If there was ever a more disparate pairing, it would be chess and jazz. Though, the strategic game and the free-form musical genre seem to have found equanimity with the recent Chess & Jazz at Chijmes Hall. SALIO, a vocalist and composer from Georgia takes reins for the jazz part of the event, while Hou Yifan, a chess grandmaster from China and a three-time Women's World Chess Champion heads the chess portion.
We talked to Hou about what it takes to be a grandmaster, albeit a female one, in the world of chess.
ESQUIRE: How did you get involved with chess?
HOU YIFAN: I was five-and-a-half when I played chess. It was by chance that I started to learn Chinese checkers with my friends. I picked this up relatively quickly and when my parents saw how I progressed so quickly with these mind games, they bought more games for me to play.
ESQ: Why was chess appealing to you though?
HOU YIFAN: I realised that it was a lot more challenging than other mind games. Of course, through practice, I got better at it.
ESQ: Is that what separates a hobbyist from a competitive chess player?
HOU YIFAN: To be honest, there are definitely differences. For example, when you play for fun, you seek the beauty of the idea of it; you seek the idea of chess. But for professional players, you can’t do that. Sometimes you need to set priorities for yourself.
ESQ: Like what for example?
HOU YIFAN: You need to negotiate with yourself. For example, when you’re competing, you need to place yourself in a more advantageous position, so sometimes a draw in position would secure you an ideal place for a match. Professional chess players might do this instead of fighting to win every match.
ESQ: That doesn’t sound rational.
HOU YIFAN: From time to time, players cannot be rational. Sometimes, emotions can dictate decisions as a chess lover but not as a chess player. A chess lover doesn’t have to follow the principles of chess. You don’t have to study all the chess openings, all the theories; you can do whatever you want because that’s the beauty of chess—exploration. But for chess professionals, it’s difficult. We have obligations so we need to find the most practical way of achieving good results.
ESQ: How do you hone your skills as a chess player? Do you work on brain exercises or…?
HOU YIFAN: You mean how do I train the mind?
HOU YIFAN: Well, I’m interested in those types of mind games, like Sudoku, all kinds of logic games, and I’ve attended lessons for memory stuff but that was just for fun. But I can’t connect it to chess. When I prepare myself, it’s all very technical. We look at opening strategies, using different software, to help with chess openings. There are all these puzzles that can help with the endgame. Even if there are only seven or eight pieces left on the board, there are still many variations we’re unable to calculate until the end. So we train ourselves to memorise different fundamental endgames to steer the match to our favour. When we reach a certain point in the game, we can make a choice based on the technical knowledge that we have.
ESQ: Was there a memorable match that you played in?
HOU YIFAN: There was one game in 2006, when I played in the Women’s World Chess Championship. I was 12 at the time and I got into a winning position. After that game, I realised that sometimes I’m too relaxed and I’d think about something else. This revelation taught me to value the importance of always being present during the game and not to let my mind wander. Later on, I would play my first game against top grandmasters like current world champion, Magnus Carlsen. Or the game where I won with 28 players. Something like that. I can remember all my matches, but it would be not so easy to pick a single game and say ‘oh, that’s it’.