Category Archives: chess

Xiangqi Fever

To play Xiangqi (Chinese chess) as earnestly as I have been lately [see, and] is to revisit a familiar situation, one in which I am at the gateway of another culture, hungry for the experience, but positioned as a junior. That was the case with African drumming and with neurological difference, for example, especially Asperger’s Syndrome. I studied and wrote about both (a book pertaining to the former, many pieces about the latter) but could never be full-fledged.

Is it absurd to stake out such positions? Is it a sign of open-mindedness, or of failure and flight from one’s own cultural possibilities?

(But wait, I forgot! This peculiar sort of intervention, of sympathetic nosiness, has another name — anthropology!)

I wanted to play Xiangqi today in Harvard Square, and was cruising for opponents. I found a young Chinese guy playing Go, who said he played Xiangqi, too. He was surprised, as Asians often are, to see a Xiangqi board in Holyoke Center, well-known for western chess, but mine was set up, and we played.

We played to the quiet but mounting amusement of an older, nattily dressed, dark-skinned Chinese man who had next to no English. It took a while for this gent to break his silence. When he did, I had to coax the kid into translatin. I suspect the Taiwanese-born kid of initially, for reasons that will forever be obscure to me, pretending not to know that the wash of sounds coming toward him were his first language, Chinese.

The older guy’s observations were hilarious, probably all the more so in the original. He explained, in great detail, that the kid’s game was hopeless, and that I shouldn’t entertain any illusions that mine was better. The fellow smiled politely at me as he uttered damnations in Mandarin that the kid whooped at and I found uproariously apropos.

I invited him to play.

I suggested he first play the kid, while I grabbed some food. With a bow, the gentleman acknowledged my deferring to him. After the kid, he played me.

The results in both cases were entirely predictable.

He gave me a two move opening handicap. I had received a more astonishing — insulting? — four move handicap in Chinatown, once the players there noticed I kept coming back, perhaps the only non-Asian to do so on somewhat consistent basis, and had to be assigned my place in the Xiangqi order by being properly demolished. The guy who did the deed folded his hands over his tummy and smiled, lackadaisically, at his Xiangqi cohorts, as he smoothed my way toward checkmate. Every now and then, I noted with some pride, he dislodged hands from tummy and craned his neck to study the board a bit. I took that to mean that I had for one move made him think.

I might have done a little better with my two move handicap today had it not been late afternoon. I needed a snooze more than an extra move. Nevertheless, I sped the game on, which is more than I was able to do last summer, when I was just learning and the ideograms would now and then crumble into unintelligibility. The horse would look like the cannon, the elephant would look like the horse and all of them looked like scorpions. In short, my game fell apart. Chinese chess was just Chinatown to me, Jack.

My Xiangqi collapsed especially hard when I played a Vietnamese veteran of the game. (China and Vietnam play the same chess whereas Korea and Japan enjoy their own variants, the Japanese version — Shogi — being, according to some, at the outer reaches of human game comprehension.). This Vietnamese guy was about the same age as today’s elder, but not so genteel. Shaking his head in disapproval, he said of me: “Play like a baby”. For him, my collapse was a sign, if not of true idiocy then of contempt for the game.

A year later, this Vietnamese still frequents Harvard Sq., where he’s devoted to western chess, or rather its high speed spin-off, blitz. Last I saw him, he muttered “checkmate” derisively as he passed. I’d like to challenge him to a rematch. But I still hear him saying, as if to a tot: “I don’t play Xiangqi with you.”

(A high tolerance for humiliation may be the entrance fee to another culture.)

I’ve improved since then. Today, against the Chinese gent, I merely lost. Knowing how to lose is not as good as knowing how to win, of course, but it beats mental paralysis.

And I beat the kid, who grew up with the game but hadn’t played in a while. He’s a perfect sort of opponent for me. Some aspects of the game are native to him that still give me grief. This pertains to horse moves especially: The horse of Xiangqi becomes, in the medieval nomenclature of western chess, that fine feudal fellow, the knight. Horse and knight move in identical ells. But the horse lacks that other unique talent of the knight — the ability to jump. The horse can be blocked, — jammed, hobbled — and often is. The jamming and unjamming of pieces in Xiangqi is, for me, the special rhythm of the game, a kung fu kind of rhythm: Block turns to blow turns to block turns to blow. . . .

Today, I saw some things on the board this Taiwanese kid didn’t. But he had the advantage of thousands of games played as a boy. He took lots of time between moves, as if trying to bring his childhood Xiangqi back.

I wonder who the old guy is. He does not go to Chinatown to play, he said, and I’ve never before or since seen him in the Square. He refused to take my place on the stone chair opposite the chess table. I tried to insist he take this pride of place when he played, but he declined, explaining through the kid that stone chairs ruin pants. As noted, he was nattily attired. What was he up to wandering around the square in his nice duds, this slim elderly dude with a cool smile and a terrific tan? I’d like to have a few more elements of his story.

