XiangQi – an alternate to Western Chess

by ChessBase
11/19/2006 – Are you frustrated by chess? Disillusioned by realizing that you may never be good enough to make it to the top – no matter how hard you work? Well, here's a remedy: before you throw away board, books and pieces, why not try XiangQi – chess Chinese style. You can even take part in a world championship. Dr. René Gralla explains.

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China Time in Hamburg, Germany

The dragon wakes up. A smiling monster, floating on the river Alster, which forms a lake in the centre of Hamburg. It is a giant figure made of copper, and has been the harbinger of “China Time 2006” – more than two weeks of encounters between Old Europe and the rising superpower from the Far East, taking place in the big port city in Northern Germany in autumn 2006.

Why can't anybody stop the Chinese – economically, politically … and in chess? In order to figure out an answer to that question we proceed to part three of our series on Chinese Chess. We have started off with an in-depth interview with Professor David H. Li on the great influence XiangQi (Chinese Chess) has exerted on the development of chess in general and on the merits of the study of Chinese Chess, with special regard to the improvement of the performance of individual players in Western Chess (Part I and Part II). We now proceed to

Part III – Annex of Chinese Chess

By Dr René Gralla

Are you frustrated by chess? Are you disillusioned by realizing that you may never be good enough to make it to the top – no matter how hard you work on improving your skills? Well, here's a remedy: before you throw away board, books and pieces, why not try XiangQi – chess Chinese style.

Prof. David H Li teaching XiangQi

The Asian version of the eternal game is full of action, just like a Kung fu movie on the board: with a river called the Huanghe that is separating the Southern Kingdom ("Red") from the Northern Territories ("Black"); the two armies – with elephants, chariots and even cannons – are fighting for control of the fords of the Yellow River, in order to conquer the palace of the opposing King and his advisors, the Mandarins.

Military thinkers from the East have trained their minds with XiangQi, such as Vo Nguyen Giap (picture), the legendary commander-in-chief from Vietnam, who has defeated the French in 1954 at Dien Bien Phu, and who orchestrated the fall of the US supported Republic of South Vietnam 30 years ago, on April 30th, 1975, when tanks from North Vietnam crushed the gates of the Presidential Palace at Saigon.

The historic and cultural importance of Chinese Chess is one thing; the other thing is the big chance that XiangQi offers to ambitious athletes of mind sports. In 2007 the 10th World XiangQi Championships will be staged in Macau. The good news: nearly everybody with any talent has the chance to qualify for that tournament of jubilee at the former Portuguese colony in China.

How does that work? Indeed there is a realistic way to get a ticket for the next World Championship in Chinese Chess – you have just to start to play in the National League of your home country.

In Germany that is the Federal League of XiangQi, and everybody – yes: everybody, the master and the Greenhorn! – is invited to compete. That is truly democratic – no comparison to the closed shop that the self-styled elite players in Western Chess have established with regard to the World Championship.

Macau, where in 2007 the 10th World XiangQi Championships will be staged

In XiangQi the way to enter the World Championship has been shortened up dramatically. Those candidates who manage to reach the first, the second or the third place during at least two of the four weekends of the Federal League of XiangQi in Germany will qualify for the finals of the German Championship in the summer of 2007. Those finals will also be the decisive competition  to nominate the German delegation that will fly to the 10th World XiangQi Championships in Macau.

Stargate to fame in chess – eastward bound

So why hesitate? The season 2006/2007 of the Federal League of XiangQi in Germany will start on December 2nd and 3rd 2006 in Hanover – and that can be your Stargate to fame in Chinese Chess. 

There is something about XiangQi that goes well beyond the sporting aspect. The game is an inspiring alternative to the often lengthy and tiring sessions of Western Chess. XiangQi opens up a door to give you access to the history and culture of China. By enjoying that colourful chess variant from the Far East you learn a lot about the facts that have shaped the social reality of the People's Republic of today – that aspiring power of global importance at the beginning of the 3rd millennium.

In the following we will replay one of the most famous historic duels of XiangQi, played at the Imperial Court in China during the early days of the North Sung Dynasty, between the 10th and 12th century. Before we analyse that game, let's first have a look at the rules of XiangQi.

