Women’s World Chess Champion. Throws game against man. In protest at having to play women …

Yes, I know, you really couldn't make it up, could you?

photo of Yifan Hou
Hou Yifan, resigns in 5 moves during the 10th round of the Tradewise Gibraltar Chess Masters.
Photo © John Saunders.

Sometimes, the truth really is stranger than fiction and chess really is a funny old game. While the fight was going on to decide the outcome of this year’s Gibraltar Chess Masters, another board was unfortunately taking centre stage, for totally different reasons.

This was namely the game of Yifan Hou versus Lalith Babu, which saw the Women’s World Champion turn up extremely late for the game (I believe it was 25-minutes) and open with the Grob. Fair dos, but she then played four moves of ridiculousness before resigning. All were stunned; chess sites appealed to the organisers for validation of what they were sure to be a mistake, only to find that this had indeed occurred.

Why? Why had one of the nicest, most humble, most stable players on the circuit, thrown her game in this manner?

Well, it seems that Yifan was making something of a protest at being paired against so many female players. She had been paired against females in her opening four games and actually played females in seven games out of nine. As it turned out, she did not feel that this was a likely natural occurrence in an open tournament.

And she is right! In a tournament such as Gibraltar, where male players vastly out-number the female players, being paired against them so consistently is indeed an exception rather than the rule. However, just because something is unusual, does not necessarily mean that it is inconceivable. Yifan, however, had obviously come to the conclusion that it was.

In an interview after the incident, Hou said that she was “really really upset” by what she referred to as “unbelievable” and “weird pairings”. She added that she had brought this up with Chief Arbiter, Laurent Freyd, after round eight, but that, “things had continued in this way”. This led her to act how she did in game ten, for which she twice apologised to chess fans.

To fans. Not the tournament, or its organisers. Nor to her opponent, ironically a male Grandmaster, who had turned up to play the game in the spirit it deserves.

From Yifan’s comments, it is clear that she felt that she, (“and the other female players”), had been deliberately and manually paired against other females by officials. This is a very serious allegation. It is also very unlikely when thinking about it objectively and applying common sense. Why? Well, there is absolutely no reason for officials to manipulate the pairings, one way or the other! The only cases I know of this ever being done, are exceptional circumstances, for instance when players from warring countries have been paired against each other. Furthermore, with Yifan having slayed her fair share of males over the board, it is totally in the interests of the tournament to have her paired against them and hope she runs riot!

After all, organisers don’t care who the top prize goes to at the end of the day or who plays who. In today’s climate, they care about site visits and social media follows; audiences; publicity for their sponsors. Sensation is the best way to achieve this and Yifan has the potential to produce it against any opponent. It is such a shame, that she has in this instance, produced scandal instead.

In a press release, published yesterday (Feb 6th), the organisers of the Tradewise Gibraltar Chess Masters, make it clear that they “…firmly reject the suggestion of any “fixing” of pairings”. They also assert the validity of the pairings, (made by computer, using the well known (and FIDE approved) Swiss Manager pairing programme), and add that they have been independently verified by at least three FIDE International Arbiters. Illustrating that such freak things as this can happen, they mention the case of Russian Grandmaster Nikita Vitiugov, for example, who played his last four rounds against female players and played five females in total.

Thus, when push comes to shove, it seems that Yifan was just throwing a hissy-fit at the luck of the draw.

So what can one say? Well, I am very surprised at this by Yifan and I must confess that I feel very disappointed. I have always had the greatest of respect and admiration for her — not only when it comes to her ability at the chessboard, but also her temperament and conduct away from it. I have always found her to be extremely polite and gracious and of all the people I would expect this kind of thing from, she would not be one of them.

In his interview after the event, tournament founder, Brian Callaghan, voiced that he felt that she had let herself down. I have to agree. And, dear reader, this is ok! We humans do that. We have our moods, we make bad decisions; we go off half cocked and leap before we look from time to time. Absolutely no one is perfect! It is how we respond to it that really shows the metal of our character. To this end, Yifan has a great opportunity to reflect on this and to demonstrate just how right we all are about her and to make amends to those who deserve it.

I really hope that she takes it!

About John Lee Shaw 291 Articles
Total chess nut! I enjoy following the chess world and giving my two-penneth. I don't pretend to be an expert, I'm more a knowledgeable enthusiast. My chess writing can also be seen at www.chessimprover.com.