The exceptional genius of Hou Yifan

Growing up, Hou Yifan idolized Bobby Fischer, the brash, combative American chess star. "He expressed himself without reservation," she said. "I can't do that. I admire him even if I can't be like him, can't show myself truly." Maria Moschou for ESPN

FIVE MINUTES BEFORE the eighth round of the World Chess Grand Prix in Geneva, the room was silent. The competitors had taken their seats, 18 of the world's best chess players facing off across nine wooden boards. A handful of spectators stood behind a black cordon, just a few feet from the players, whispering inaudibly beneath signs that urged total quiet. All eyes were on a television screen at one end of the tennis-court-sized playing area as it counted down the seconds until the round began.

When the clock hit zero, the chief judge stood and began reading from a notecard. "Good afternoon, lady," he said, nodding toward one of the competitors, seated at a board in the middle of the room. The introduction was hardly necessary -- she was already conspicuous. Of the 21 people in the playing area that day in July -- 18 players, two judges and one photographer -- 23-year-old Hou Yifan was the only woman. Even the fans gathered to watch were all men.

"Good afternoon, gentlemen," the judge continued, turning to the other players. The inelegance of the salutations provoked a few stifled laughs, but if Hou noticed, her face betrayed no reaction.

Hou Yifan was used to being singled out. Growing up in Xinghua, China, she had always played and trained against men, and many of her earliest experiences in competitive chess were in open tournaments. She had heard all of the cutting taunts about "playing like a woman" and had turned them into a badge of pride through her sheer dominance of the women's circuit. At 13 years old, she became the youngest to win the Women's World Chess Championship; at 14, she was named a grandmaster, the loftiest title in the sport. Today, Hou is the only woman ranked among the top 100 active chess players in the world -- she sits at No. 74 -- and the gap in points between her and the second-ranked woman is nearly as large as the gap between the men ranked first and 20th.

But the naysayers were right about one thing: Hou was different from her fellow competitors, though it wasn't her gender that truly set her apart -- it was her ambition. Like them, she wanted to be a top chess player among men, not just women -- but she also nurtured another desire: for a life outside of chess. By the time she took her seat for the tournament in Geneva earlier this summer, the clash between those dueling ambitions was unavoidable: She couldn't have both. If she was going to stay in chess -- and conquer the men's circuit in a way no woman ever has -- something had to change.

But first Hou had to conquer the opponent in front of her.

WHEN THE GAME BEGAN, Hou and her opponent worked quickly, exchanging a rapid series of moves with little hesitation. The two were well matched. She was playing against Anish Giri, a 23-year-old Dutch player with a similar CV. He too was a child prodigy and achieved the status of grandmaster at age 14. Soon the pace slowed, and the time between moves grew from seconds to five, 10, 15 minutes. Hou remained planted in her seat, hunched forward on her elbows, thinking, or sipping from a water bottle. She rose only a few times to walk about the room, with arms tightly folded across her chest, or to use the bathroom -- one reserved just for her.

After seven hours, only Hou and Giri remained; all the other games had long ago finished. The two never spoke and hardly looked at each other, keeping their eyes fixed on the board between them. Finally, they were both down to their final pieces, two armies battling to the last man. Just before 8 p.m., Hou was defeated -- her second loss in as many days and a stunning, dispiriting reversal from the previous leg of the Grand Prix, in which she had catapulted to the top of the standings with several notable victories.

Despite the loss, the other players and the officials were quick to compliment Hou's instincts, her steely composure and her deep knowledge of the game. Without a doubt, they said, she was a phenom, a rare and unique talent. The only question was her commitment. "She works less on chess than men," said Giri, the 12th-ranked player in the world. "She's less prepared." But he sympathized with her situation. "It's hard to progress," he said, "and it's hard to motivate yourself when, as a 15-year-old, you already completed everything in your sport."

Hou's talent was undeniable from an early age. At 3 years old, she was beating her father and grandmother. By age 5, she was working with a professional coach. After two years, he told her that she was too good to be trained by him anymore; he said she should either move to a bigger city with more opportunities or quit. In 2003, the chief coach of the Chinese national chess team played a game against Hou and called her "an exceptional genius." That same year, she joined the team as its youngest member.

It soon became clear that Hou was unlike the other chess players her age. For one thing, she was far better than they were. Her natural skill was enough to overpower even the hardest-working competitors. But more important, Hou recognized a fundamental difference of personality between herself and her peers: While other players shunned the world outside of chess, Hou embraced it. Even while traveling and competing, she continued to pursue her studies, sampling a wide array of subjects and disciplines, from science and politics to social entrepreneurship and business. For her, chess was a window into the wider world. "There are two different personalities," she said. "Some players only see chess, but others see chess in all things -- beauty, fashion, strategy. I'm clearly the second type."

