Growing chess means bringing more girls into the game, and the same is true of finding the first woman world champion. https://t.co/lfcjFwBoGt
— Garry Kasparov (@Kasparov63) July 31, 2021
READ THE ORIGINAL ARTICLE AT THE NEW YORKER
By Louisa Thomas
Even by the standards of chess prodigies, Hou Yifan stood out. It wasn’t so much the way she played the game—dynamically but not dazzlingly, with an aggressive but flexible style. It was that she was a girl. Thirteen years after she became a Grandmaster, at the age of fourteen, people still mention the two big barrettes that used to pin back her bobbed hair. “I never felt restrictions or limitations,” she told me recently, from her home in Shenzhen, China, where she is a professor at Shenzhen University’s Faculty of Physical Education. (Last year, at twenty-six, she became the youngest full professor in the university’s history.) “My parents never taught me that as a girl you should do this or that,” she said. “Teachers never shaped my views in that way.” These days, her hair falls to her shoulders, and black cat’s-eye glasses frame her face. She speaks English quickly and precisely; she spent a year at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, studying public policy. She is the only woman among the hundred best chess players in the world, at No. 82. The second-ranked woman, Aleksandra Goryachkina, a Russian in her early twenties, is outside the top two hundred.
Chess is not like basketball or soccer. Men and women face one another on equal terms, and no one can tell the gender of a player from the moves on a scorecard. Still, of the seventeen hundred and thirty-two Grandmasters in the world, just thirty-eight are women. Much of this gap stems from how many women compete, versus the number of men who do: around sixteen per cent of tournament players identify as female, and most of them are children. As a purely statistical matter, you would expect few, if any, women at the extremes of the rankings. Still, this appears to be an incomplete explanation of the disparity at the top of the game, about which Hou is blunt. “You cannot deny it, you cannot pretend it doesn’t happen,” she told me, of the absence of women from chess’s highest echelon. For years, she has been the only one who stood a chance.
Hou was born in 1994 in Xinghua, a small city near China’s coast. As a child, she spotted a chess set in a shopwindow, and liked the shapes of the pieces: the sturdy pawns and slender-necked bishops, the castellated rooks and horse-headed knights. When she was five, she started playing the game with other kids at the home of a chess teacher, and showed enough talent that her parents enrolled her a year early in the local school, which had a chess program. She and her classmates would consult a large chess dictionary and write out the first few moves of famous openings—the Scotch, the Ruy Lopez—on a sheet of paper. Then they’d set up their boards, dutifully execute their copied instructions, and launch their wild attacks.
Hou liked calculating how one move would provoke another, and started thinking in terms of sequences. She developed a sense of where to push and when to defend. Her coach at school could take her only so far, but, at a tournament, she met an International Master and former national champion named Tong Yuanming, who taught chess in Shandong Province, a few hours north. Tong said that he would consider taking her on. He sat Hou at a board and had her face his top pupils, all boys. They had studied chess theory; they knew how to checkmate with only, say, a bishop and a knight. Hou did not know endgames, but she beat most of them anyway. She was seven years old.
She moved to Shandong with her mother and attended chess classes. Two years later, she joined the national team, and her family moved to Beijing. Her parents told her that she could “go back to normal life” whenever she wanted, but she was not a normal talent. She won the girls’ under-ten championship in 2003, and, the next year, finished the boys’ under-ten tournament tied for first, placing third after tiebreaks. In 2005, she was the youngest player on the one female squad at the World Team Chess Championship, in Israel. She lost her first two games, and, while sulking, got thrashed in the third, despite starting with the white pieces. (The player with the white pieces always moves first, giving her a slight advantage.) The experience hardened her mind-set, making her more disciplined and professional. She was eleven.
Hou’s competitors started taking note not just of her performances but of her disposition. Irina Bulmaga, a contemporary of Hou’s who lives in Romania, said, “My parents and coaches were always telling me, ‘Look how focussed she is during the games.’ ” Bulmaga, like most young players, struggled to contain her emotions and to concentrate throughout games that could last for five hours and were sometimes played back-to-back. Hou was stoic. “My personality wouldn’t push me to an extreme,” she told me. It is not that she never got emotional or distracted, or didn’t feel pressure. It is that these experiences were so rare that she can cite each time they happened.
