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By the age of 18 Chinese prodigy Hou Yifan had already accomplished enough to fill most careers, winning, defending and then, temporarily, losing the Women’s World Championship title. Like Judit Polgar before her she doesn’t need to be compared only to other women to stand out. She learned to play when she was 3, had coaching by an international master when she was 5 and won the Girls U10 World Youth Championship at the age of 9. She moved to Beijing to study at the National Chess Centre when she was 10 and her progress never stopped.
She first competed in the Women’s World Championship aged 12,
when she was knocked out only after sensationally beating Nadezhda Kosintseva
and Natalia Zhukova. At 14 she became the world’s youngest grandmaster, and the
youngest female grandmaster in history. In 2008 she lost a World Championship
final to Alexandra Kosteniuk, but there was no stopping the inevitable, and in
2010 16-year-old Hou Yifan became the youngest ever Women’s World Champion.
There was little time to savour her achievement. In late 2011 she successfully defended the title in a 10-game match against Humpy Koneru, then less than a year later she lost it to Anna Ushenina after losing in the second round of a knockout tournament where the champion had no privileges. Normal service was soon resumed, however, as in 2013 Hou Yifan regained her crown with a crushing 5.5:1.5 victory over Ushenina in China.
The most interesting question now is perhaps whether Hou Yifan can follow in the footsteps of Polgar and make a mark in men’s chess. She gave a glimpse of her potential in early 2012, when she beat four 2700+ players (including Polgar) and drew with two more to finish tied for first at the Gibraltar Masters. She followed that up by finishing unbeaten and narrowly missing out on first place at the Reykjavik Open when she failed to convert a won position against Fabiano Caruana in the last round. That saw Hou Yifan’s rating peak at 2639 in March 2012, putting her 8th on the list of all players under 20.