Stress, Illness and Competition

A match for the Women’s World Chess Championship recently finished in Tirana, the capital of Albania.  The winner was incumbent champion Hou Yifan, a 17 year old from China who won the title last December, the youngest ever.  The pressure on her was enormous for several reasons.  The weight of national pride was heightened by the fact that Ms Koneru, her 24 year old challenger, is a native of India, China’s geopolitical rival.  Ms Koneru had also surpassed Hou (slightly) in the world rankings.  In addition, prize money for the match winner was more than $50,000 greater than for the loser.

Going into a critical game in mid-match, Ms Hou was trying to hold onto a slim 3-2 lead but playing with the (slight) disadvantage of moving second (black pieces).  The challenger would be going all out to win and even the match.  In the middle of the night, Ms Hou developed severe abdominal pain and was rushed to a hospital.  After several hours of tests found nothing wrong, the diagnostic conclusion was that the pains “were of a psychological nature.”

Ms Hou declined mind-fogging pain medication and appeared at the board at the scheduled time.  As expected, Koneru pressed hard to win.  Although the position was balanced after 32 moves, Ms Hou had been forced to use all but 6 of the 110 minutes allotted to complete 40 moves.  Nevertheless, Hou was able to find strong moves that rapidly built pressure on Koneru’s king, forcing resignation after 38 moves and taking a commanding 4-2 lead with only 4 games left in the match.  She proceeded to win the match comfortably.  Hemingway’s definition of courage, “grace under pressure,” is applicable here and I suspect Ms Hou’s stomach is feeling much improved these days.