In some respects, China was a good place for a girl to pursue chess. The International Chess Federation—known by its French acronym, fide—has overseen a world championship for women since 1927. For years, it was dominated by the Soviets. Then, in 1991, a young Chinese player named Xie Jun qualified for the finals against Maia Chiburdanidze, of Georgia, who had held the title since 1978. China had never had a championship contender, and Xie’s preparation became a collective project. The country’s top male players helped coach her. She won, becoming a source of national pride and establishing a path followed by other women’s chess champions. For a long time, the top Chinese men and women trained together in Beijing—though that has changed since China got two men into the top twenty.
When Hou was fourteen, she shared third place in the open section of the World Junior Chess Championship, in Turkey, and became the fifteenth-youngest person, to that point, to achieve the rank of Grandmaster. Later that year, she reached the finals of the Women’s World Chess Championship, and finished second. She developed a reputation on tour for kindness, and for mental strength. In 2010, she returned to the finals, and came into her fourth game needing just a draw to win—and lost. It was one of the rare occasions when a game got to her. That night, she walked with her mother and her coach around the garden of their hotel until she was calm. The next day, in tiebreaks, she overwhelmed her opponent and compatriot Ruan Lufei. At sixteen, Hou was the youngest-ever women’s world champion, and among the world’s best teen-age players. It was possible to imagine other summits that she might climb. But Hou had her own ambitions.
The most famous female chess player in the world doesn’t exist. Beth Harmon, the protagonist of “The Queen’s Gambit,” is a fictional character, invented by the novelist Walter Tevis, in 1983, and lately given new life in a Netflix miniseries. Harmon conquers the chess world of the nineteen-fifties and sixties and faces only the mildest sexism along the way. The Hollywood version of her story, though fanciful in many respects, evokes the glamour of Lisa Lane, who became a media sensation in the early sixties but quit the game in 1966, unhappy with the focus on her looks and her love life, and unable to make a comfortable living as a pro. Lane became the national women’s champion twice, but never beat the best women in the world, let alone the top men. (Tevis seems also to have been inspired by Bobby Fischer, the eccentric American champion, who was a notorious chauvinist.)
Shortly after Tevis’s novel was published, three women emerged whose stories rivalled Harmon’s. They were sisters, from Hungary: Susan (née Zsuzsa), the oldest; Sofia (née Zsófia); and Judit, the baby of the family. Their father, László Polgár, believed that geniuses are made, not born, and set out to prove it. He kept his daughters on a strict educational schedule that included studying chess for up to six hours a day. There was also a twenty-minute period dedicated to telling jokes.
In 1950, fide had regularized the titles applied to the best chess players, and created one title just for women: Woman International Master. The bar was set two hundred rating points lower than that for a standard International Master, the title below Grandmaster. Twenty-six years later, fide introduced the title of Woman Grandmaster, and placed that title, too, at a threshold lower than not only Grandmaster but also International Master. Polgár wanted to insulate his daughters from the damaging effects of low expectations: the sisters sought titles available to men, and, with a few exceptions, they avoided women’s tournaments.
Some of the men they played wouldn’t shake their hands. One, after losing to Susan, threw pieces in her direction. In 1986, when Susan was seventeen, she should have qualified for a regional tournament for the World Chess Championship, based on her result at the Hungarian national championship, but the Hungarian federation, angry about her insistence on playing men, refused to send her. fide eventually intervened, officially opening future world championships to female competitors. Susan became the third woman to earn the title of Grandmaster. Sofia, who, at the age of fourteen, won a tournament against respected Grandmasters in spectacular fashion, reached the level of International Master. Judit eclipsed them both.
A diminutive girl with long red hair and arresting gray eyes, Judit, by thirteen, had a shot at Bobby Fischer’s record for youngest-ever Grandmaster, and Sports Illustrated ran a story about her. “It’s inevitable that nature will work against her, and very soon,” the world champion Garry Kasparov told the magazine. He added, “She has fantastic chess talent, but she is, after all, a woman.” Polgár beat Fischer’s record; two years later, she beat Boris Spassky, a former world champion. The first time she played Kasparov, in 1994, he changed his mind about moving a piece after lifting his hand, breaking the rules; Polgár looked questioningly at the arbiter, who seemed to see the infraction but did nothing. Kasparov won that match and, for seven years, every other game they played, except for a handful of draws. Then, in 2002, at a tournament in Moscow, she faced him in a game of rapid chess. The format gave each player about half an hour to complete their moves. By then, Polgár was ranked No. 19 in the world. Kasparov was still No. 1. Playing with the black pieces, he deployed a defense that was unusual for him, and Polgár, an aggressive and psychologically astute player, noted that he had opted for a line that his rival Vladimir Kramnik had once used against him. Seeing what was coming, Polgár seized control. With her rooks doubled on the seventh rank and hunting the Russian’s exposed king, Kasparov resigned.
