Rook of Gibraltar

In a sport over-populated with men, 17-year-old Chinese wunderkind Hou Yifan's sheer focus establishes her as a contender to be reckoned with

Dominic Lawson

A number of great cities have a special association with chess, usually because they have, or had, a central chess club where rank-and-file chess players could mingle with those destined for greatness. Moscow, naturally, is one example — although its Central Chess Club has seen better days. New York, with its Marshall Chess Club, where such champions as Capablanca and Fischer played in purely local events, is another. London’s heyday was back in the first half of the 19th century, when Simpson’s Divan on the Strand was the place where the leading chess masters of Europe would battle against each other (in an impenetrable fug of cigar smoke), but also take on much weaker players in return for stake money.

Something of that great tradition has been revived in an unlikely outpost of what we once called the British Empire — Gibraltar. In February the Crown  dependency completed its tenth annual chess festival, sponsored by Tradewise Insurance, whose global headquarters are on that rocky promontory. The festival has become the world’s best-attended open tournament — and because it is open, any club chess player can take part, with the possibility of playing one of the world’s strongest grandmasters.

This year, there were over 50 grandmasters competing, not just Britain’s top two, Michael Adams and Nigel Short, but also such giants from further east as the Russian champion Peter Svidler and the world number ten, Shakhriyar Mamedyarov of Azerbaijan. Tradewise also had the bright idea of offering a £10,000 award for the top woman finisher, which attracted both Judit Polgár, far and away the strongest female chess player of all time, and the remarkable Chinese prodigy, 17-year-old Hou Yifan.

Hou was the sensation of the event. Not only did she beat Polgár in their individual game (the first time the Hungarian had ever lost as an adult to another woman), but going into the final round of ten, she was in sole lead. No woman has ever won a strong open tournament before; the Chinese girl was only deprived of that record because Nigel Short succeeded in winning his last round game while she only drew a thrilling encounter against Mamedyarov. Under the rules of the event, the two co-winners played a short match of two games with a maximum time allowance of just ten minutes per player. Short won, but it was lovely to see the broad grin on Hou’s face when she shook hands to acknowledge defeat, showing she is not only a wonderful talent but also will be a great ambassador for chess worldwide.

I was in Gibraltar competing in the Challengers event, limited to players of below master strength. Craven, I know, but there was a reason beyond mere cowardice: games in the second-string event started at 10am in the beautifully situated Caleta Hotel, while the Open section games began at 3pm. This meant that participants in the Challengers could play their games, have a late lunch — and a recuperative glass of Rioja on the hotel terrace overlooking the Mediterranean — before spending the afternoon walking around the playing area to watch the games of the big boys (and girls). 

Here is the true thrill of the open, at least for those of us who like to be spectators. Although there is not the comfort of auditorium seats, to be able to stand beside the board and observe the players with such intimate closeness is to feel the passion of the struggle in a way not possible at normal “closed” grandmaster events. It brought home to me more clearly than ever that what distinguishes the top players from lesser lights is not just technical facility but sheer will-power and force of concentration. Hou clearly has the latter, in spades. To be close to her while in play is to bear witness to a level of effort which makes many other good players look like dilettantes: there did not seem to be a single second when her gaze was not fixed upon the chessboard.

In this she resembled by far the oldest competitor in Gibraltar, Viktor Korchnoi. The man who took on the Soviet Union as a chess defector during the Cold War, and came within a single game of seizing the world championship from Anatoly Karpov in 1978, is still an awesome presence at the board. It was inspiring — and, strangely, moving — to see at close quarters that in his ninth decade Viktor still exudes a determination and intensity of will that frequently caused his much younger and fitter opponents to quail. 

I especially appreciated these qualities of focus and determination in the light of my own lamentable performance in the event. Most of my games were long struggles which entered the fifth hour of play — when my levels of concentration dipped alarmingly, turning wins into draws or worse (a comically grotesque example of which at least has the benefit of providing this month’s puzzle).

I was once again reminded that chess, for all its claims to be an art or a science, is first and last a sport: those who win great chess tourneys must have the sporting virtues of courage and self-belief, just as much as any tennis or boxing champion. Nigel Short has never lacked those virtues, which is why he managed to win with the Black pieces in the final round against the very strong Indian Grandmaster Krishnan Sasikiran (the only player to defeat Hou Yifan in the event). The speed play-off against Hou won him £20,000 — and also preserved male pride in Gibraltar, at least for one more year.

Here is Nigel’s victory: 1.e4 c5 2.Nc3 d6 3.f4 (Nigel wheels out the Grand Prix Attack, a shrewd choice, as its days of fashion were back in the 1980s, when Hou had not been born) g6 4.Nf3 Bg7 5.Bb5+ Nc6 6.Bxc6+ bxc6 7.d3 Nf6 8.0-0 0-0 9.Kh1 Rb8 10.Qe1 Nd7 11.b3 e5 12.f5 gxf5 13.Nh4 f4 14.g3 Bf6 15.Nf5 Nb6 16.gxf4 Bxf5 17.exf5 Bxf5? (Hou misses her only chance: Nigel’s last move could have been punished with 17…Bh4! after which Black’s extra piece should be worth more than White’s attack) 18.Rxf5 Kh8 19.Bf4 Nd7 20.Qd2 Qh4 21.Raf1 Rbe8 22.Ne2 Rg8 23.Rxf7 Qh3 24.Ng1 Qg4 25.Nf3 Qh3 26.Qf2 Bxf4 27.Rxf4 Rg6 28.Nh4 Rg5 29.Nf5 Reg8 30.Nxd6 Ne5 31.Nf7+ Nxf7 32.Rxf7 R5g6 33.Rf8 Qh5 34.Rxg8+ Rxg8 35.Qf6+ Rg7 36.Rg1 and Hou Yifan graciously resigned.

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