Chinese Chess is played on a board that is made up of ten horizontal lines and nine vertical lines. The verticals are interrupted by a central horizontal void called the "river", also known as the "Huanghe". Two palaces are positioned at opposite sides of the board. Each one of them is distinguished by a cross connecting its four corner points. Whilst in Western Chess pieces are placed on the squares of the board, the pieces of XiangQi are placed on the intersections of the lateral and vertical lines. They are called "points".

In Western Chess the commander of the White army plays the match against Black; in XiangQi it is "Red" - also referred to as "South" - against "Black", that is to say: "North", respectively.

Each player has the following pieces: two Chariots – symbol: Western Chess-"Rook", abbreviated: "R"; two Horses - symbol: Western Chess "Knight", abbr.: "N*"; two Elephants - symbol: Western Chess "Bishop", abbr.: "B*"; two Advisors (or: "Mandarins") - symbol: Western Chess "Queen", abbr.: "Q*"; one King (or "General") - symbol: Western Chess "King", abbr.: "K*"; two Cannons - symbol: Cannon; abbr.: "C" -; five Pawns (or: "Soldiers") - symbol: Western Chess "Pawn", abbr.: "P*".

There are some similarities between the moves of pieces of Western Chess on one hand and the way pieces of Chinese Chess operate on the other.

A gigantic XiangQi-board in Yunan, China – near the Tibetan border

The Chariot (R) moves like a Rook in Western Chess, capturing and moving in a straight line either horizontally or vertically any distance. They begin the game on the points at the corners of the board. The chariot is considered to be the strongest piece in the game.
The Elephant (B*) moves exactly two squares diagonally (as the "Alfil" did so in old Arabic "Shatranj"), but unlike the "Alfil", the XiangQi-Elephant may not leap over occupied points. Chinese Elephants are confined to their home side of the river; due to these limitations the Elephant can only move to seven points on the board.
The Advisor (Q*) – or Mandarin – moves one point diagonally; so it is similar to the "Vezir" in "Shatranj". But unlike the Vezir, the Mandarin is never allowed to leave the palace. This is the area marked on the middle of either side of the board, the two "Forbidden Cities". The diagonal lines define the routes that the Advisor is allowed to take inside the palace. Consequently the XiangQi-Advisor is restricted to five of the nine points inside the Forbidden City.
The King (K*) can move one square horizontally or vertically. The commander-in-chief is not allowed to leave the palace – not even to avoid checkmate. But Kings can exert a long-distance power that is similar to the vertical power of a Rook. It is called "telepotency", meaning: the two Kings cannot face each other on an open file. If either King is sitting exposed on one open file, the other King is not allowed to move to that contested file too.
The Cannon (C) has two moves to make. It can passively move like a Chariot, or it can capture, which involves jumping over a second piece in order to capture a third piece. For example, a Cannon on a1 can take a piece on f1 if exactly one of the points b1, c1, d1 or e1 is occupied by a piece of either colour. Cannons are not allowed to hop over more than one piece in a given move.
The Horse (N*) begins the game next to the Elephants and moves one point vertically or horizontally and then one point diagonally away from its former position. It is important to note that the horse, unlike the Western Chess knight, does not jump. However, a piece two points away horizontally or vertically or a piece a single point away diagonally would not impede the movement of the horse.
Unlike pawns in Western Chess, both passive and capture moves of Pawns in Xiangqi (P*) are always the same. A starting Pawn moves one point straight-forward. A Pawn, having crossed the river, can not only move and capture straight forward, but also one point laterally, to the left or to the right. Pawns do not get any extra-promotion after having reached the last rank; there they can only move to the left side or to the right side – thus being called "Old Pawn".

After this brief introduction (a more detailed one can be found here) you are ready for that encounter that has to be considered to be one of the milestones in the evolution of Chinese Chess. This miniature was first published in A General Collection Of Recorded Events by Chen Yuan-ling, a multi-volume encyclopaedia that was compiled during the first period of the Northern Sung Dynasty.

Chess craze at the imperial court

A student of XiangQi who leads the Red army tries to outsmart his tutor, a venerable teacher of the art of Chinese Chess. During those ancient times a real Chess craze had his grip on the nation. People were playing everywhere: in soup kitchens, on the streets, and the craftsmen offered fancy playing sets in their shops.

