Chess can be a confusing game — and not just for those unfamiliar with the board game’s strategies and rules. It turns out even grandmasters can be left wondering what the heck is going on. Such was the case at the Gibraltar Chess Festival on Thursday when the world’s top-ranked female player made five moves that left the tournament’s broadcast team gasping in horror.
“What’s going on. What. Is. Going. On?” British grandmaster Simon Williams stammered out while watching China’s Hou Yifan’s effectively throw the game against a lower-ranked male competitor. “This is the first time I’ve been speechless in eight years.”
Williams, who quickly regained his voice, wondered if the 22-year-old Hou Yifan had “gone mental” or was “still drunk.”
“What the hell’s going on?” Williams added, narrating the five-time world champion’s opening moves. “It goes G4 — okay, that’s mental already — D5, F3! What the hell is that?!”
“I’ve done this kind of bet when I’ve been extremely drunk with some friends,” he continued. “I reckon Hou Yifan’s heard about this bet. . . . This is the kind of thing you’d see in primary school or from a very drunk person.”
Williams’s broadcast partner Jovanka Houska, a chess international master, luckily had a clue about what was actually happening.
“She must be upset with something,” Houska said. “I was discussing with her at dinnertime and she thought the pairings were very unfair towards her. She was a bit upset that she was playing seven women (in the 10-round mixed-sex tournament).”
Indeed, it turns out, Houska was right. Hou Yifan was very much sober when she decided to throw the match Thursday. Already the best women’s player in the world, Hou Yifan, who ranks 105th when male players are accounted for, came to the open tournament seeking new challenges and instead got saddled with playing old competitors.
“We are chess players and of course when we’re playing a tournament we want to show our best performance and create interesting games for the chess fans,” she explained after setting the chess world atilt.
Hou Yifan didn’t outright accuse the event organizers of rigging the pairings, which are said to be determined by an automated system, but she called them both “weird” and “unbelievable.”
“It makes me really, really upset,” she said. “Not just for me but for the other women players.”
While it took Williams a while to grasp Hou Yifan’s motives, other female chess players appeared to understand, including U.S. women’s chess champion Nazi Piakidze-Barnes.
“Hou Yifan has been my idol since I first met her,” Piakidze-Barnes began a pair of tweets on Thursday. “In addition to her being a genius, she’s extremely kind and humble. It’s clear that she thinks some of the pairings at (the Gibraltar Chess Festival) were rigged. True or not, she did what she thought was right and her decision should be respected.”