Hou Yifan’s favorite chess piece is not the mighty queen but the humble pawn. “When the pawn gets to the other side, it can become anything except the king,” says the woman who at 14 became the game’s youngest female grand master and at 16 its youngest women’s world champion. “To me it shows that regardless of your background, if you stick to your goals and strive, eventually you will become a better version of yourself.”

Hou, now 24, remains the world’s greatest female chess player—she has won multiple world titles since graduating from high school—and is also an accomplished student; she holds a degree in international relations from Beijing’s prestigious Peking University and is pursuing a master’s degree in public policy at Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. That a child prodigy chose not to dedicate herself full time to the game bewildered her coach and the wider chess community.

But Hou has always forged her own way. In February, she made headlines for forfeiting her final-round match at a chess tournament in Gibraltar because she was being paired against more women than men—a system that she, and others, felt was sexist. “Maybe it was not polite to my opponents, but at that moment I thought it was the only way to bring attention to the system,” she says, shrugging.

For Hou, the best way to bring about broader change is to focus on your own self-improvement—much like the pawn. “You have to be the hero of yourself,” she says.

Tim Franco for TIME
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