Already the greatest woman chess player ever?

OCTOBER 30 — At 14, China’s Hou Yifan became the youngest ever holder of the Grandmaster title and two years later, when just 16, she was crowned the youngest ever Women’s World Champion.

But the fact is that Yifan has been breaking records since she was nine years of age when she became World U-10 Girls Champion and then at 13, China’s youngest ever National Champion!

Since then she has circled the globe playing almost non-stop in some of the most exotic places imaginable and with numerous victories to show, including the KL Open in 2010 where she surprised me by accepting my invitation to play (probably it did not hurt that her coach Ye Jiangchuan who is also General Secretary of the China Chess Association is someone I have known since 1984) and from a sponsor’s perspective, her winning the event boasting 17 grandmasters with a round to spare is the stuff publicists can only dream of.

2014 will be the last year that Yifan is categorised as a junior by FIDE (World Chess Federation) and she is now closing in on the ratings record held by the legendary Judit Polgar who has been ranked No. 1 among women chess players for an amazing 25 years.

Yifan and Judit only met once with the world champion taking the honours. Polgar, 38, recently announced her retirement from competitive play after a successful outing for the Hungarian men’s team at the Tromso Olympiad and the timing is probably right as the incredibly talented Yifan, 20, is just two points short of matching her rating which at one time no one believed would ever be surpassed.

Live chess ratings. — Graphics courtesy of
Live chess ratings. — Graphics courtesy of

Judit is clearly a talent for all time, a living legend who at her peak clearly belonged with the top 15 men, but she comes from a time when fewer women played (and mainly with their own sex).

She has always refused to play in women’s events so arguably her rating has benefitted as a result, Judit’s only exception to this rule being at the single Olympiad won by Hungary in 1988 when all three Polgar sisters led by big sister and mentor Susan, then the strongest of all, decided to make a point of their pre-eminence in women’s chess by playing together in competition with the other women players.

In contrast, Yifan plays in simply everything! Since becoming world champion she has become one of the game’s biggest ambassadors, essentially becoming a  globetrotter and even going to some places one would not imagine chess is played! (This young woman is one of the nicest persons one could meet, completely without any airs, always accommodating even if the demands on her time are making it more and more difficult to meet each and every request made of her by so many!).

More amazing perhaps is that while Yifan has been a long time member of China’s national team and so plays, trains and works with her team mates as regularly as national assignments demand, she still has no personal coach. In fact,  she is forced to share the likes of Ye Jiangchuan with all the others!

This was confirmed in an enlightening conversation on national chess development with Yifan facilitated by me at the request of the legendary Indonesian Grandmaster Utut Adianto, a top 20 player in his time, now a sitting twice elected Senator but very much active in promoting chess by serving as Deputy President of PERCASI (All Indonesia Chess Federation) and through his nationwide SCUA (Sekolah Catur Utut Adianto) network.

On top of that, China is still China, and the government takes a levy on prize money won. I remember well Yifan making the polite joke that she would have been happy to be Indonesian given the benefits their girls received!

It is clear that it is just a matter of time before she surpasses Judit’s ratings record but a more and very significant development is Yifan’s latest success! (Surprisingly, of the prominent English language chess news sites only Chessbase gave her result the coverage it deserved and was also not shy to state what it meant.)

The organisers of the Corsican Circuit had amazingly managed to get both Yifan and former World Champion (and again World Championship Candidate) Viswanathan Anand to take part in a knockout event and when the dust settled it was Yifan who emerged the winner, beating Sergey Fedorchuk who had put out Anand in the Semi-Finals by a score of 2-0!

Here is the final game -- our thanks to Chessbase -- one which shows off both her fighting spirit and wonderful resourcefulness.


Fedorchuk,Sergey A (2673) - Hou,Yifan (2673) [B72]

Corsican Circuit 2014 - Final Ajaccio (1.2), 22.10.2014

[Ramirez Alvarez,Alejandro]


1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6!? [Hou Yifan is well versed in her Sicilians, but it is not so common for her to start the game like this.]

