In the winner-takes-all days of US-Soviet rivalry, true dominance wasn’t expressed merely in terms of warheads, but through something much more subtle: chess. Success at ‘the game of kings’ was seen as an important barometer of the health of competing economic systems.
Bobby Fischer’s victory over Boris Spassky in 1972 was viewed as a great psychological victory for the US. The win made Fischer the first US world chess champion since 1888, and ended 24 years of Soviet dominance. The match was considered so important in the Cold War era that when Fischer threatened to pull out, he received a call from Henry Kissinger persuading him otherwise.
Chess may have lost some of its geopolitical lustre with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, but that hasn’t diminished China’s drive to claim the highly symbolic crown. And it’s best hope at producing a new Fischer or Karpov has turned out to be the 16 year-old prodigy Hou Yifan – who became the youngest winner of the Women’s World Chess Championship late last year.
It shouldn’t come as any surprise that China aims for top billing. After all, it has already demonstrated a knack for training indigenous talent in several Olympic sports (think diving and gymnastics). What’s more remarkable is how far the national team has come (placing second in the last Chess Olympiad) despite the relatively small number of Chinese that play in the country (estimated at just five million).
In fact, the popularity of chess comes in a distant third to weiqi (known as ‘Go’) and xiangqi (or Chinese chess). The first is at least 2,500 years old, and claims nearly a quarter of China’s population as devotees. Matches are regularly screened on television and its top players are considered major celebrities. The second is a game from the ‘Warring States period’ (around 476-221 BC) much closer to traditional chess.
Hou’s triumph at the world championships was considered so significant that she was awarded the ‘Best non-Olympic athlete’ accolade by Chinese state media in a ceremony earlier this week. It’s the most recent of many records she has continued to set. In 2008, at just 14, Hou won the Chinese national title and went on to become the youngest female to attain the rank of ‘grandmaster’. It was that year that she began to be compared with Hungary’s Judit Polgár – the greatest-ever female player.
So how did China’s armchair strategists manage to find so promising a prodigy in the first place? The story goes that her parents first noticed her ability when she beat all the neighbourhood kids in her Jiangsu town at a much simpler game: checkers. Hou was just three years old at the time, and it wasn’t long before they decided to move her into a specialist chess school.
By age nine she’d joined the national team in Beijing. “The moment I saw chess, I thought the shapes of pieces were very interesting,” she told China News Week magazine, “and children like interesting things, so I chose to learn chess.”
If young players like Hou and top-ranked Chinese male Wang Yue (world number 10) keep up their winning ways, Chinese chess preeminence could be just around the corner. “Winning the [Women’s World Championship] does not mean I can take a break,” Hou told the Qianjiang Evening News last week, “Both on the board and in life, I have a lot to improve and enhance.”
Observers warn that care must be taken to groom new talent. “It’s taken decades and it hasn’t been easy to break the [chess] monopoly of Europeans and Americans to get to today’s results,” argues the Yangtze Evening Post, “but without a large base of players the long-term success of the sport will be in jeopardy.”
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