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Hou's a GM Now

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Dust off your "Hou's on first" jokes, as the Chinese 14-year-old has apparently, belatedly, earned her GM title. ChessBase has a nice item on her for the occasion. She obviously world have become a GM at least a year ago had she not been trotted out to dozens of women-only events with no norm possibilities. She's had at least four 2600+ performances going back to 2006. Not that I'm a fan of the title mill either, and having her bashing through First Saturday events in Budapest just to get a title early wouldn't have meant much. But it's still tragic that such a great talent has spent the past two years playing so many 2300s instead of all the 25-2600s that Karjakin, Ponomariov, and Polgar were playing at 12 and 13. If she does ever reach the elite it will be despite her handling and not because of it.

While we're on prodigy watch, 12-year-old Ilya Nyzhnyk has 3/4 in the Ukrainian championship so far. And don't scoff at the increasing proliferation of tot GMs. Just about all the names on that "20 youngest ever" list have hit the top 10, or at least the top 20, in due time. But it's not a coincidence that a few who seemed to get a lot of help producing the GM title as quickly as possible are the ones who haven't climbed so high.

Lately we've seen a few relatively elder statesmen make surprising jumps into the elite. What's the greatest age at which someone has made their first appearance in the top 10? Movsesian is threatening to do it at 30. Thinking back over the past decade I can't recall anyone doing it past even 25. Maybe someone ancient peeped in for a list or two before falling back? Whose your candidate for best late-bloomer? Korchnoi is usually mentioned as peaking late, but though not a prodigy it's not as if he was a wimp in his 20s and 30s.


If we go way back, how about Chigorin? He didn't really get started until he was 30, and had his best years in his forties.

Jonathan Speelman comes to mind. He made the jump from "average GM" to "world class" beyond the age of 30; not only reached Top 10, but became a Candidate -which meant something then- and played at the highest level for a few years.
This inspired quite a few Western GMs to hope that perhaps they just needed a couple of years more than their Soviet-educated colleagues to reach the top. But as far as I can recollect, noone managed to repeat his late jump.

Michal Krasenkow made it to #10 in 2000, age 37.

"Just about all the names on that "20 youngest ever" list have hit the top 10, or at least the top 20, in due time. But it's not a coincidence that a few who seemed to get a lot of help producing the GM title as quickly as possible are the ones who haven't climbed so high."

two very noteworthy observations, mig.

i've made the same points elsewhere a couple of times, but it's great to see this being mentioned somewhere people may take notice of it. while you can become a gm at an earlier age today (for several reasons), it takes more than modern utilities to break into top 10.

with the number of people with a semi- or fully professional relationship to chess these days, my point of view is that it's harder than ever to reach and remain top 10 for a prolonged period of time. considering the kind of names one finds between place 11 and 30 in the current rating list - for instance gelfand, shirov, mamedyarov, kamsky, ponomariov, bacrot, grischuk, adams and svidler, who all are outside top 10 - it should be clear that those who consistently stay ahead of these players, probably are somewhat gifted, in addition to having put down the required amount of work.

i don't get whats all this fascination with Hou. i went through some of her games and frankly to me she doesn't seem that talented, if you she'd be male nobody would care too much. at the Olympiad i watched her game against the old Chiburdanize and she got outplayed easily.

Nyzhnyk at 4,5 / 7 now with very good chances for a GM norm (TPR 2690):


Precisely that is the main problem with playing women-only events. She could remain in the only-tactics-are-needed stage.

I remeber Lahno to be an almost-equal to Karjakin. What a difference now!!

Lahno almost equal to Karjakin?!
Like when they were 6 or what?

frogbert, sorry but I do not see the point you want to make .... . I would say it also takes a combination of several things to become top 30 or even top 100: talent, hard work and support (sponsors, trainers, tournament invitations).

If anything, your comment illustrates that nowadays the difference between top 10 and top 30 is hardly significant (I would not know how to evaluate 'significance' from a scientific/statistical point of view). All the names you mentioned can (and did) compete in supertournaments without being advance favorite for ending last. There are various conceivable individual reasons why they did not quite make it into the top10:
1) "talented but not stable enough" (e.g. Svidler)
2) too risky playing style (Shirov) - somewhat related to 1) above!? And yes, here Morozevich may render my argument invalid
3) not focused, practicing poker along with chess (Grischuk)
4) unable or unwilling to give up smoking (Bacrot) !!?

