We met with Hou Yifan about midnight after the end of the closing ceremony of the fourth stage Grand Prix in Khanty-Mansiysk. She had a flight early in the morning but kindly agreed to an interview instead of sleeping an extra hour before her long way back home. There was no other time “to torture” Women’s World Champion and winner of the fourth stage of Women Grand Prix as she decided not to prolong her stay in Khanty-Mansiysk. Long time ago she made a decision not to include the World Rapid and Blitz Championships in her tough schedule and was the only player out of 12 participants of Women’s Grand Prix, who decided not to check her skills in faster time controls.
Hou confidently won the fourth stage of Grand Prix with one round to go. She finished undefeated, having won 6 games and drawn another 5.
How can you estimate your result in Grand Prix? Are you satisfied with the quality of your games here?
Before I came here I just wanted to try my best and to show my best playing skills. My participation at the first stage of Grand Prix in Geneva was not successful. This stage was also difficult as all top women players were participating here. My previous result in Khanty during Women’s World Championship 2012 was also not good, so it was another point which didn’t make me feel too optimistic before the event. Normally it doesn’t influence me but during my previous visit here the weather was really cold and I’m glad this time it was much better than before. It’s so cold during the winter here!
Before this event I played in our National Championship and the result was not really good but I had some practice before this tournament.
You started with 3 victories…
Yes, it was a very good beginning and I must say I won those games without too many difficulties. I understood if I was not in my perfect shape but in a good shape for sure. I didn’t make big blunders and it gave me some confidence.
But first success didn’t really influence my play in the next rounds. All the opponents were strong, so I played each game as the first one – just tried to do my best in each round. I don’t think like that: “Ok, this game I want to play solid and draw is a good result. The next one I need to win, so I have to push.” This time the tournament went really fine for me; there were no ups and downs.
In the 10th round you made a solid draw against Anna Muzychuk and guaranteed the first place. Could you imagine to lose two last games and not to win this event?
No, at this time with 2 points ahead I had really big advantage. Normally it shouldn’t happen but if something weird like this happens then we cannot control it. I believe I just have to do my best in this kind of situation.
At the last press conference you said there were no games you can be proud of from this tournament because most of them you won due to mistakes of your opponents. What about the game against Anna Ushenina? It looks like you managed to outplay her…
In this game I chose very solid opening but we didn’t play perfectly because we were in time trouble. Although there were no big blunders still there were some mistakes, I think I didn’t play precisely. So finally she ended up in a worse position. I don’t feel I showed any special skills to win this game.
The final result in Grand Prix was good, although I missed some good chances for example in the game against Zhao Xue. I think in all my games, which finished in draws, I had some chances at some moments.
It looks like you didn’t have a single worse position out of the opening during the tournament. You have surprised your opponents and fans by playing 1.c4. Did you spend some time for your opening preparation before this tournament?
Not really, actually (smiles). Before the National Championship I just started the new semester in my University, so I had to study. After the championship there was only half a month before the Grand Prix. I didn’t have time to prepare specifically for this tournament.
What about new openings? How do you decide which one to play?
Since I’ve been playing chess for more than 10 years, I know how to play many openings and try to be a universal player.
How do you study chess these days when you have also your lessons in the university?
Since I have my university and tournaments I’m looking for balance. I try to find time to prepare for my lessons and exams and I also need to find time to prepare for chess events. So before some key tournaments I try to find few days for preparation. My university is one of the best universities in China, so like any normal student I have to study a lot and I don’t have any advantages. I want to finish my education in time – after 4 years.
I’m not the kind of person, who forces myself to study chess every day. I follow my feelings. If I feel like I want to look at chess, so I will just study chess. If I want some rest I will rest.
I still want to improve my playing skills, so I follow top events and try to update my openings.
Were you following previous Grand Prix events and what do you think about play of Koneru, who is leading now? How difficult it will be to fight for a victory in this Grand Prix series?
Koneru won two stages which I didn’t take part in. She is a strong player. At the time of the Tashkent tournament I was playing in the Women’s World Championship Match, so I didn’t follow this event closely, just saw some games. According to regulations we will meet with her two times in the next stages of Grand Prix. We have round robin events, so it means I’m going to play not only against her but also other strong opponents. I just need to show my best and we will see what will happen. If I show my best but don’t win it’s still fine for me because I cannot control everything.
What is your motivation in chess? What do you want to achieve in chess?
First of all I try to enjoy any game I play. If one thinks only about results then there is no fun to play. On the other hand, I want to improve my rating – I want to reach 2650. My previous highest rating was 2639 and I have around 2600 for 3-4 years, so it’s time to do something about it. I would like to take part in men’s top events if I have such opportunity. I played Tata Steel last year and it was really great. I had a great opportunity to fight against top players in the world and I really hope to get another chance.
I think you gained some elo points in Khanty-Mansiysk?
I’m glad about it but I found out that I’ve got back exactly the same amount of points which I had lost in Chinese Championship few weeks ago. So now I have the same rating!
I lost 40 or 50 elo points in total if we put all national championships together.
Maybe it’s time to stop playing there?
Well, I think it’s time to play good there once and take back everything I lost and only after that I should stop playing there (laughing).
I remember you playing in Rostov-on-Don (2011) against Antoaneta Stefanova in the last round and a draw in that game could guarantee you a victory in the tournament. You didn’t go for repetition, you preferred to play on. Would you do the same if it happens today?
