Why you need to learn XiangQi for playing better chess!

By Davide Nastasio

On April 24th, Fabiano Caruana tweeted, “After a long month of chess, time to relax with some XiangQi.” (XiangQi are the words used in the Chinese language to describe the game known as Chinese chess.  The meaning, however, is more complicated.)




Recently GM Magnus Carlsen’s second, GM Peter Heine Nielsen, penned an article on one of the most exciting and active chess sites, Chessbase India, where he explained why one should learn Shogi (Japanese Chess).



Shogi Board, photo credit: Wikipedia


I began to realize how the preparation of modern professional chess players, especially those at the top, has reached a new level. The top pros not only care about their bodies, with physical exercise and diet, they also consider other forms of chess played in other countries to keep their interest high, and their brains always in top shape!

GM Vassily Ivanchuk is also famous for playing Frisian draughts, which he considers good for learning calculation and the zugzwang.



GM Vassily Ivanchuk, left.


In any case, since I’m always looking for ways to improve my chess, I’m not closed-minded to the idea of adding a new chess discipline (in this case XiangQi) to my chess training.



Bronze Chinese chess set


The Chinese culture is thousands of years old, and spans a continent. Their language is extremely exciting because it is rooted deeply in the history and stories of a population which is exceptionally good at doing whatever they do.  They are perfectionists, true masters of whatever they love to do.




In the West, unfortunately, we know very little about China, apart from the more commonly-known figures like Bruce Lee and Mao Zedong, and probably the Hong Kong triads.  But there is an entire universe to explore. For example, many years ago I loved reading the books written by Dutch sinologist Robert Van Gulik.  His books followed the investigative exploits of Judge Dee, a Chinese detective.




Van Gulik, a diplomat (but sinologist at heart), enriched the mysteries with some of his own stories, but mainly he was just translating documents left from the ancient past.  It was as if we could read police investigations from ancient Rome.



Robert Van Gulik with a baby gibbon named Bubu, during his work at the Dutch Embassy in Kuala Lumpur (1959-1963); source: Wikipedia


Van Gulik loved Chinese culture and loved to collect ancient artifacts.  Unfortunately, his collection was lost during the chaos that ensued during the Second World War. Often I imagine how some of these archeological findings helped him gap the bridge of time and relive these experiences in another historical period.

Why did I introduce Van Gulik? Because that was a man I wanted to know, who unfortunately died before I was old enough to have a chance to know him. Van Gulik, in my opinion, was a very important key to appreciating and loving the Chinese culture based on those Confucian values, which perhaps are not quite clear if one just reads the Confucius classics like the Analects.




Now, thanks to globalization and the ability to communicate via social apps with people from all over the world, I believe we have another gentle soul, like Van Gulik, but for Chinese Chess. This great man’s love for XiangQi is phenomenal, and like Van Gulik, he can open the door for an ignorant Westerner like me to one of the most important traditional Chinese rituals, the game of XiangQi.



Dr. Jim Png at a Chinese Chess conference in Hangzhou, 2017


He is a surgeon by trade in Taiwan, where he moved from Singapore.




He has translated some of the ancient texts to modern English, and his great work made me want to play XiangQi.




The above book is part of a series of 4 volumes, which were translated from an ancient manual dated around 1600 CE.  But, of course, he also created more accessible books for those who need to learn to play, like the following two:














Instead, for those who love history as I do, there is volume 1 in which one can discover and better understand how XiangQi evolved. In the beginning the board was used for divination, likely together with the famous text called I-Ching




I began reading his Lexicon. I remember during last Summer at the swimming pool, a young friend asked me why I gave so much attention to this book. Like most women, she couldn’t understand why I read so intensely such a masterpiece, compared to more mundane … endeavors.




The reason was simple: my spirit was caught up in a new understanding of what I had longed for. Previous Chinese-English dictionaries didn’t explain the XiangQi terminology, and one couldn’t understand what was written in XiangQi books, which has a literature as widespread and as copious as chess books.

Yes, you read that right. In China, there are some Chinese chess book collectors who own more than 20,000 XiangQi books! One of them has a building to keep his Chinese chess books!

But returning to why learning XiangQi can improve your chess, we finally come toward the end of the article, and I’ll try to explain why we need to learn about XiangQi in order to become better Chess players:

1. XiangQi is extremely tactical.  It will sharpen your tactical skills from whatever level you are, bringing you to the next level! One of the main differences between chess and XiangQi is the open files. At the beginning of the game in chess, all the files are closed by pawns.




In XiangQi, there are already four open files, four highways to let our heavy war machines go to their final battle destination.



credit: Chris Hankinson


2. XiangQi challenges you to visualize very far, hence it will improve your calculation strength and add clarity to the final position. In fact, in XiangQi there are some important studies, like the “Gathering of the Seven Stars,” which are quite complicated, nearly more complicated than anything found in chess!



Starting position of the Gathering of the Seven Stars


The position above is a study which has several hundred variants and sub-variants. In fact, on this particular endgame composition was written the first Chinese chess book in English: “A Chinese Chess Ending With Three-Hundred Variations,” by Charles Kliene in Shanghai in 1916. The main lines of this study are generally between 11 and 27 moves long! There are three other studies with quite choreographic names which are similar in difficulty to the Gathering of the Seven Stars. But in reality, the beauty of Chinese chess resides in some ancient texts with positions which are not so complicated, but truly beautiful.



credit: XiangQi Master Russell Sim Yip How


3. XiangQi will continue to keep your brain working on chess! Yes, this is the real point. When we do a certain activity, connections between neurons in our brains are formed to allow us to better perform in that activity, be it learning a new language or a new skill. Chess has the same allocated place in the brain that we would have for Chinese Chess, hence we are not damaging one in favor of the other.  We are keeping our connections alive and functioning, also when we need a break from chess as a sport to avoid over-exertion! Think of it as localized muscle training.

4. XiangQi teaches a winning mentality. In chess, thanks to pawns closing the position, many young players just play 20 moves and then ask for the draw. In XiangQi, you cannot close the position.  You have to fight till the end. XiangQi separates the true gladiator from the Sunday sport layman. If your mentality in chess is “live and let’s draw,” don’t try XiangQi, because there are no prisoners in XiangQi—and it will hurt you badly!




5. Often when we try to solve a position, we can’t. So what to do? One of the best things is to let the mind work on it while we take a little break and watch something else. With XiangQi it is the same. Let’s say you are in a period of stagnation with your chess rating and you cannot improve. What to do? Take 15-20 days off and learn to play XiangQi, solve XiangQi checkmating problems, play a few XiangQi games every day, and then after 15 days go back to chess and see what happens. (I’m advising this system to club or tournament players, not to those who just began to play chess.) I did a similar experiment with great results. I didn’t have tournaments for a couple of weeks, so I began consistently playing XiangQi and solving problems.  I even played in a XiangQi tournament online.  I then returned to chess, because in a week a couple of tournaments were coming up. The results were amazing.  My creativity was clearly raised, and I didn’t play chess for over 2 weeks!

Final thoughts: Caruana, Nielsen, Ivanchuk are all top world-class players, and all of them tried different forms of chess to improve their calculation skills and add that little extra which gives them an advantage over the other players. XiangQi can be learned in 10 minutes by a chess player, and can add benefits for visualization and calculation which can give us that edge we need to overcome our opponents! Don’t waste this chance to add this exciting form of chess to your training.



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