Chess & Conversation with Yifan

sponsor WorldQuant | host UBS | affiliate HerMoveNext

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Monday, August 12, 2019

BY CHLOE COHEN | GRADE 9 | the CHAPIN SCHOOL | HMN COACH
& BY MAYA DORON-REPA | GRADE 9 | Stuyvesant | HMN COACH

Anyone entering the UBS New York City Headquarters on August 12th, 2019, was probably there for normal business activities. Unknown to most, there was a celebrity in the house. Yifan Hou, chess grandmaster and four time Women's World Champion, has become an icon in the chess world. The accomplished 25-year-old balances a life of school, work, and, of course, chess. Hou also has an internship at the UN, and is a Rhode Scholar. Hou attends Oxford University for a one-year master's program. Such a varied pedigree is extremely unusual for someone at her level of accomplishment in chess. Unlike Hou, many elite players are solely focused on chess, and do not pursue college, internships, or other jobs.

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Hou grew up in a neighborhood in China where chess was a rising sport. At 12 years old, Hou made it to the third round of the Women's World Championship. At age 16, Hou became the youngest player, male or female, to win a chess World Championship. Hou is currently the only woman in the top one hundred rated players - a statistic she and organizations like Her Move Next look to change.

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The event started out with a distinct festive feel, complete with custom chess T-shirts, snacks, and a chess-themed photobooth. Hou was eagerly greeted by a group of young students representing Her Move Next, an organization that empowers girls to play (and continue playing) chess. A select few of these students were set to rival Hou in a timed simul. In this setup, Hou played all sixteen participants at once.

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An hour into the event's start, players and spectators alike gathered in the make-shift playing hall where Her Move Next representatives would face Grandmaster Hou. After opening statements and introductions, Hou began the simul. Each player, including Hou, had 35 minutes - another challenge imposed to make the game even more difficult for her. Playing 16 people at once is hard enough - the task can be compared to LeBron James playing against sixteen players all at once - without the addition of clocks. With only 35 minutes on each board, Hou faced immense time pressure. When at one board, Hou's clock would be running on every other where it was her turn. If Hou took too long on one board, all other players could have made their moves, making Hou lose even more time.

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Two professional chess coaches worked as commentators, keeping the room informed on what was happening on each board. An updating screen projected the top four players' games. Players who finished their match against Hou joined the watching crowd. When Hou shook hands with Emma Adams, the last to finish, the grandmaster ended with four draws and twelve wins, undefeated.

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Though most lost, players attested to have learned so much when playing Hou. "I learned that no matter how much time you have on the clock you still have to take a few minutes to think out your move," said Rose Morden.

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"It was really hard playing Yifan Hou because when you tried solving one problem another one showed up," said Simone Morden.

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Following the simul, players and spectators settled in for a Q&A session with Hou. Participants were able to ask Hou questions - about her life, her success, or advice she might have for them and other young chess players.

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"Looking back - knowing what you know now about chess and life - what advice would you give the 12-year-old you?" asked participant Emma Adams. This question put Hou into thought.

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"I would tell myself that during every single chess game, try to stay there until the game is finished. I was playing in the World Girls Under 20 [tournament] and halfway through the tournament, I was in a winning position. I started to think about what I should play in my next game and who might be my next opponent and things like that instead of focussing on this chess game," Hou said. Hou revealed she went on to lose this game, despite her previous advantage. "You should not think of anything else apart from this current game. Try to stay there until this game is finished."

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When asked what advice she would give on winning a world championship, Hou put an emphasis on finding a balance between having a love and interest for chess, and having professional training.

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"If you see chess as a job or a kind of task [and] it's coming from your parents or somewhere else, that is not the best way to be an efficient chess player."... "On the other hand, if you are only interested and enjoy playing but have a lack of professional training it could be difficult to win a World Championship," Hou said. Children and parents alike were fascinated and encouraged by Hou's words.

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After the discussion, students were treated to chess-themed cookies and boards autographed by Hou. The celebratory air that had filled the room throughout the event persisted, while the event-goers munched on the frosted treats and chatted about the evening's activities.

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Before everyone left the UBS building, a few girls were interviewed about their experience playing Hou. Those interviewed were asked to describe, without words, what chess means to them. Many exited the room with a thumbs up, hand-formed heart, and a smile on their face.

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