Polgár later said that she would have preferred a more brilliant win, strength against strength. Still, it was a historic occasion: the best woman had defeated the best man. Kasparov now regrets his chauvinism toward female chess players, and Polgár in particular, he told me. “There was no epiphany,” he explained in an e-mail. “I just got older and wiser, and can only apologize that it took as long as it did!” He has since become an outspoken supporter of women in the game. (He served as a consultant on “The Queen’s Gambit.”) Polgár, who retired in 2014, having peaked in the rankings at No. 8, told me that the absence of women at the top has nothing to do with innate ability. It has to do, she said, with how rarely girls dedicate themselves to chess at the expense of everything else. For every Polgár sister, of course, there are countless young players who have burned out, pushed too hard by ambitious parents and coaches. Still, Polgár is firm about what it takes to become a top player—and when one must begin. “You have to be, really, a kid to get involved,” she said, “so that it goes simply under your skin.”
In 2012, Hou Yifan became the first female player to beat Judit Polgár in a classical game in twenty-two years. She did it at a tournament in Gibraltar, in a field that included some of the world’s top Grandmasters. fide ranks players using the so-called Elo system: winners take points from losers, and the discrepancy in their ratings coming into a match determines the number of points won and lost. The Elo system is also used to calculate performance ratings achieved at specific events; Hou’s rating for the tournament in Gibraltar was an astonishing 2872. She tied for first place with the British Grandmaster Nigel Short, once the No. 3 player in the world. Short won the title in tiebreaks, but Hou emerged as the star of the tournament and the heir to Polgár. Suddenly, she carried tremendous symbolic weight every time she sat down at the board.
In some ways, the lack of a female world champion is more troubling to people outside the game than it is to those within it. In the popular imagination, chess is nearly synonymous with intelligence, but professional players know that the game is a highly specialized activity. László Polgár’s attitude toward women’s titles and tournaments is not typical; most female players see these tournaments as opportunities for finding camaraderie in a male-dominated arena. The trans writer Charlotte Clymer, an avid amateur player, described women’s tournaments to me as “a reprieve from worrying about the palpable discomfort that some men have with trans women.” Crucially, the tournaments also provide financial and sponsorship support. “I think it’s really important for women to have their own competitions, their own titles,” Anna Muzychuk, a Ukrainian Grandmaster, told me. “It motivates them to work, to become stronger. We can see that it can be our profession.” Success in women’s and girls’ tournaments, though, can be a “trap,” the chess writer Mig Greengard told me. While Greengard believes that girls-only tournaments are positive social experiences for female players, he worries that the best, like Hou, aren’t routinely challenged in the way that the boys are. “The way you get better is by having your ass kicked hard and often by better players,” he said.
There is something disquieting about a system that uses the word “woman” to devalue a title—and sexism in the chess world unquestionably persists. Jennifer Shahade, a Woman Grandmaster, is the director of U.S. Chess Women, an initiative of the United States Chess Federation that organizes and funds programs for girls and women. (Shahade is also a friend of mine.) A few years ago, she and her husband created an art installation titled “Not Particularly Beautiful,” an interactive chessboard filled with misogynistic insults that she and other female chess players have received. Anna Rudolf, an International Master who has become a popular chess streamer on Twitch and a commentator for matches, told me that when she played on a team in Hungary’s top club league the venues often had no women’s bathrooms, or left them locked. Rudolf was once falsely accused, on no evidence other than her strong performance during a tournament, of hiding a microcomputer in her lip balm.
Some men resent that there are prizes available just to women, and bristle at the idea that women who are rated lower than many men can make a living from chess, while the vast majority of those men can’t. Shahade told me, “In chats online, people will ask, ‘Why are there Woman Grandmaster titles?’ They know the answer, but they want to bring up female inferiority. Then someone will bring up the greater-male-variability hypothesis”—the idea, going back to Darwin, that men exhibit more natural variation than women, and so are more likely to appear at the extremes, both positive and negative, of human ability. “It always goes the same way,” Shahade went on. “It’s not really done in good faith.”