In 2012, Hou chose to attend Peking University, one of China's top universities, to study international relations. It was an unusual move for a rising chess star; most forgo higher education to train and compete full time. Her coach strongly disagreed with the decision. "Use your best years for chess," he told her. "Improve as much as you can." For Hou, the choice was about forging a life beyond chess. "I want my life to be rich and colorful, not narrow," she said. "I knew it would impact my chess, but that's how I wanted to live my life."

By the time she arrived on campus, Hou was already a full-fledged superstar at 18. Her chess exploits had been covered for years in the Chinese media, including in glossy fashion magazines, and her enrollment was a minor sensation. "We all knew her because she's so famous," one of her classmates said. "So the night that she arrived at the dormitory, we all went to meet her." Hou posed for photos and signed autographs for a mob of students, then moved into her crowded new room with three other freshmen.

At university, Hou continued to train and compete. But chess was not her priority: She took a full course load, joined several extracurricular activities and devoted as much time as possible to meeting people outside her sport. "She always tells me, 'Chess is just a game; chess is not life,'" said Enkhtuul Altan-Ulzii, a Mongolian woman grandmaster and one of Hou's closest friends. "She says, 'Just try your best -- it doesn't matter if you win or lose.'"

After graduating in 2016, Hou took yet another step away from chess by applying for a master's program in social work at the University of Chicago. She saw a future for herself, one in which she was working with disadvantaged communities to effect change at an international level. It was an intoxicating vision, the fulfillment of years of hard work and devoted study -- but in July she deferred acceptance for a year to keep pursuing chess full time, determined to prove she could compete with the very best if she put in the time.

The question is which of these dueling life paths she will choose to follow -- and what her decision will mean for the future of her sport and the women who would follow in her footsteps. "She's the best chance for a woman to be elite for a long time to come," said Gilles Miralles, president of the Geneva Chess Federation and himself a grandmaster. "No one else is coming."

AT THE TOURNAMENT'S closing ceremony, Hou stood quietly in the middle of a small ballroom, waiting for the chief judge to announce the final standings. The other competitors milled about in tight circles, drinking and bantering. A few drifted toward the back of the room, where they pulled out their phones to play games. Hou had struggled to another difficult defeat earlier that day, and she knew her ranking had suffered because of it. The final results were disappointing: tied for second to last, 16th out of 18.

The judge called Hou and a few other players to the stage to offer them gift bags and thank them for competing. When the applause died down, Hou retreated toward her mother, who acts as her manager, then out into the lobby restroom. A few minutes later, she reappeared, now sporting sneakers instead of high heels and with a blue zip hoodie over her black dress.

If Hou's lackluster result against a field of male competitors had dented her rank, it had done nothing to change her status atop the world of women's chess. In fact, it was because of Hou's complete dominance of the women's circuit that she was competing in Geneva at all: Last year, she decided to avoid women's events entirely and compete against only men. "To be the best female player has no attraction to me," Hou said. "I've been there for years." She went to the open circuit seeking competition, and a challenge.

The decision was a recognition of Hou's talent, but it also was an act of revolt against the international chess system. Under the current rules, the women's world champion must defend her title each year, often in a knockout tournament with no preferential seeding by strength -- the chess equivalent of a champion boxer having to work his way back up the ranks every year just to keep his title. The open-division world champion, by contrast, must defend his title only once every two years and against a single opponent, who advances through the Candidates Tournament to be crowned the official challenger.

Chess officials insist that the two systems cannot be made equal. They claim that the format of the women's cycle boosts participation and that the excitement of a knockout tournament draws in more revenue. "It's hard to find sponsors for women's chess," said Israel Gelfer, a vice president of FIDE, the international chess governing body. "With all respect to women, names like [Garry] Kasparov and [Magnus] Carlsen sell. I think women should be equal in everything, but so far, this is the situation."

Hou has refused to budge. "I won't consider staying in a system with which I completely disagree," she said. As a result, Hou is no longer the official women's world champion; she chose to participate in another tournament rather than re-enter the 2017 cycle.

Despite the intransigence of chess officials, Hou believes the system is ripe for change, if only someone will lead it. "Not only for me but for women's chess, there should be someone," she said. Hou knows that she is the only female player with the talent, visibility and reputation to lead the way, and that her withdrawal from the chess world in pursuit of other passions would reinforce a status quo she has fought hard to change. "Maybe I'm not the right person," she said, "but it's my responsibility."

