XiangQi – an alternate to Western Chess
– 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.
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
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
||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
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
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).
The Cannon h3 has moved to e3 and is attacking the Pawn on e7
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
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
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.
The winning move, by threatening 9...N*xc6 and 9...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
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
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.