But let’s leave anthropology aside for the moment. There’s another point I want to make about the allure of Chinese chess.

I may be approaching it with some of the same unbridled, defenseless fascination I felt for chess when I first deciphered it at age seven. It occurs to me that it is in order to rekindle that boyhood sense of game wonder that I’m willing to take my lumps at Xiangqi.

Besides, the pieces — discs with bright red, green or blue ideograms — exude a sort of glamour and sense. They are like knobs on a cosmic console that need only to be touched to buzz, flicker and power up. They look juicy with significance

But sometimes, after I’ve sat down and played perhaps the billionth game of Xiangqi ever — there are a lot of Chinese people and they have been playing amongst themselves for fifteen centuries — the pieces lose their luster. The spell is broken. All I feel is older.

Chess, no matter what the outcome of a game, never left me with just that feeling at age seven, I don’t think.


Filed under chess, China, Uncategorized, Xiangqi

Chinese Chess by check_off

It’s Sunday afternoon, which is when, during the winter, Xiangqi (Chinese chess) players convene indoors at the Consolidated Benevolent Association in Chinatown. I had planned to join them today but woke late to a cold rain, and decided instead to sit in a Cambridge coffeehouse mulling over what it is about Chinese chess that leads me to a small room in Chinatown where most people speak little English and some none at all — and yet I am welcome.

It’s not irrelevant that the pieces are colorful — red and green or red and blue — rather than the black and white that is standard in Western chess. Color suffuses the board, and enters into daydreams about it. It’s true, too, that my ego doesn’t hemorrhage when I lose at Xiangqi, especially if I’m losing to a native Xiangqi player. After all, I am but a newbie, having discovered the game last summer on a walk through Chinatown with a friend.

We saw men crowding around board games that employed discs, differentiated by the ideograms painted on them. We couldn’t read the ideograms but their movements had a sort of funhouse familiarity, and we picked up that they were being mobilized, in their way, for checkmate. What we were watching, then, was a long lost relative of Western chess, another expression of the same game gene.

The mother of all chess games is understood to have surfaced in India circa 600 AD. One of its descendants traveled West — though Persia, the Islamic world, and Europe, to become the game Westerners call chess. The other child of Chaturanga traveled East and became Xiangqi.

How are the pieces related? The elephant of Xiangqi, for example, after all due cultural mutations, becomes the bishop of Western chess, destined for diagonals. In Xiangqi, as in Western chess, the king (sometimes referred to in Xiangqi as the General), is the sine qua non of the operation. The Western king can roam all over the board, and becomes a potent offensive weapon in the endgame. The Xiangqi king is restricted to a 3 by 3 confine throughout, his fortress or palace, depending on translation. But he can do one thing that might make a Western chess king envious: if faced on an unobstructed file by his opposite number, he can, like a wired warrior in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”, fly clean across the board and skewer his enemy.

The pieces are no more unlike than the manners and mores of the game. The way Chinese behave around a game of Xiangqi would be considered utterly inadmissible for Western chess. Xiangqi bouts set off loud and prolonged dispute, not only among onlookers but between onlookers and players. The very boundary between onlooker and player barely obtains. It is not unusual, for example, for a spectator to reach down and emphatically replace a move he objects to with one he has argued is superior.

This sort of intervention is unknown in Western chess, in which the whole idea is to pit two solitary minds against each other, allowing each to entertain the notion that they are a chess genius, a name to reckon with — Philidor, Morphy, Fischer, Kasparov, Polgar, Anand — in the bud. However inept the players actually are, the rules of engagement suppose and cradle individualism.

In Xiangqi, however, at least at the street level, individualism and crowd restraint are beside the point — except when there’s money riding on a game, in which case silence tellingly prevails. Otherwise, the rules of engagement allow for and encourage intra-communal debate. A game sociologist might even stretch the point by saying that games of Xiangqi are simply pretexts for the forging of ever shifting chess-based alliances in the Xiangqi public at large. And the Xiangqi public is not, as with chess in the West, a fraction of the general population: in China and the vast Chinese Diaspora it is close to co-extensive with the entire population.

Xiangqi, historically, was a people’s game, a street corner, marketplace, lower crust deal. As one scholarly Qing dynasty advocate put it: “Women, children, farmers or herdsmen may grasp the techniques of Xiangqi, but to be good at it is another matter, and even grand Confucian scholars and famous worthies do not dare to lay this claim.” Weiqi (better known in the West by its Japanese name, Go) was the game of skill favored by the elite. The sharp-witted loud-mouthed argumentativeness of Xiangqi was likely not permitted in its patrician precincts.

That’s something else I like about the Xiangqi, that it’s everybody’s business. I’ve become accustomed, when, I play, to being advised, admonished and overruled, even if most of it takes place in Mandarin or some other dialect of Chinese I will never understand. But potentially useful bits of English do filter through. I’ve been told:

“Push him! Push him!”