So far, Hou's most prolonged and consequential stand against the current system has been her refusal to defend her title as women's world champion. But it was another act of protest that briefly vaulted Hou's dissatisfaction beyond the world of chess and into the public eye. At the Tradewise Gibraltar Chess Festival in February, Hou forfeited her final-round match after only five moves, the quickest loss ever by a grandmaster. The ratio of male to female players at the tournament was 4-to-1, yet Hou had been paired against women in seven of her 10 games. She spoke with tournament officials about the imbalance, then forfeited out of frustration when no changes were made. Other players had also expressed doubts about the pairings, Hou said, "but didn't do what I did."

In the staid world of chess, Hou's forfeit was a scandal. The tournament organizer said the pairings were simply the result of a computer program, but the uproar captured worldwide attention, highlighted precisely because it fit naturally into Hou's wider struggle to conquer a system designed by and for male athletes. Whatever she might have intended with the move, her forfeit sent a clear message to chess officials. "If you want something to get better," Hou said, "you need a revolution."

THE DAY AFTER the closing ceremony in Geneva, Hou and her mother navigated the crowded streets, heading toward a Chinese restaurant they had visited for dinner nearly every night of the tournament. During each competition abroad, Hou said, she looked for a Chinese restaurant to temporarily adopt as her own. Marking out one restaurant was easier than finding a new place to eat, especially after hours of grueling competition, and more important, retreating somewhere familiar at the end of the day felt a bit like going home.

Over dishes of tofu, vegetables and chicken, Hou admitted that she remains undertrained -- eager to compete with the very best yet reluctant to devote herself to the singular pursuit of greatness and thus sacrifice other areas of her life. "She told me she never really worked extremely hard," said Vladimir Kramnik, the third-ranked player in the world. "And, of course, that's a big compliment to her -- never working like the professional male top players are doing and yet achieving so much."

Thus far, Hou has relied on natural talent and intuition to carry her forward. "This very natural feeling of the game is hard to describe," Kramnik said. "She doesn't need to calculate, to come logically to a certain good move -- she just feels it. That's a sign of big talent. I experienced something similar when I played [world champion] Magnus Carlsen for the first time."

On the women's circuit, Hou could compensate for her lack of training with her prodigious natural skill. But in Geneva, the gap between her and the top male players was on clear and painful display. During her final three games, she repeatedly lost matches in which she should have been able to achieve a tie; instead, she made mental errors that pointed to a lack of preparation. "For some players, it's easy to go wrong on strong positions, as I did," she said. "Men don't do that, at least not as often." She was still learning, still adjusting to a new type of competition in which she could not rely solely on her talent to coast to victory.

After lunch, Hou and her mother boarded a train for a two-hour ride to the Biel International Chess Festival, where she would once again be the only female competitor. The struggle to choose a path for her future had already been on her mind all summer -- she had only a few more months to send her final enrollment decision to the University of Chicago -- but her disappointing performance at Geneva had given new urgency to her choice. Now more than ever, she saw that her window to become truly great at chess -- historically great -- was closing rapidly.

Her friends saw it, too. "If she wants to stay the best female player, she can probably do nothing," Kramnik said. "If she wants to achieve her potential, she must concentrate fully on chess, at least for the next few years. But she has to choose -- she can't study and compete. It's just too tough -- the competition is too tough."

Yet Hou's hesitation was understandable even to her competitors -- some seemed to envy her dilemma. "There's this image of chess players being ultrasmart, nerdy experts, but the truth is most chess players have one marketable skill. You go all-in, and you paint yourself into a corner," said Peter Svidler, a grandmaster and seven-time Russian national champion. But Hou was different, he said. "She could walk away and have somewhere to walk away to."

In the competing visions for her future, there was no space for a middle ground, and Hou knew it. "I'm ready to sacrifice something," Hou said on the train. "As a chess player, especially as a woman, you don't have long. But I still want to balance chess with my studies and family." She paused and looked out the window as the idyllic Swiss landscape rushed by. "I want to be the best, but you also have to have a life."

Over the intercom, the conductor announced that the train was nearing its destination. In the coming week, Hou would rebound from her Grand Prix defeats in spectacular fashion, notching several impressive wins and claiming first place overall at the tournament in Biel. But on the train that day, Hou remained uncertain, fixated on the competing visions of two separate lives, both enticing, both hard-won, both within her reach. She still did not know which path she would choose, but she was certain that she would find her way to greatness. "There's so much more to fight for," she said, "both inside the chess world and out."

Hou grabbed her suitcase and prepared to disembark. "I'm not even close to the top yet, in my potential or my expectations," she said. "There's a long way to go."