Hou has nothing but good things to say about her interactions with male opponents, but remarks like those which Shahade described aren’t made only on Twitter. Nigel Short, a few years after beating Hou in tiebreaks, claimed that men were “hard-wired” to be better than women at the game. “I don’t have the slightest problem in acknowledging that my wife possesses a much higher degree of emotional intelligence than I do,” he said. “Likewise, she doesn’t feel embarrassed in asking me to maneuver the car out of our narrow garage. One is not better than the other, we just have different skills.” When Short’s remarks were condemned, he claimed that he was speaking in terms of general populations, and that the existence of exceptions proved nothing. “Men and women do have different brains. This is a biological fact,” he responded to one critic on Twitter. Short is now a vice-president of fide.
In truth, the science on the subject is far from settled. There are measurable differences between men’s brains and women’s, on average, but it is not entirely clear what those differences mean, and there is enough variation within the sexes to lessen any explanatory power the differences might have. Several studies have found disparities in men’s and women’s relative ability to rotate 3-D objects in their minds, which might have a bearing on proficiency at chess—but that skill is teachable, and other studies have shown that experience and training can overcome average differences between the sexes. What’s more, emphasizing biological differences may, in itself, discourage women from pursuing certain activities, a possibility that has been explored in research on the gender discrepancies in stem fields.
Talking to women in chess, I found it striking how many seem comfortable with the presumption that men have inherent advantages. Eva Repková, a Woman Grandmaster from Slovakia, is the chair of fide’s Commission for Women’s Chess, which promotes gender equality in the game. Last October, in an interview with a newspaper in India, she was quoted as saying that “it’s more natural for men to pick chess as an interest or women to maybe pick music or arranging flowers,” and that women lacked men’s “physical endurance” and “fighting spirit.” She insisted to me that her remarks were taken out of context: “I totally believe in gender equality,” she said. But Muzychuk, the Ukrainian Grandmaster, made similar points to me about endurance and competitiveness. Even Hou, in an interview a couple of years ago, brought up endurance as a possible male advantage, though she played it down, and pointed out that girls are discouraged from having high ambitions. “Most girls are told at an early age that there’s a kind of gender distinction, and they should just try their best in the girls’ section and be happy with that,” she said. “So, without the motivation to chase higher goals, it’s harder for some girls to improve as fast as boys as they grow up.” Many girls drop away from the more competitive tracks of the game when they reach high school.
In 2012, after Hou beat Polgár, she stunned the chess world again by announcing that she would be attending Peking University as a full-time student. Few of the current top players went to college, and some didn’t finish high school. Polgár told me that, at the time, she thought, “Of course, she can still play great chess, even improve her chess, possibly. But to get in the top ten in the world, compete with the top male players in the world, who are completely dedicated professionals, I don’t think it’s possible.” Hou was at peace with her decision. “I did not want to spend my life wholly on chess,” she told me. She played wonderfully while in college nonetheless, climbing to her peak rating, 2683—just below the 2700 threshold of the so-called super Grandmasters, players who are generally considered possible contenders for the world championship. She thrived at school, too, embracing campus life and taking a wide range of courses outside her international-relations major: geology, anatomy, Japanese art and culture.
Hou won the Women’s World Championship again in 2013 and in 2016, as she was finishing her senior year in college. She had never been particularly outspoken, but, after winning her fourth championship, she declared that she would not play for the title again unless the format was changed to be more like that of the World Chess Championship, which takes place every other year and uses a “challenger” system: candidates compete for the right to face the sitting champion. The women’s title was being held every year, and alternated between the challenger system and a knockout tournament, in which sixty-four competitors, including the defending champion, were placed in a bracket and faced single elimination. Knockouts favor upsets and chaos, which lend them a degree of excitement—and may help attract sponsors—but they undermine the format’s ability to determine who is truly the best. (fide, in 2019, adopted a version of the changes that Hou had proposed.)
It wasn’t the only stand she took. In 2017, in Gibraltar, Hou showed up thirty minutes late to her final round and resigned after five moves. Afterward, she explained that she was protesting being paired against women in seven of her ten matches. (Men far outnumbered women at the event.) Tournament officials said the pairings were an unlikely but statistically possible accident. Hou’s resignation sparked an unusually heated debate in the typically staid chess world. When I asked her about the protest, she described it as a thing of the past, and said she’d rather look forward.
