Earlier this week, Chess grandmaster Hou Yifan threw a tournament match after just five moves because she was sick of playing against other women.
Hou is currently the World Chess Federation’s top ranked female chess player and she’s developed quite the reputation for herself over the years. She first became a grandmaster at age twelve and, as a teenager, she was considered “the strongest chessplayer of her age in the world”. Unfortunately, she seems to have found herself bumping up against a glass ceiling.
Earlier this year, Hou turned down the opportunity to defend the women’s world championship title in order to compete in mixed events. She explained her decision to ChessBase.com, saying: “I do not see any point in taking part in the different stages only to be able to play in the [Women’s World Championship], especially when the opponents usually are at least one hundred points below me.”
Instead, Yifan decided to compete in the Tradewise Gibraltar Chess tournament. Unfortunately, when the bracket was revealed, Youfin was still scheduled to play against other women in seven out of 10 rounds of the tournament. She told The Daily Telegraph:
“It makes me really, really upset. Not just for me but for the other women players. We are chess players and of course when we are playing in a tournament we want to show our best performance and create interesting games for the chess fans, for the organizers, for the people who love chess.”
Of course, her decision was unpopular with many members of the community. One chess commentator called her play “the kind of thing you’d see in primary school or from a very drunk person.”
Gibraltar Chess founder Brian Callaghan also addressed the controversy in the Daily Telegraph:
“She’s a huge player, I think one of her games is possibly up this time for being the best game of the tournament, she’s a great player and we love having her… I think we’re listening to what she’s saying about the pairings, I think that we’re sympathetic to what she is saying about the pairings… But I’m sorry for Yifan, because I think she has let herself down at little bit today.”
Of course, it’s not surprising that the organizers would defend their position, but it seems unfair to Yifan to put this on her. It’s seems highly unlikely that she would end up scheduled to play the majority of her matches against other women when the majority of the chess community are men. I think Yifan herself accurately described the pairings when she called them both “unbelievable” and “weird”.
Yifan is not the first female competitor to express anger of the game’s gender divide. Judit Polgar, considered by many to be the greatest living female chess player, also expressed displeasure with the current system.
“To beat men at chess you have to constantly play against them, which can’t be achieved if you limit yourself to being satisfied with winning ladies only tournaments,” she told the Telegraph. “My dream was always to beat every other player and become world champion. “I came close, but in the end that ultimate goal never became a reality for me. One day I would love to see a woman take that title. But unless women-only competitions are demolished then I’m afraid I don’t think the guys have too much to worry about.”
When asked about Youfin, Polgar said:
“It’s good to see other ladies progressing; but unfortunately we are still far away from another woman being in the world top ten. I would love to see another lady playing at the toughest and highest level, but for that I am still having to wait.”