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In Just 5 Moves, Grandmaster Loses And Leaves Chess World Aghast

Hou Yifan of China stands beside a scoreboard following her win in a "blinfold" chess tournament at the Beijing 2012 World Mind Games in Beijing.
Ed Jones
AFP/Getty Images
Hou Yifan of China stands beside a scoreboard following her win in a "blinfold" chess tournament at the Beijing 2012 World Mind Games in Beijing.

Here's an abridged list of phrases you might not expect to be spoken in anguish by a chess play-by-play announcer:

  • "What's going on? What the hell is going on? What. Is. Going. On??"
  • "Has she gone mental?"
  • "I've done this kind of bet when I've been extremely drunk with my friends. ... This is the kind of thing you'd see in a primary school or from a very drunk person."
  • And yet, here was British grandmaster Simon Williams, uttering his astonishment as the women's chess world champion effectively threw her match in just five baffling moves at the Tradewise Gibraltar Chess Festival.

    Hou Yifan, a Chinese grandmaster so accomplished she's earned the nickname "Queen of Chess," turned her skills against herself spectacularly in her 10th and final match at the event. Her loss to India's Lalith Babu was so decisive, in fact, that it begged explanation.

    After the match, Hou offered one freely: She was "really, really upset" for the "unbelievable and weird pairings" that meant seven of her 10 opponents during the event were women.

    Hou, who currently outpaces the second-ranked female player by 68 points, recently left the women's chess circuit for mixed events where she can compete against men, who fill every spot in the world's top 100 rankings.

    "It would allow me to focus on the top level, on the 'men's' field," Hou told ChessBase magazine of her decision last year. "I could try to become stronger, to be more efficient, as there would be no obligation to play the women's tournaments anymore."

    When she found herself competing against other female players in the lion's share of matches at Gibraltar, Hou was frustrated. In her post-match interview, she says she brought her concerns to the event's "chief arbiter" on Tuesday, to no avail.

    So she decided on a very public display of protest: throwing her final match.

    "I just hoped that attention could be coming to the final decisive round," Hou said. "And what I also hope [is] that the pairings — you know — for the future event should be like a 100 percent fair situation."

    And she certainly drew attention: Besides the flabbergasted Simon Williams, the festival's tournament director, Stuart Conquest, called Hou's game the "biggest crisis" in the festival's history, according to The Telegraph.

    Brian Callaghan, the festival's organizer, was nonplussed. He says the matchup drawings "come out of machines," dismissing allegations of any intentional unfairness.

    "These pairings are not made by people," Callaghan said Thursday. "I understand: If I was in her shoes, and I suddenly pulled a draw of six girls one after the other, I would say also, 'What is going on here?' But clearly nothing was going on. It's coming out of a machine."

    Callaghan said Hou is still "very popular with me and very popular with the tournament," but also added: "I'm sorry for Yifan, because I think she let herself down a little bit today."

    Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Colin Dwyer covers breaking news for NPR. He reports on a wide array of subjects — from politics in Latin America and the Middle East, to the latest developments in sports and scientific research.