The imperial court was infected by the hype too. Real chess professionals got a job there. They were ranking officers – both male and female – and their sole duty was to play XiangQi with the ruling monarch and with the members of the royal family.

Red: Student of XiangQi (member of the royal family, presumedly)
Black: Tutor (officer of the imperial court)
China, early period of the North Sung Dynasty (960 until 1126 A.D.)
Opening: Same-Side-Cannon Defense – The System Petrov in XiangQi

There are poems teaching the novice the basic principles of starting a match. The basic one is titled "Cannon in the middle":

"First step you move the cannon into the middle of the palace.
Chariots set beside the river and attack with the horse.
Pawns go forward supported by a horse behind."

So, from the past to the present, the majority of players tend to choose the Central-Cannon opening: attacking the black Pawn e7 on the first move. That can be compared to 2.Nf3 ... in Western Chess (after 1.e4 e5).

1.Che3 ...

The Cannon h3 has moved to e3 and is attacking the Pawn on e7

1.... Che8

Above is the board position after each side has made one move. It is similar to the counterattack in the Petroff, after the moves 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nf6.

2.N*g3 ... Unlike the usual 3.Nxe5 in Western Chess, a Petroff style 2.Cxe7 would be a bad idea in XiangQi (and 2...Cxe4?? after 2.Cxe7? would be a sure loss for Black, the latter in fact being similar to the well-known blunder in Western Chess: 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.Nxe5 Nxe4?).

2...N*g8 3.Rh1 ... Speed is key in XiangQi - occupying an open line by the Chariot as fast as possible.

3...N*c8 A wise decision too: the second defender for the vital Pawn e7 out there in the centre of action.

4.Rh7 ... Attacking the left wing G-company of the Northern Army.

The tutor remembers the poem quoted above: "Pawns go forward supported by a horse behind." The infantry unit g7 cannot be defended, so Black is preparing a cavalry swing to the opposite flank.

5.Rxg7 ... Red senses no danger and crushes enemy soldiers. Now Red could kill Black’s Horse with 6.Rxg8.

5.... N*d6 The thrust of armoured knights. Plus some nice side-effect, the right-wing Horse N*g8 is protected again by Black’s Cannon b8 (via the ramp courtesy of Blacks Ce8).

6.Rg6? ... Assuming – wrongly – that he can eliminate one more unit of Northern infantry by attacking Black Horse d6: either Black Hd6 or Black Pawn c6 actually hiding behind the Horse on the lateral no. 6.

6... N*f5! Typical Horse-strike: Black N*f5 is attacking Red N*g3 (though the latter still being defended by Red Cannon b3 - using the ramp of Red Cannon e3); but Red Horse g3 cannot retaliate by 7.N*xf5 ... - for there is the blockade by Red Pawn g4, and the Chinese Horse being no Western Knight is unable to leap over that, (as we do know now).

7.g5? ... Seems to be logic - opening up the gate for Red Horse g3. But this is the final mistake already.

7.... B*i8! Idea: 8.N*xf5?? B*xg6 9.gxg6 - and that transaction would be a bad deal for Red.

8.Rxc6 ... Eliminating some more of the Black troops.

8.... N*d4!

The winning move, by threatening 9...N*xc6 and 9...N*c2+.

9.Rd6 N*c2+

The Fork of Horse – on the position c2. This move decided the historic match, but ever since that same deadly check on the King e1 plus attack on Chariot a1 alias Rook a1 has decided – and is still deciding – countless matches in both variants of chess, be it the Chinese one or the Western one.

Conclusion of the manuscript from the days of Sung: "Black wins Chariot" (as quoted by David H. Li in his second volume on XiangQi, "Syllabus on Cannon", Bethesda 1998, p.40 pp., 43). True – therefore: 0:1.

That typical attack on c2, executed by the tutor in XiangQi, can be compared to the Western Chess King's Gambit declined. It is a line that occurs on the amateur level very often.

The notorious square c2, just after 8...Nd4xc2+ and onward to: 9.Kd1 Nxa1! 10.Qxg7 Qf6! and winning (U.Schmidt vs. Dr.R.Gralla, friendly match, Hamburg 2004).

Welcome to the Big Adventure, welcome to the Far East – and soon you will become a disciple of the thrilling Chess of the Shaolin too.

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