A 16-year-old chess prodigy from China has emerged as the new women’s world champ.

NOBODY who had met Hou Yifan in April this year, when she took part in the Kuala Lumpur open chess tournament, would have expected that the petite 16-year-old chess prodigy from China could close 2010 crowned as the new women’s world champion.

“When do you think you can become the world champion?” I had asked her then. She let out a stifled giggle, a reaction which I had mistaken for a nervous laugh. “I don’t know,” she replied.

Crowning glory: Hou Yifan with World Chess Federation president Kirsan Ilyumzhinov.

“But that’s your ambition, isn’t it?” I persisted. “Your last attempt at the world chess title had been so very close,” I men-tioned, referring to the previous world chess championship in Nalchik, Russia, in 2008.

At that time, Yifan was only 14 years old and she had progressed through the knock-out tournament till the final stage where she met the other finalist, Alexandra Kosteniuk. However, her opponent proved to be the better player and she was left to reflect on her lost opportunity.

“Oh, I hope to be better prepared and play better this time,” she had replied modestly.

Well, Yifan has really played better this time and gone one better than before. Two additional years of travelling the world and playing chess against top-notch men’s and women’s players had added to her experience.

Just last Friday in Hatay, Turkey, she finally claimed the women’s chess crown as her own. In the final of the championship, she played the match of her life and just about eked through with a hard-fought win against her compatriot, Ruan Lufei.

Yifan had started the knock-out women’s world championship as the third seed just behind India’s Humpy Koneru, the second seeded player. Despite being rated so much lower in the 64-player field, Kosteniuk as the defending champion had been given top seed in deference to her World Champion’s title but it was clear as the championship progressed that Kosteniuk would not be able to repeat her success of 2008.

In the third round, Kosteniuk was eliminated by Ruan. Both players had drawn their first two games and so it was left to the tie-break games to decide. A gritty Ruan won the first game of the tie-break before she then closed down Kosteniuk in the second tie-break game and thus, the Chinese player advanced to the quarter-finals.

It will be interesting to note that throughout this championship, Ruan gained a reputation as the tie-break queen. Right from the word Go, all of Ruan’s mini-matches (each round except for the final would be an encounter of two games at normal regulation time control and if there was no decision, then tie-break games at a faster time control would decide) went into nerve-wracking tie-breaks. None of her rounds were ever decided under normal time control.

So it wasn’t much of a surprise to observers when Ruan pulled level with Yifan after four normal regulation games in the final of this world championship.

The first game of the final began with Yifan playing with the white pieces and pressing to strike the first blow. At one point the position was better for Yifan but try as she could, she could not overcome Ruan and the game ended drawn.

Yifan was not to be denied, however, and she did pick up her first win against Ruan in the second game. The point was split again in the third game, but I can assure you that it was no tame stuff. Ruan could have won it and equalised. She had that pressing advantage which she could have converted into a win but did not.

So going into the fourth game, Yifan was still leading and needed just a draw. On the other hand, the fourth game was going to be a do-or-die mission for Ruan. Anything less than a win for Ruan would mean that the women’s world chess championship would have ended then and there for her.

It was fascinating to watch this game as it unfolded. Maybe it was due to nerves but Yifan, after defending well against Ruan’s onslaught, succumbed after Ruan found the very best moves over the board. At the end of the four normal regulation time control games, the final was back where it started: on equal footing for both players.

The first game of the tie-break was drawn, then Yifan won the second tie-break game. In the third tie-break game, the players drew again. But this was where the resemblance to the normal regulation games ended. In the fourth tie-break game, Yifan seized the initiative from Ruan and did not let go. As much as Ruan tried, she could not turn the game around and finally, with defeat staring at her on the chessboard, Ruan conceded the game.

So there we have it: Yifan is the newest and youngest of the long line of women’s world chess champions. Hail to the new queen of chess.

(Just an interesting footnote here: China’s Ruan Lufei is 23 years old. She is a doctoral student at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the United States. “I think there are three reasons why she beat me,” Ruan reflected after the championship. “Firstly, she is really a good player, and unlike me, she plays chess every day. Secondly, I played tie-break in every round, so I have played for 20 days with only one day of rest. Finally, she has two coaches here, but I’m fighting alone. My coach is in China.”)