Her Move Next: Yifan Hou Visits New York for Breathtaking Simul

The event encouraged more girls to play and it made girls realize, ‘I can achieve the level that (Grandmaster Yifan Hou) she’s at.’ And that can inspire more girls to start playing chess. I also felt like I could learn a lot by sitting there. Knowing what Yifan has done motivates me to study and work harder. I think we need more girl tournaments and events because it helps girls come together and hopefully more girls start playing chess.

– Emma Adams, age 12, simul participant in “Chess and Conversation with Yifan Hou”

On August 12, 2019, players, parents, and spectators gathered on the 14th floor of the UBS office in Manhattan to watch four-time Women’s World Chess Champion, Grandmaster Yifan Hou play a sixteen board simul followed by a question and answer session. The evening event was celebrated as “Chess & Conversation with Yifan Hou,” sponsored by WorldQuant, hosted by UBS, and in affiliation with HerMoveNext.

The players were excited to meet the world #1 women FIDE rated chess player, Yifan Hou, who made her way to each board to shake hands before the simul began. Within the first minute, each board had a different opening. Spectators were watching either the video screens showing the top four boards or the actual boards in front of them as Yifan quickly circled the simul tables. Yifan had agreed to play black on half the boards and white on the other half which was extremely challenging given the short time control. She did not have a second to waste with only 35 minutes on her clock and sixteen boards to play; the pressure was on. Most simuls do not use a clock especially with such a short time control. Yet, Yifan did not seem to be fazed; both the audience and the players were impressed by her speed. Every few seconds, Yifan evaluated another opponent’s position, played her next move, and sprinted to the following table. Despite her remarkable pace countering all sixteen opponents, within ten minutes into the simul Yifan was already down on time, by more than five minutes on many boards.

Hou Yifan in a crucial game against Sophia DeGregorio

Midway through the simul, both Yifan and her opponents slowed their game tempo. Most middlegames went tactical, and a single move by either side could completely alter the position. One game caught everybody’s eyes. Sophia DeGregorio, age 9, the youngest participant in the simul with a rating of 901, had forced Yifan into a very defensive posture. Sophia played the Grand Prix Attack, surrounding Yifan’s king with white pieces. Sophia’s aggressive attack made Yifan pause to think and it was only with great difficulty that Yifan defended against Sophia’s mating tactics.

After the game, Sophia said, “With the opening I play against the Sicilian there is a strong attack when black fianchettos their bishop which is what she played. It was really fun to play her and the fact that she was at my board the longest made me feel confident about the game.” Sophia fought until the end, but Yifan managed to defend her position and win the game with less than three minutes on the clock.

There were other games that Yifan powered through to win in the final few seconds. Emma Adams put up a very strong fight, and almost made Yifan flag. With just 23 seconds left on the clock, Yifan checkmated Emma by promoting her passed pawn to a queen. Despite racing between boards, Yifan did not lose a single game to opponents ranging from 901 to 2129 US Chess, with the mean approaching 1600. She ended the simul recording 12 wins and four draws.

Simul participants and spectators amazed by Yifan Hou’s chess performance, then joined her for a Question and Answer session. Many of the girls from the HerMoveNext program were given an opportunity to question Yifan directly. Together 25 girls attended from the HerMoveNext program to the “Chess and Conversation with Yifan” event, with 11 of the girls playing in the simul and others selected to address Yifan during the fireside chat moderated by WorldQuant president Michael DeAddio.

DeAddio revealed to the audience during the Q&A that Yifan is not only an exemplary chess player, but also an accomplished Rhodes Scholar at Oxford. Yifan offered both chess and life advice, responding directly to attendees like Sophie Morris-Suzuki, a HerMoveNext Coach who recently achieved the US Chess Master title status.  She answered Sophie’s question on her favorite grandmaster openings, middle-games, and endgames to learn from. Additionally, Yifan was asked questions about everything from her favorite chess player to time management skills. However, the most popular question was “I am __ years old, what advice do you have for me at this age in chess and life?” She guided the players and gave them insights she wished she had known as a child.

Yifan voiced support for the HerMoveNext movement, which was originally inspired by the eponymous “Her Move Next” short documentary film. The non-profit foundation strives to motivate more girls to play chess. Likewise, Yifan encouraged the girls by telling them that they can increase the number of women in the top 100 chess players. She even gave advice on how more women can do better at chess.

“We need more young girls like you who are here today. Since we have you girls, more strong and talented players will grow up to compete in the professional chess world. Once the number in the professional world increases, then I believe there will be more strong players in the top 100 or even going further. The most important thing is to start from scratch by having more potential girls who are interested in chess. Then they will make great efforts in chess. Therefore, I am very happy to be here with WorldQuant, [UBS] and also HerMoveNext who are doing girls chess promotion.”

Yifan was an inspiration to many of the girls who reveled in the chance to speak to her about both her personal life and chess career.  When the interview had finished, spectators lined up waiting to receive her autograph on chess boards and notation books. The players left the event with admiration for Yifan and a desire to improve their chess skills.

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            After the event, I interviewed representatives of the three entities who played crucial roles putting together the “Chess and Conversation with Yifan.” All three representatives spoke at the event describing the importance of chess worldwide and promoting its benefits to girls.