I think I would do the same because I remember this game and there was no anything dangerous for me and I even thought I was slightly better. If I have confidence in my position I will just play the game, I will try not to go to extreme situations maybe but normally I will play. I cannot say that I ignore the result and focus only on quality. I will not agree for a draw in a position which I believe is better for me. Of course if I consider my position as lost it would be crazy not to agree to a draw (smiling).
Don’t you feel you are becoming more solid with age? Do you have fears?
For something in my life – yes, for chess – no.
Since you started to study (almost 2 years ago), where do you feel more comfortable – in chess society or with students?
Few years ago all chess players were older than me. We could communicate of course but in some cases they were telling me “oh, you are too young to know this” or “it’s not your topic” (laughing). Of course I was not really happy about it but now the situation is better. On the contrary, all students in university are of my age. We talk about many things with chess players but still most of topics are related with chess world. With my classmates we talk more about what happens nowadays and discuss some news, we have common interests. We can hang out and have some fun together, I feel comfortable with them. We used to make short trips to mountains or parks.
How do people react when they learn you play chess?
If people don’t ask me or they don’t know that I’m a chess player I will not tell them by myself for sure. If they find out I’m a chess player by themselves – it’s fine. Most of my classmates knew I was a chess player from the beginning and most of the students in my university know about it. Some people can be surprised a bit.
People in China consider chess as a job. So it happens they ask me if chess is the only thing I do in my life and I answer – no, I’m also a student. I have my career of professional chess player right now but it doesn’t mean I will only play chess all my life.
Now you are 20 years old, so how can you imagine your life in 10 years from now?
Normally, I don’t imagine my life that far but I can say that in few years I will mainly focus on chess. Maybe I will finish my master degree. I hope I would be still playing chess in the next 10 years but if not I hope my activity would be connected with chess.
Would you like to have family at this age?
I never say I want or I don’t want something by this age. I can tell you now I will have a child at 25 but who knows what is going to happen (smiles). I hope to find a right person, whom once when you meet him you will be sure that he is the one you are waiting for and can be together through the life time. It will be possible to think about family then. For such kind of things I believe in destiny.
You became world champion at the age of 16, lost your title and then took it back when you were 19. Does it feel different to be a world champion? Do you feel you have to do more to popularize chess in the world? Do you feel more responsible since you won this title for the second time?
I started to think about the title of world champion at the age of 14 when I came quite close to win it in Nalchik [Hou Yifan played in the final against Alexandra Kosteniuk]. At the age of 16 I didn’t think I should win it. Although my rating was quite high, I didn’t have too much experience to play in knockout system events. There were Humpy and other strong players. Even after I won it, I didn’t feel any pressure or determination to defend this title.
I hope I can hold my title for some years but as I said before it’s more important for me to improve my rating and to play more in higher category tournaments, with top players. As for women chess… I believe this system is a bit tiring. Every year we have a match, another year is a knockout championship… I really hope one day it can be changed and we will have the same format as men do.
I hope I can do more to promote chess in China and all around the World. We have many people who play chess but chess is still not so popular as compared with football or tennis. I think in Europe chess is promoted quite well because you can see many chess elements in magazines, advertisements, on the streets. Most of the people can play chess or know the rules at least. Mostly small kids can play chess in China now. Older generation used to play Go or Chinese chess. I hope as a world champion or as a good chess player I can do more to promote chess.
Sometimes I give some simultaneous exhibitions but I think it’s also good to make some activities connected with chess in public places to make people think about our sport.
You took part in photo shooting and gave an interview for the fashion magazine Oyster . Did you like this experience?
I’m glad to take part in such projects. I liked photo shooting and interview. It was nice opportunity to let people, who have no idea about chess, to learn more about our world, to show them that it’s not only about sport, but also combination of intelligence and beauty. If chess can go inside of such magazines I think it’s good.
You have great chess tradition in China – four Women’s World Champions came from your country and you are one of them. Xie Jun, Xu Yuhua are not playing any more. Why do you think they stopped playing so early? Do you think the same can happen to you? Do you see new rising stars in China?
Chinese players quit chess quite early. I think it’s connected with their own reasons and choices but also with our system which is a bit different. I hope I will stay in chess for many years.
We have many gifted female and male players. There are some girls who are quite young and talented. But I think China doesn’t have the same traditions anymore. In the past women players worked with men, I think it became normal when Xie Jun was an active player but it doesn’t work like this anymore. We have coaches of the national team but it’s not the same of course. I was lucky to catch the last part of advantage under the old system 8-9 years ago. Chinese male players are very good nowadays and they want to improve by themselves. They break 2700 and want to go to the top. Sometimes some female players hire seconds by themselves but our federation doesn’t force male players to help women anymore.
Do people recognize you? How popular are you in China?
In China they do sometimes. In my hometown – most of people know me. Sometimes it happens in the airports, I don’t remember where but it was somewhere abroad when Chinese people were also recognizing me.
I know you like to read a lot, so what were the last books you were reading?
Besides a lot of books from university I’ve recently read quite interesting books. One of them is a book which explains poems from ancient Chinese dynasty. Another one is a kind of biography, an encouragement for young people.
One more remarkable book was “Ethnic America: A History” by Thomas Sowell, a history of immigration into America. It was interesting for me to learn about the major immigration groups including Chinese and the way all those different cultures were adapting to the new homeland.