Anyway, I do not subscribe to your conclusion in the last paragraph that hard work and 'modern utilities' is sufficient to become top30, but talent is required to break into top10

Just for the record - Shirov and Svidler have been top 10ers for quite some time. Shirov was 3rd or 4th in his peak, Svidler maybe 4th or 5th.

We're comparing apples and oranges. It's relatively as hard as ever to make it to top 10 in that there are still only 10 places available at any given time!! Getting the GM title earlier maybe possible because of more tournaments, trainers (human and silicon) etc etc
How long does is take to learn openings to GM strength - KAmsky's weakness in openings following his non chess break was obvious.

Why now? on Dec 8? She has had all the needed norms and rating before, no?

I don't understand the timing. Chessbase also does not explain it.

@Torrelio: titles are only given out by FIDE during assemblies. The last official FIDE congress was from 16-26 November during the Olympiad in Dresden, and that's where titles were given to the players that fulfilled all the requirements and that had applied via their federation for a title.

So Hou Yifan got her title at the 79th FIDE congress, not on Dec 8th.

In the 20th century, Lajos Portisch is my favourite example of a late bloomer. Climbed into Top Ten around the age of 32, had his best performances around the age of 44.

what does Aronian say?

@Alex: Thanks for clarifying - I thought so myself, but was not entirely sure. So in my 5:39AM post, "did not quite make it into the top10" can be replaced by "did not quite become established" .... .

@Brian: Your first paragraph is a different way to say what I also wanted to say ... .

@Mig: Your statement "it's not a coincidence that a few who seemed to get a lot of help producing the GM title as quickly as possible are the ones who haven't climbed so high" sounds good, but whom do you actually mean?? Among the top20 youngest ever listed by Chessbase, I would 'agree without comments' only concerning Yuri Kuzubov (Ukraine). For some others you may have in mind, they are from less established chess countries (Wesley So, Phillipines; Ngoc Truong Son, Vietnam; Alejandro Ramirez, Costa Rica) and probably simply do not get enough opportunities to play against 2600+ opposition. Getting the GM title in "First Saturday-like" events is one thing, further improving through further challenges is something else.

In an ICC interview during the Olympiad, Ramirez said he came that far 'thanks to Internet chess' - but this is not quite the same as tournament tension during strong over-the-board events. And after all, you need several ones because the first strong tournaments are mostly a learning experience. Even Carlsen performed, let's say, below (high) expectations in his first one or two supertournaments. And Leko took a different approach, just trying to draw (i.e. not lose) all of his games, with ongoing effects on his reputation and maybe playing style.

While India is now an established chess country, I would also include Parimarjan Negi in the above list because - to my knowledge - there are still very few strong international tournaments in India. That's why Anand moved to Spain to be closer to the action, but this is a lot to ask from a 15-year old as Negi.

How about Anand? He's peaking pretty late in life (38). I think he didn't break 2800 until recently too.

Ponomariov turned 12 in October 1995, so most of 1996 he was 12 years old. During that time, according to Bigbase, he played a lot of 2200's and 2300's, and in 1997 not a few 2300's and a lot of 2400's.

It seems clear that the Chinese experts managing Hou know a lot more about her as an individual and about training of elite girls and boys - based on results - than, for example, Mig ("If she does ever reach the elite it will be despite her handling and not because of it.").

For a young player it may be good thing to balance a diet of events where you can experience winning, victory, success, all those motivational things, with some events where you experience the school of hard knocks and a miserable score.

@Thomas: When Bu made his record of a GM title with 13 years, 10 months and 13 days in 1999 by winning 3 tournaments within 2 months in Hungary and his hometown, the chess world was not too convinced that he was really a boy genius. One reason was the relatively low reputation of these tournaments, another that he definitely looked older at that time and the trust in Chinese birth certificates is not fully established. Accidentally, he never made it into Top Ten, and is no longer the strongest Chinese player by now (though, without doubt, quite strong).

"How about Anand? He's peaking pretty late in life (38). I think he didn't break 2800 until recently too."

If 'peaking' is defined as being world champion (or #1 on the rating list) you are right .... . But Anand has been part of the world top for a long time ("forever") already, probably since the age of 18 or so [old by present-day standards, but remarkable back then] - this is maybe a tiny little bit undervalued because he was in the shadow of Kasparov for many years.

As far as rating is concerned, don't forget the general rating inflation. Not too long ago (here defined as 'during my own life as an amateur chess player', I am now 41 years old), 2750 or 2700 was worth as much as 2800 today. I still remember the times when >2600 was sufficient to be a super-grandmaster (top 20 or 30), and noone (or only Kasparov) was rated above 2700.