Some of the excitement around Hou’s potential grew from her adaptable style, and from the sense that her abilities were instinctive as much as learned. “This very natural feeling of the game is hard to describe,” Vladimir Kramnik told ESPN the Magazine, in a piece about Hou. “She doesn’t need to calculate, to come logically to a certain good move—she just feels it. That’s a sign of big talent. I experienced something similar when I played Magnus Carlsen for the first time.”
Carlsen, a thirty-year-old from Norway, has been the top player in the world for nearly all of Hou’s career. She has never beaten him in an official game, though she has come close. In the spring of 2017, she faced him at the Grenke Chess Classic, in Baden-Baden, Germany. She was coming off a spectacular win against the No. 3 player in the world, the American Fabiano Caruana. Carlsen, unfazed, chose a riskier opening than he normally selects: he was playing for the win. The game was more or less even through twenty-two moves, then Carlsen carelessly advanced a pawn on the queenside, weakening his center of the board, and Hou found the perfect rook move to punish him. Suddenly, it was a two-outcome game: Hou would almost certainly either win or draw. She looked serene; Carlsen did not. Against someone else, she likely would have kept applying pressure. Facing Carlsen, she traded pieces to simplify the position, and settled for the draw. She knew how many players had seen their fortunes improbably reverse against Carlsen, how many had watched him wring water from what looked like stone.
Carlsen learned how to play chess alongside his sister Ellen. Their father, Henrik, decided to teach them the game when she was six and he was five, but they lost interest after a few months. He tried again the following year, with similar results. A few years later, he tried a third time, and then, some months later, a fourth; finally, it stuck. Both children now liked the game. Magnus liked it more.
I asked Henrik recently what he would have done if it had been Ellen, not Magnus, who showed great promise. He said that he hoped he would have encouraged her the same way, but that it wasn’t really the right question. If anything, Ellen picked up the game more easily. But Magnus had a single-mindedness that his sister didn’t share. “At the age of four, he could sit for six hours, building Lego,” Henrik said. “And when he went to bed his eyes were still swimming with Legos.” When Magnus and Ellen began playing chess, they made the same amount of progress for a while, and then Ellen turned her mind to other things. Magnus, bored with his schoolwork, started carrying a chessboard around and reading chess books. He wanted to go to every tournament he could.
The family spent six months driving around Europe, ferrying Magnus to competitions and sightseeing. Ellen started playing again, and their younger sister Ingrid began playing, too. Ellen became a strong club player, with a peak rating of 1939. “Some of my best friends are girls and boys from the chess world,” she told me. But she tired of the attention that came with being one of the few women in chess, and one with the last name Carlsen. It made her anxious, she said, to see the best players in a hall gathered around her board, studying her moves. She didn’t feel her intelligence was being judged, she noted. “I don’t think I have ever felt intellectually inferior to any of the guys I played against,” she said, adding, “I think to most people it is clear that your chess rating is not identical to your intellectual abilities.” Her brother became a Grandmaster at thirteen, and world champion a decade later. Ellen became a doctor.
In 2017, after Hou beat Caruana and drew Carlsen, the chess world began buzzing again about her prospects. It had been an up-and-down year. There was the match in Gibraltar that she’d thrown in protest; she’d also had a dismal showing at a tournament in Geneva. In August, she won the Biel International Chess Festival, in Switzerland, with a performance rating of 2810. She said that it “showed I could compete at the top.” But she had applied for and was accepted into a master’s program at the University of Chicago. She’d deferred the admission and, instead, while in Geneva, she’d interviewed for the Rhodes Scholarship. In December, she announced that she was headed to Oxford. She got less pushback for this decision, she told me, than she had for going to college.
I’ve spoken to a number of people who are convinced that Hou would have risen higher if she’d made the game her singular focus. “I believe she could have been top twenty,” Irina Bulmaga told me. Bulmaga admitted that a part of her was disappointed that Hou hadn’t done so. “The more you see, the more you believe maybe you could achieve it, too,” she said. Hou, though, speaks without regrets. Enkhtuul Altan-Ulzii, a Woman Grandmaster from Mongolia who is one of Hou’s closest friends, told me, “She is not actually results oriented. She plays for fun and enjoyment.”