3.Nc3 [An anti-Sveshnikov move, but I doubt the World Champion was planning to play that with the Black pieces.]

3...g6 [The accelerated Dragon becomes more feasible for top-GMs to play once the Maroczy has been avoided.]

4.d4 cxd4 5.Nxd4 Bg7 6.Be3 Nf6 7.Be2 [An old but relatively quiet line, Black is not supposed to have too many problems in this variation.]

[7.Bc4 0–0 8.Bb3 is still the most theoretically challenging line. Black has a few options at her disposal.]

7...0–0 8.f4 [8.0–0 d5 is already known to be equal.]

8...d6 9.Nb3 [This line has fallen out of popularity for a long time now. Black has more than one continuation that promises good play.]

9...a6 [9...Be6 10.g4 d5 11.f5 Bc8 12.exd5 Nb4 13.Bf3 is a famous and old game between Fischer-Reshevsky, 1961.; 9...a5! is more assertive.; 9...e5!?]

10.g4 [White’s attack on the kingside in these kinds of situations is usually somewhat slow. It is more visually impactful than dangerous.]

10...b5 11.g5 Nd7 12.Qd2 Nb6 [Black quickly transfers the knight to the queenside, hoping to put pressure there quickly.]

13.0–0–0 Na4! [This is the point. Now c3 is under attack and Black already has concrete threats.]

14.Nd4 Bb7?! [14...Nxc3! 15.Qxc3 Nxd4 16.Bxd4 e5! would have been a perfect way to continue the game. White’s structure is falling apart.]

15.Nd5 Nxd4 16.Bxd4 e5 17.fxe5 Bxd5! [An important strategical decision. White’s knight on d5 is far more useful for White than the bishop as Black is embarking on a dark-square attack.]

18.exd5 dxe5 19.Be3 Qd6?! [Letting Fedorchuk slightly off the hook.]

[19...e4! 20.Bd4 (20.c3 b4 is not a position that White can survive.) 20...Qxd5is a clean pawn.]

20.Kb1 Rac8 [Black still keeps some initiative. Notice that White has not had time to develop anything on the other flank.]

21.h4? e4?! [Missing a brilliant finish.]

[21...Rc3!! This unusual move wins on the spot. The point is that b4 is now clear for the queen, making the attack on the queenside far more dangerous. The rook is clearly taboo. 22.Ka1 (22.bxc3 Qa3 with unstoppable mate following up.) 22...e4 23.Rb1 Ra3!]

22.Bd4 Qxd5 23.Qe3 Bxd4 24.Rxd4 Qc5 25.c3 Rfd8 26.Rhd1 Rxd4 27.Rxd4 Re8 [At the end of the day White has survived the attack. He is down a pawn but can regain it in the next move; though he would still be a little worse.]

28.h5? [28.Bf3! Qf5 29.Bxe4 Qf1+ 30.Qc1 Qf2]

28...Qe5 29.h6 Nc5? [Already with both players in time pressure both players miss an important resource here.]

30.Bg4? [30.c4! White has the strong threat of Rd5, and its surprisingly difficult to stop!]

30...Kf8 31.a3 Ne6 32.Bxe6 Qxe6 33.a4 Qf5 [Black is now up a pawn. It is difficult to convert, but it helps when all you need is a draw.]

34.a5 Qf3! 35.Qxf3 exf3 36.Rf4 Re1+ 37.Kc2 Re2+ 38.Kb3 f2 39.Ka3 [39.Rf6]

39...f5! [A nice move! This clears the path for Black’s king as the pawn cannot be taken.]

40.b3 [40.gxf6 g5–+]

40...Ke7 41.Rf3 Ke6 42.Kb4 Kd5 43.Rf4 Re4+ [43...Re4+ 44.c4+ bxc4 45.Rxf2 cxb3+ 46.Kxb3 f4 is very hopeless.]


* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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