Concerning the skepticism about Bu in 1999, I would redefine it as "he still has to prove how strong he really is". And maybe he is a 'failure' (a very strong and rude term) because he did not make it into the top 10 or even top 20.

My own less stringent criterion for 'failure' (still a very relative term) is "may have heard that name when he became grandmaster, but not (or not too often) thereafter." And among the list by Chessbase, this applies only to Kuzubov who presently has a 'modest' 2622 rating.

With regard to media exposure, for once players from smaller countries have a certain advantage - at least every two years during the Olympiad: Wesley So had some remarkable games (beating Ni Hua, drawing Shirov), Alejandro Ramirez at least had one spectacular combination with a queen sacrifice [in a completely winning position against a much weaker opponent].

And concerning Bu, I also would not call it a 'failure' that Wang Yue followed up on him and is now 'somewhat' (20 points on the official FIDE list, 50 points on the live rating list) stronger.


"I still remember the times when >2600 was sufficient to be a super-grandmaster (top 20 or 30), and noone (or only Kasparov) was rated above 2700."

What about Karpov?

Yep, I forgot about Karpov ... or rather, did not forget him but was referring to the period when he was already on a (slow) decline.

I finally found a site with 'historical' ratings (accessible information on the FIDE site goes back to 2000):
Everyone can have a look and make his/her own conclusions, just some bits and pieces of information:
- In the 1970's and 1980's, only three players were consistently above 2700: Kasparov, Karpov and .... Robert James Fischer (but that was before my time as a chess player). At least one fellow blogger may find it worthwhile mentioning that Mikhail Tal also hit 2705 .... once in the January 1980 list.
- In the last list on this site (Jan 1997), 2690 was still sufficient for shared 9th place (by Shirov and Short).
- Anand first entered the top 10 in July 1991 (at the age of 22, so a bit later than I recalled from distant memory). For reference, then 2650 was good enough for 9th place, in the latest FIDE list the same rating means #70.

So rating inflation is a widely known fact - which is the main point I was trying to make.

BTW: During my Internet search I also came across Wikipedia's articles on the upcoming 2009 and 2011 chess world championships. It starts with a 'disclaimer':
"This article contains information about a future sporting event or team, and is likely to contain information of a speculative nature. The content may change as the event approaches and more information becomes available."
Presumably a standard disclaimer (preceded by a foorball picture), but certainly true in the world of chess.
Concerning the 2011 WCh, even Wikipedia's statement that "it will be held under the auspices of FIDE" may be rather speculative.

"With regard to media exposure, for once players from smaller countries have a certain advantage - at least every two years during the Olympiad: Wesley So had some remarkable games (beating Ni Hua, drawing Shirov)"

Although his win against Ni Hua was spectacular, you really cannot count forcing a draw with white against any opponent (in this case Shirov) as a "remarkable" game.

OK, admittedly I was looking only at So's results before writing my comment, not at the games ... .

Now I looked at the game So-Shirov: I agree with you that it is not 'remarkable', but I would say Shirov forced the draw. So chose the not-too-ambitious 3.Bb5+ against the Sicilian, but Shirov did not have to play the simplifying and dead-equalizing 11.-d5. Was it out of respect for his opponent, and/or because he was confident that Spain would be winning on the other boards? The game is not remarkable, but the result still is!?

And your comment left the impression that So was only interested in a draw from move 1, as for example in the exchange French. Here I disagree.

A very interesting question, especially in these juvenile fixated times. I was thinking about Robert Byrne, but he only made it to nr. 11 (according to Jeff Sonas) at the age of 45 in 1973. By the way, how is this nice and symphatic man doing nowadays? Then there is Ricard Teichmann, who peaked in his 40es. And then there is Gideon Ståhlberg. But I really do not know. I think we should ask Jeff Sonas.
But in this connection there is another question, which I myself as an IM at 56, is especially interested in: Who is the oldest player who has qualified for the GM-title in a regular way? Meaning NOT by winning the senior-WCh (congatulations to Larry Kaufmann, anyhow).
My old friend, Leif Øgård from Norway - who is at the same age as me - did it a few years ago.
You know, I would really like to know, so I do not stage a comeback to competitive chess too soon :).

Hou hit 2500 on the January 2007 list, and that is presumably when she could have made GM. However, it means little since it was too late to set the

Not sure if she has been "handled" at all. Wouldn't "handlers" have directed her to norm-making events? It's possible she lacks handlers.