Hou remained a popular invite for tournaments, including those featuring the world’s top players. Quiet, fashionably dressed, sometimes with a pot of tea nearby, she was often the only woman in the room. Last year, during the pandemic, Carlsen organized an online chess tour, with five events and a million dollars in total prize money. (He won.) Now called the Meltwater Champions Chess Tour, it expanded in 2021, this time with an accompanying challengers’ competition, designed to encourage gender equality. The challengers include ten of the top girls and women under the age of twenty-four, and ten of their male counterparts. They are divided into two mixed-gender teams, one captained by Vladimir Kramnik and the other by Judit Polgár. Hou is a coach for Kramnik’s team. The point, Polgár told me, isn’t to show that the girls can compete with the boys—for one thing, the ratings of the boys, almost to a person, are higher, and the standings so far have reflected that. “They are not worse than boys because they are girls,” Polgár said. “They are worse because they are not playing the same amount of time, with the same focus and dedication.”
One of the participants is Carissa Yip, who, at ten, became the youngest girl to defeat a Grandmaster, and now, at seventeen, is the highest-rated American woman. She loves chess—“every single game is different,” she told me, like “art”—but she has not made every decision in her life with an eye toward her chess career. A few years ago, when choosing between the public high school near her home, in Andover, Massachusetts, or the prestigious prep school in town, Phillips Academy, which strictly limits the number of classes that students can miss, she chose Phillips Academy, even though it would complicate her participation in chess tournaments. “Obviously, it wasn’t great for my chess life,” she told me. “But I wouldn’t change what I did.”
Hou has been thinking lately about the impact that chess has had on her life—the chances it gave her to travel and to develop her mind. At Shenzhen University, along with helping with the school’s chess team, she is looking for other ways to use the game. She has begun commentating at tournaments, and is advising on a Chinese translation of “The Queen’s Gambit.” There is something to be said for using chess to enrich one’s life instead of using one’s life to master chess. Jennifer Shahade told me, “I think there’s too much emphasis on being the highest rank.” Women have begun to thrive in other parts of the chess world, such as online streaming, which exploded in popularity on Twitch and YouTube during the pandemic. Two charismatic sisters from Canada, Alexandra and Andrea Botez, have nearly a million followers on the former; Alexandra is outside the top twenty-five thousand in the fide rankings, but in an interview with CNBC she estimated that she will make “at least mid six figures” through streaming and sponsorships this year. Shahade said that, in the past couple of years, more girls are playing in schools and local clubs. The U.S. Chess Women initiative has a robust—and growing—girls’ club program on Zoom. The fide Commission for Women’s Chess, led by Repková, is trying to expand the number of female arbiters and tournament officials in addition to female players. Addressing the gender disparity at the top “comes from addressing the disparity at the bottom, at the base of the pyramid,” Kasparov told me. “You can have a similar conversation about why there aren’t more Grandmasters from different parts of the world, or of different races or cultures. Talent is equally distributed, but opportunity is not.”
In June, Hou competed in her first major tournament of 2021, the Women’s Speed Chess Championship. She hadn’t been training, she said; she made a few uncharacteristic blunders but won the tournament anyway. Simultaneously, she became the first woman to compete in the Meltwater tour. In the third game of the second round, she faced Carlsen. The match was streamed on the Web site Chess24, and Carlsen, in a white shirt emblazoned with the logos of various sponsors, looked sharp, his thick caramel hair swept upward. Hou leaned in as she concentrated, such that her head was often cut off at the chin, and the lighting appeared to blur her face. Carlsen played opening moves that were clearly aimed at stopping Hou from taking the initiative. He guided the match into its endgame, keeping the upper hand. He got his pieces onto active squares, and Hou’s light-squared bishop became stuck in a corner. Carlsen’s passed pawn moved up the board, and Hou knew that the game was lost. She tilted her head to rest it on her hand.
It was an uneven tournament for Hou. She suffered a series of losses against the weaker part of the field, but, against Wesley So, Anish Giri, Levon Aronian, and Ding Liren—four of the best players in the world—she managed draws. Against Ding, her countryman and the world’s third-ranked classical player, she clamped down in a so-called hedgehog structure, the black pawns forming a row of tight little spikes, and waited for her chance to counter. When it came, she took control, until the position simplified into a draw. It was the kind of performance that inspires some chess fans to think about what might have been.
But that’s not what’s on Hou’s mind. “I’m sure that my future life will have a connection with chess, maybe a deep connection,” she said. “This connection is there all the time.” She has been working with a group of psychologists and statisticians on a paper exploring why there are so few women in chess at all levels. The insights she contributes are gleaned from her own career. Whether or not there is an “innate difference” between men and women, she said, what interests her is the way “society shapes you.” ♦