Yifan Hou, a world number one female chess player with a future in policymaking

Yifan Hou

Image credit: Lennart Ootes

Yifan Hou (MPP 2018) is a four-time women's world chess champion and currently the number one female player in the world, as well as the only woman in the world’s top 100 chess players. Others at the very top level devote themselves to chess full time. Maintaining it alongside full-time study (let alone in her non-native language) is, says Yifan modestly, “not easy”. However, she has never wanted to restrict herself to a single field of endeavour.

She decided to study for a Master of Public Policy because it covers a wide spectrum of knowledge and concepts, leaving room to consider options for what to do next.

“I didn’t come on to the MPP with one fixed area of interest; I wanted to explore a range of different fields that are high on the agenda for policymakers at the moment, from energy policy, to cyber security, to counterterrorism. As events in the world move so quickly, it’s been good to study topics of current importance.”

She is keen to combine chess with an area of policy – perhaps using chess within education, where research suggests it can support critical thinking and strategy in early years, as well as help those with autism, and reduce reoffending rates among prisoners. “My background is in international studies and diplomacy, but the MPP has given me the ability to approach new subjects and explore issues of which I have little experience. I think that the transferrable skills I’ve gained on the course have made the MPP a more valuable experience than a course of study focused solely on one subject area.”

Yifan credits the applied nature of the MPP with giving her the skills to put her knowledge into practice outside of the classroom. “Looking at things from a purely theoretical perspective can make one feel far removed from the practical reality, which is often more complex. The MPP’s focus on real-life challenges and solutions has helped me to make the connection between theory and practical application.”

“The Policy Challenge in particular has highlighted the complexity of working on policy issues, and the importance of understanding the perspectives of others. Everyone comes with different backgrounds and beliefs and there are intricate power dynamics and differences in expertise, but ultimately you are all sitting at the same table and you have to find a way to work things out.”

Yifan chose the counterterrorism module for the Policy Challenge, which this year focused on technology. “It tied in well with a previous module I had done on the cyber era. That was purely coincidence, but it shows how so many issues are interlinked and demonstrates the value of taking an interdisciplinary course like the MPP.”

Some of the technology-related topics Yifan has studied this year include issues like the Huawei case and the implications of state-owned media. “These topics are hugely relevant to me and I feel that I’ve gained a more objective view from exploring them on the course. I can now consider things not only from my own viewpoint as a Chinese citizen, but also from, for example, a Western angle. I’ve gained new perspectives in terms of geopolitics and a new understanding of the technological debate that underpins the political one.”

Yifan will be heading to New York for her summer project, working in the field of artificial intelligence and public health. “As someone with no previous internship experience, the summer project is a great opportunity for me to get some work experience and apply what I’ve learnt over the past year. I’m keeping an open mind about the main policy area I’d ultimately like to pursue, so the summer project is the perfect length of time to get an idea of whether working in public health policy is something I want to take further.”

July 2019