Anyway, now is definitely the time she should depart from women's chess, except in rare cases.

Btw, in terms of brain cell count it's all downhill after age 25. Those who peak much later (e.g. in their 40s) probably would have peaked higher earlier, had they tried.

Mig, sometimes why don't you just be mean and name names? We the public don't know all the 'dirt', can't read your mind. For instance, Bu was put on the Hungarian Express, but who else?

Based on my own conversations with them and many other public interviews, the Chinese players are not freelancers. All their events are coordinated by the state sport authorities, especially those abroad. This might change with the older players to a degree, but I don't have any doubt that Hou Yifan and the other young stars play where they are told to play and don't play where they are told not to play. How much input they have on this is unknowable. But at least the women players have been pretty candid about talking about this arrangement. They don't see it as a bad thing, at least not in public comments. Not much different from the Soviet system.

My point about comparing the opponents of Hou Yifan and Ponomariov, Polgar, and Karjakin wasn't the exact calendar age, obviously. It's about development and success. Ponomariov may have been playing 2300's at 12 but he wasn't the highest-rated player in all of those fields the way Hou Yifan is. Playing 70% of your games against people you outrate significantly obviously isn't going to develop your game as well as if that number is 30%.

Pono's a bad example for tracking anyway since his humble origins made it difficult for him to get to big rated events. But of course he and Karjakin benefited from living in a chess power. I think Pono's first ever FIDE rating was over 2500. Carlsen's a better comparison. Aside from his commendable practice of playing in his relatively weak national championship, by 14 he was on a steady diet of strong events. Of course boys don't have the option of playing in affirmative action tournaments with relatively weak fields, other than junior events. So Polgar is the only real direct comparison.

As for the Chinese authorities managing Hou Yifan's career knowing more about her, and? I'm talking about chess development. They have their own agenda, as can clearly be seen by what has happened to the last dozen or more top young Chinese women. They serve their purpose to get women's medals (or not) and are dropped for the next generation by the time they are in their early 20's. This is entirely standard practice with Chinese athletes across the board, by the way, so the surprise would be if chess were different. It's clear that their goal to win women's events is taking precedence over turning Hou Yifan into the strongest possible chessplayer. Unless of course their secret methods are superior to a century of demonstrated practice and the overwhelming evidence of the Polgar sisters. As I said in the piece, she may still go on to join the elite, but it will be after overcoming these partially wasted years. Or maybe they'll still have her playing in the 2350 avg. Chinese women's championship when she's 2700.

Several young players had home events organized specifically to give them a norm chance to break the "youngest GM ever" record. But the Hungarian show is the easiest to track. I think Koneru got all of her norms in Budapest. As I said at the time when everyone (well, the Indian press) was going on about Koneru breaking Polgar's record for youngest female GM in 2002, she did it without ever beating a 2600+ player -- in fact, playing only three games against 2600s period (all drawn). Comparing that to Polgar's reign of ponytailed terror in strong events was ludicrous. Of course Polgar had more opportunities, but she earned most of them and her results bore that out.

Anyway, that's really a separate issue. Title proliferation is a mess but it's not going to stop since everyone profits in the short run. Diluting the title is a long-term problem and nobody in the chess world with any authority thinks long term. I'm just saddened by seeing a great talent like Hou Yifan's being squandered.

Hou Yifan does have the practical problem of not having any strong domestic events to play in (anywhere in Asia, practically), and so she's heavily dependent on invitations outside of strong opens (e.g. Aeroflot). As far as I know her handlers or state sponsors haven't held her back anywhere... it's difficult setting up an ideal for a little prodigy who lives in Beijing (i.e., an unhealthy and expensive 10-hour flight away for each tournament... the repeated jet lag can't be good for a little kid, and might explain all those chessbase pics of her napping on the tournament site.)

thomas, sorry for my late reply.

"Anyway, I do not subscribe to your conclusion in the last paragraph that hard work and 'modern utilities' is sufficient to become top30, but talent is required to break into top10"

i think we're simply talking about a misunderstanding here. by normal standards i consider everyone able to reach top 30 very talented, and not at all any less talent is needed now to reach top 30 compared to say 30 years ago.

my point was rather that those of the new "prodigies" like carlsen and radjabov, that are able to firmly establish themself as top 10 players very early in their careers, aren't where they currently are mostly due to modern tools and utilities, but mostly due to being very uniquely talented/gifted.

there are a host of self-acclaimed experts who used to belittle carlsen's achievements for instance, claiming that his results were mostly due to the modern times in which he live, and hence we shouldn't compare his early successes with those of fischer and kasparov, for instance. i'm sure much of the same stuff has been said about radjabov.

so, my points were rather these:

1) the competition is unusually tough at the top these days, which can be seen by the number of players within 100 points of number one in the rating list. the rating list is a relative one, so the latter fact has nothing to do with inflation per se - it's about having more strong players (relative to the top player(s)).