“Not thinking two moves. Not thinking four moves! Not thinking two moves!”

“I kill you. You kill me. I go through your holes!”

“Concentrate here! Concentrate there! Forces left side! Forces right side!”

Such admonishment slowly eats away at my ignorance. I see the board better. I pick up a few tricks and win some games, mostly against other newbie Westerners but sometimes even against Asians who haven’t touched Xiangqi in decades. Chinese tourists and summer students were amazed to see a Xiangqi board in Harvard Sq. where I set up often last summer. They were amazed a Westerner could play their game. Some — not too many, to be sure — were treated to the extra amazement of losing to that Westerner.

Xiangqi strikes me as every bit as sophisticated as Western chess. The rules enjoin a different kind of dance, but one that’s no less complex. (Those flying kings). And Xiangqi strikes me as more than another way of thinking about chess; it’s another way of thinking, a board game window into another culture.

Sam Sloan, a seasoned tournament player in both traditions put it well (in “Chinese Chess for Beginners”) when he said a player of international chess taking up Xiangqi must do nothing less than “try to reshape the structure of his brain.” Xiangqi, then, is both a cultural and a neurological alternative.

I intend to be in Chinatown next Sunday where I will do my best to think four moves, think two moves, go through holes, and push him, push him.


Filed under chess, China, Xiangqi

Do Computers Checkmate Chess? by check_off

Computers helped drive me away from chess. I don’t mean to imply that I was traumatized by Garry Kasparov’s loss to IBM’s Deep Blue in 1997. No, my downfall had come a decade earlier, and not to a high-powered chess machine, but to a slow, memory deficient Mac Plus. Losing to a Mac hurt my pride, and put me off the game for some time. But these many years later the bug has bit again. I play, and ironically the impact of computers is one of the things that keeps me curious about chess.

As for poker, backgammon, Scrabble and Go, the Internet provides a superb platform for chess. The Web functions, among other things, as a museum of major chess moments, a sort of Youtube of key moves. Do I want to revisit what’s known as “The Immortal Game,” played in 1851, and celebrated for its romantic flair, with Adolf Anderssen sacrificing piece after piece in his glamorous, hell-bent assault on Lionel Kieseritzky’s king? If I do, it’s available in on-line databases, with commentary and commendable chess engines to walk me through the moves.

It makes a sort of sense that computers have become fine hosts for chess. There’s a peculiar similarity between chess playing and programming, at least so it seems to this ex-programmer (of Macintoshes, no less). Chess is like coding but with evil intent. A chess game can be thought of as a contest between two software engineers out to infiltrate, bug, and ultimately crash each other’s code. Checkmate is a cool hack.

But there is also a way in which computation and chess are utterly dissimilar, and that computers can threaten the very soul of the game — its lore, literature and sense of history. By literature I mean not only masterpieces by great writers of fiction — Vladimir Nabokov and Paul Zweig to name but two of the more celebrated — but also writings by players themselves as they propose and propagandize for new paradigms of play.

Consider, for example, Aron Nimzowitsch’s claims apropos a game he won in 1923. He called it the “immortal zugzwang game,” more to contemporary tastes, he boasted, than Anderssen’s nineteenth century classic. Zugzwang is the situation that arises in chess when every move only brings you closer to disaster. It’s a sort of bedevilment; in zugzwang you are your own worst enemy. Nimzowitsch was an architect of zugzwang. For him, the age of romantic chess, of bloody frontal assaults, was over.

This distaste for gore — on the board and otherwise — might well have stemmed from Nimzowitsch’s having barely escaped the carnage of World War I. In any case, he strenuously maintained that in chess, something more subtle and sophisticated was being born, which he dubbed hypermodernism. A hypermodernist would not exclude sacrifices from his repertoire. However, he would employ them not to storm the gates, but to lure, coax and box his opponent into the self-destructive bind of zugzwang. Nimzowitsch wrote that hypermodernism, made “crude act[s] of aggression” passé. “The crude,” he concluded with aplomb, would thereby, at least in chess, be rendered “obsolete.”

You need little familiarity with chess or sympathy with the hypermodernist angle to appreciate Nimzowitsch’s sardonic edge. One thing I liked, and still like about chess, one thing that has drawn me and others like me to it, is that it has elicited and merited such polemical fervor. But you are not going to get that from Deep Blue, Rybka, Fritz, Chessbase, or any other piece of superhumanly good chess software. You’re not going to get a worldview, a new twist on chess history, which has always mirrored human history — that’s why it’s so easy to think of chess as an art. What you’ll get from the software is the right move, minus exactly the ingredient it takes to ferment lore.

The incontestable superiority of computer over human doesn’t mean chess is over — far from, not with the Internet being a gracious host and chess springing up in unpredictable corners of the culture. But it might mean that chess history as we’ve known and enjoyed it is over, that machine logic will clear the field of anything to argue about.

Think about it. I have a move to make, on-line, as it happens.


Filed under chess