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In Chess, 'She Has Been the Only One Who Stood a Chance'

'New Yorker' profiles Hou Yifan and explores why so few women rise to the top of the game
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Jul 31, 2021 8:00 AM CDT
In Chess, 'She Has Been the Only One Who Stood a Chance'
In this 2015 photo, Hou Yifan (left) and Parimarjan Negi shake hands before the start of a match.   (Tim Vizer/AP Images for Ascension)

(Newser) – The popular Netflix series The Queen's Gambit tells the story of a female chess phenom named Beth Harmon. Harmon, though, is fictional, and in the New Yorker, Louisa Thomas takes a look at why real-life Harmons are so rare. (The world has 1,732 grandmasters, and only 38 of them are women.) The piece focuses on China's Hou Yifan, a 27-year-old who is the only woman ranked among the top 100 players in the world at No. 82. "For years, she has been the only one who stood a chance" among the best male players, writes Thomas. And she would almost certainly have a much higher ranking if not for a surprise 2012 decision—she opted to go to Peking University instead of dedicating herself solely to the game. Later, she would attend Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship, and last year she became a professor at Shenzhen University’s Faculty of Physical Education.

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"I did not want to spend my life wholly on chess," explains Hou, who still competes in tournaments. The story tracks her rise as a child prodigy, along with the long-standing sexism in the game. For example, legend Garry Kasparov once said of a 13-year-old prodigy (not Hou): "She has fantastic chess talent, but she is, after all, a woman." Kasparov has since apologized for his sexism, but the view persists. Nigel Short, once the No. 3 player in the world, insists that men are "hard-wired" to be better at chess. Hou, meanwhile, is now digging into all this academically. She is working with psychologists and statisticians on a paper exploring why so few females participate in chess, even as kids. "Whether or not there is an 'innate difference' between men and women, she said, what interests her is the way 'society shapes you,'" writes Thomas. (Read the full story.)

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