2) it's harder to distinguish the moderately talented from the very talented at an early age, since it's possible for "relatively many" to reach high levels of chess skills these days. the latter has two effects: a) young players being hyped and exposed to (unrealistically) high expectations, and b) very talented players being discredited for their achievements.

3) even among the top 30 players, there is a difference between those who barely can drag themself within 100 points of number one, and those who are serious contenders for the "crown". when young players _do_ manage to climb close to the very top, it probably _is_ an indication of something beyond the "usual young star".

also consider this: at the moment there are 10 players between 2750 and 2800. these players do stand out compared to the majority of those in places 11-30 in the current ranking. if we have a look at places 15-25 in today's live rating list, there are maybe only a couple players there that i expect to possibly become stable top 10 players within the next 5 years - and probably only when the current top generation with anand, ivanchuk, topalov, kramnik and morozevich starts retiring or becomes more inactive and semi-retired.

15 Alekseev 2726,2
16 Ponomariov 2725,6
17 Mamedyarov 2725,1
18 Kamsky 2724,8
19 Grischuk 2719,1
20 Bacrot 2718,6
21 Dominguez 2716,8
22 Svidler 2712,7
23 Adams 2712,5
24 Gashimov 2711,4
25 Sasikiran 2711,3

we can observe that these 11 players are within 15 points of each other, while the top 10 stretch out over nearly 50 points. adding the 25-40 points required to challenge the current top 10, is (at this level) actually quite hard to do. even if 8 of these 11 players are relatively young, and 6 or 7 of them have been top 10 at some point, i don't see many of them being able to claim a top 10 spot for more than brief moments of time, unlike the big majority of the current top 10 players.

so, even if the differences in a single game isn't that big (50-100 points allow any kind of outcome, really), there _is_ a difference in consistant level of performance.

frogbert, indeed there was some misunderstanding: In the post I was replying to, concerning the top 10 you had written 'somewhat [sic] gifted', which was apparently an understatement .... . If you now write "very uniquely talented/gifted", I agree. [Actually "uniquely" seems wrong if you refer to two players, and "very uniquely" then does not make sense - but let's not get lost in semantics and agree on the term "exceptionally"!?].

Concerning the later part of the recent post, I would like to quote Mark Twain: "It's very hard to make predictions, particularly concerning the future." I would say initially the present bunch of teenagers had a certain competitive advantage compared to the generation of Anand, Gelfand, Kasparov, .... because the former grew up with modern tools and utilities, whereas the latter had to adapt their ways of training and preparing for games (and those who couldn't or didn't want to now are even out of the top 100?).

About Carlsen, until one or two years ago some skepticism was still, let's say, legitimate. Referring to your post, he could still be considered as '2a)' ("young player being hyped and exposed to ... high expectations") rather than '2b)'. And even now it may be, strictly spoken, too early to say with confidence that he will be 'stable' in the top 10 for many years to come (though chances seem pretty high).

Of course only a finite number of the present sub-top (#15-25) can make the final step into the top 10 - simply because for every single one, another player has to drop out of the top 10. That could be for various reasons (examples are of course for the more or less recent past): "getting old", personal problems (Shirov? according to what he wrote himself in Fire on Board Part II), setting other priorities (Polgar), quitting professional chess (Kasparov, Piket [not sure if he ever was top 10, but certainly close], Kamsky [temporarily]).

And I agree that "adding the 25-40 points required to challenge the current top 10, is (at this level) actually quite hard to do" - but this does not mean it is impossible. A recent example is Movsesian - too early to predict whether he is really worth his present rating; evidence from the Nanjing tournament is of course limited and inconclusive (one pretty bad game with white followed by a victory with black).

Oldest GM title achieved "the conventional way":
http://www.xs4all.nl/~timkr/chess2/diary_10.htm (entry #193)
Not much more then until your bid for the title :-)

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    This page contains a single entry by Mig published on December 8, 2008 4:05 PM.

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