World Europe First Look

Why the ‘Queen of Chess’ abandoned the Gibraltar tournament

Hou Yifan, the world’s top female chess player, walked out on her final match at the Tradewise Gibraltar Chess Festival.

World chess champion Hou Yifan of China holds the trophy at the FIDE World Chess Championship in Lviv, Ukraine in March 2016. Hou on Friday threw a game in the Gibraltar tournament to protest having been paired with 7 female opponents in her first 9 rounds at a mixed-sex tournament where men outnumbered women.
Pavlo Palamarchuk/AP Photo/File
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It looks like the movement toward public protests has even reached the rarified air of international chess tournaments.

On Friday, the world’s top female chess player threw a match against male opponent Babu Lalith of India after just five moves of the final round at the Tradewise Gibraltar Chess Festival.

In a controversial move, Hou Yifan, often referred as the “Queen of Chess,” said her intentional resignation from the game was meant to protest having been paired against mostly female players at a major tournament where male contestants dramatically outnumbered female.

"I think it's unfair, not only for me, but for the other women players," the 22-year-old Chinese chess grandmaster said in an interview after the game, pointing out that she was paired against seven female players in a 10-round tournament.

Ms. Hou’s five-move loss to a player she outranks set a new record as the quickest loss by a grandmaster, a powerful blow to the international chess community.

“I pointed it out to the arbiters" when the pairings were announced after the first round, she said, but nothing changed.

In an interview with the Chess News in May, Hou spoke out against the World Chess Federation’s different rules in women and men’s tournaments, and she chose not to defend her women’s world championship title this month in Iran. She has also pledged to attend only open (mixed-sex) events in the future.

Meanwhile, the founder and organizer of the tournament Brian Callaghan sought to defend the pairings, dismissing Hou's protest as a “bad day at the office.” 

"Clearly nothing was going on, it comes out of a machine and sometimes the odds fall that way," he told the Telegraph. "When you are running something as big as this you are going to have incidents, this one just happened to involve Yifan.”

"I think that we're sympathetic to what she is saying about the pairings,” he said. “I don't think that the pairings are wrong," he added, but he said he recognized why "they’re a reason for concern from her perspective."

This is not the first time a female grandmaster challenged gender equity in this traditionally male-dominated arena. Susan Polgar, the Hungarian-American chess player, has been advocating for women’s roles in chess for years. In 1986, Ms. Polgar became the first women in history to qualify for the Men’s World Championship in 1986, which led the Federation to change its policy and admit women players in the game.

Polgar continued to break glass ceilings, as the Christian Science Monitor’s Lisa Suhay noted in 2014:

“In 1991, she broke down barriers once again by becoming the first woman to earn the men's grandmaster title by achieving a rating more than 2500 playing against men instead of women. A player’s rating represents the strength of that player based on all the games played in tournaments over the course of a player’s entire chess career. Most grandmasters and international masters are rated between 2400 and 2600.”

Hou said she hopes her actions brought attention to the situation and that future tournaments will see "a 100 percent fair situation."

She apologized to her fans and said she hoped they would understand why she took the step she did. "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 organisers, for the people who love chess," she said. 

"We are chess players."