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Interview with Representatives from HerMoveNext, WorldQuant, and UBS

An interview with Neela Saldanha, HerMoveNext director, founder of the Centre for Social and Behavioral Change, and parent of Aliya, HerMoveNext Player:

Why do you think it is important for girls to play chess; what are the benefits?

“Just as I think it is important for girls to try out sports and other activities, I think it is particularly important for girls to play chess. There are a couple of reasons. One, as a game it is a really good example, especially for younger girls, of input-output. If you put in practice, and do it intelligently, you will start doing better in tournaments and your rating will go up. My ten-year old can see that link really clearly. It helps when I am teaching her about other things. Chess is really a microcosm of the world.”

What can we do to spark interest levels in chess among girls?

“In P.S. 33, Aliya got into afterschool chess in kindergarten. Then a couple of the girls joined in first grade and the interest levels went up. I think one way is to just get more girls into it, literally get them as groups of friends. Girls keep coming in because they see other girls playing. It is really important for them to see other girls playing. I would say doing a lot more to expose them to other girls. There is an immediate reward of seeing your good friends play. They can share their chess experiences. It’s a lot more fun when they see their friends playing. Especially, when they do chess playdates and chess parties. We need to do more to make chess fun for the girls because once they are in, they are actually very tough competitors. They take it very seriously when they are in the game, but to sustain the interest you have to do more fun things in between.”

How do we get girls to continue to play chess as many girls drop out after lower school?

“The community was extra special for my daughter as she saw other girls playing. They compete with each other, learn from each other, and encourage each other. The two years she was in India for third and fourth grade, she did not have that. It is really hard to keep something up when you see no one around you who is playing and interested. The other big thing is that her parents do not play. In the absence of that where she was getting a lot of excitement and joy was with her community. The minute we came back from India she wanted to register for a chess camp in New York. We were in New York for a week so she could do chess camp and meet with her friends. I immediately saw the interest come up again.  Having this chess community is so important for her.”

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An Interview with Michael DeAddio, president of WorldQuant:

 What hopes did you have for the Yifan event, and do you think the event was a success in terms of getting more girls excited about chess?

 “Competitions like this one provide an exciting glimpse into the next generation of chess talent and bright young minds who have the opportunity to impact the world in many other ways. We hope that this event demonstrated to its young participants that the opportunity is endless in chess and anything else they pursue in the future. The lessons they learn from chess today will serve them well no matter where life takes them.”

 I know that WorldQuant is a supporter of Magnus Carlsen and now Yifan Hou. Are there any other plans to support women’s chess in the US and worldwide in the near future?

“We believe there is a strong correlation between the skills possessed by chess players and those in the quantitative fields. Many of our own employees are devoted chess fans and players, and we run our own internal WorldQuant chess championship. We will continue to find ways to utilize chess as a platform for inclusive talent engagement both internally and externally in the future.”

Why did WorldQuant choose to sponsor Yifan?

            “Most people who follow chess have likely heard about Yifan Hou through her achievements as a chess grandmaster and four-time Women’s World Chess Champion. What is truly impressive about Yifan is that she has managed to do this while also being a top student and pursuing ambitions that go far beyond her interest in chess. She is an example for others to follow and is emblematic of the qualities we look for at WorldQuant. Collaborating with Yifan is a way to demonstrate our commitment to unique talent around the globe.”

——————————————————————————————————————————-An Interview with Betty Chen, Managing Director, Head of Investment Research, UBS Hedge Fund Solutions

What do you think the impact of the event was?

“One of the parents texted me that the girls were so excited, and they are looking forward to telling their friends about it. The girls feel special that the event is about them.”

What made you choose to support women’s chess?

“At UBS, I am working on a project to launch a product which consists of women hedge-fund managers, however there is not much inventory. The pipeline is not as robust as male hedge-fund managers. It got me to think that to develop a bigger pipeline of more diverse risk-taking women we need to start from the beginning. We need to let girls have opportunities to learn about risk taking. Chess provides that opportunity.”

How can we get more girls to play chess?

“Yifan is a good example of how to get more girls to play chess. She often competes in a more male-dominated competition space, and so seeing her persevere despite being a minority sets a good example. Events like these are important for the girls because they see role-models.”

Many girls drop out of chess after lower school. How can we encourage more girls to continue playing chess?

“In finance, a lot of women drop out when they move up and even college students who have a math and science background tend not to gravitate to finance because they don’t see women like themselves in the business. In finance, it is very important to have a women’s network to help and promote each other to succeed. Similarly, HerMoveNext is doing the same by formatting it as a social event where the girls can have a good time and see people like themselves in the games.”

The next HerMoveNext all-girls tournament is Friday, September 27th at 5pm. We are thrilled to announce that the event is co-sponsored by Chess in the Schools and will be held in their corporate office, at 520 Eighth Ave., 22nd Floor, NY 10018. HerMoveNext is honored to be partnering in an event with Chess in the Schools, NYC’s premiere not-for-profit chess education organization that has taught and inspired more than 500,000 children in underserved communities. Together with Chess in the Schools, HerMoveNext seeks to expand our chess outreach to girls while simultaneously encouraging experienced players not only to continue playing, but also to invite them to mentor beginners.

Sarina Motwani is a high school chess player and a chess coach and tournament director. Find a full index of her CLO articles here. 

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