind of ok but the second day was not so good.
JK: What did you think of the organisation and the event itself?
YH: The tournament itself was good. The tournament situation regarding the venue and conditions was good. With only two days blitz it was a really fast routine and makes the tournament really exciting, probably more attractive for the spectators, to watch and follow, unlike a long tournament. This is not like a serious, serious tournament.
JK: Speaking of strong tournaments and performances, the tournament that comes to mind is 2012 Reykjavik Open where you won against many strong 2700 rated players. Did you feel this was the next step up in your playing career?
YH: In this tournament I played GM Fabiano Caruana and drew, but I did get a few winning positions. I did win against some other talented players in this tournament. Talking about this I remember playing in the Aeroflot Open in 2007 when I was rated around 2500. I felt I was improving but I was also stagnating at certain periods too. For example I was hasty at 2550 for a while, then 2600 and 2650. Now I am still stuck on 2650 and I now need to slowly, slowly increase. I hope to be going to a better and faster depth. This is why you need to be more stable.
JK: Women’s chess you have spoken about a lot recently in your interviews that you have done and about the women’s cycle. What do you think needs to be done to improve women’s chess?
YH: I think the interviews I have done show pretty clear my position on this. If you do events like this it is reasonable but if you continue to do this as a cycle for more than five or six years, I think it could be generated to a better way. Not only after six or seven months there is the knock out system. For example, the highest rated player won the match and is called the Women’s World Champion and it is very obvious advantage and then still FIDE gives no privilege to the World Champion and still put them to the knockout system. The knockout system is a very interesting format but you also need luck to win the tournament. I think the way the Men’s system is with the World Cup would be a better way. It would show the players strength, the psychological part and the technical part. If it is to find a World Champion, it has to be thought about. The men’s system is pretty good. They have the knockout as World Cup, the Candidates and then the Match which is quite reasonable.
JK: So do you think the Women’s cycle needs to be changed to the Men’s cycle?
YH: Of course. That is what we thought because most sports that are currently popular around the world have the same format for men and women, so I don’t see why chess has to be an exception. This is what I don’t understand. First, I started talking with FIDE officials and other people from the chess world many years ago. FIDE thought it was quite reasonable and the only thing they were worried about was the financial part. The financial part is not the first priority for players I think from what I understand. That’s why in my letter I reserved a few options so the budget could be more reasonable. It is true so far that men and women cannot be on the same level from an economic situation, but there can always be a more reasonable way to combine the financial part and the players’ situation.
JK: Do you see more women playing chess these days or less?
YH: I see more women playing chess and especially in some developing countries. For example, I did some promotion all over the world for different activities. In some places I remember there were more girls than boys. Of course, most places there are more boys playing but there are few girls who are more energetic/active and are fully concentrated. I think this is a phenomenon to see that women’s chess has a big potential in the future and it is the part that I want to work on in the future. I would not only just do this for chess, but for all sports to encourage more girls because girls can be sensitive. Sport can make girls feel more stronger, more stable and you can fight in the future when you enter the society. It is a really good quality for a girl and I think sports are a good way to generate your personality which is really important.
JK: Finally, do you see yourself opening up a chess school in China and perhaps a chess academy around the world to reach your goals and to get more women to play chess?
YH: Currently, I am not really ready to run my own chess academy but my parents run a chess club with our friends. Right now though what we are doing is focusing on the beginners, very young boys and girls. When they get developed we also are thinking of doing something for them with a focus on the girls. As a woman player and my future blueprint, I also hope to do something like encourage girls to combine chess studies and normal studies. All of this is connected and you don’t really need to have an academy or club and since this is a universal world it all can be connected through the internet.
JK: Thank you so much for time Hou Yifan and I wish you all the best for achieving all your goals.
YH: Thank you and you are welcome.