Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Xiangqi revisited, rediscovered

For the uninitiated, Xiangqi is Chinese chess.

It's basically similar to the chess we know in the West, but with a few fascinating little kinks, the most appealing of which being that it is played on a slightly bigger board, but with fewer pawns, and the pawns can't take diagonally to bolster each other; in fact, there are great gaps between them, so you can get your big pieces rolling into the action right from the get-go, rather than faffing around for ages building up defensive pawn positions. It's a much more direct and vigorous game than Western chess, and it's usually over much, much more quickly.

It's also far more social than Western chess. You see people playing in public everywhere in this country, in parks and squares and just squatting on the sidewalk. And almost always the players will attract a knot of intent onlookers, who will point and mutter and jeer and make occasional interjections of unsolicited advice.

And no-one seems to have heard of that if-you've-touched-it-you've-got-to-move-it bollocks.

All in all, I just find it much more fun than regular chess.

It was quite an obsession of mine when I first came here. I played every chance I could get, and even took to carrying a small set around with me in my coat pocket during the long cold winter we suffered that year, so that I could always challenge my dining or drinking companions of the evening. And I never missed a chance to take 5 or 10 minutes out to watch a street game. As I have recounted before, it was Chen Feng, the young chef at the restaurant where I hung out nightly during my impoverished first year in Beijing, who really taught me how to play the game. Alas, as migrant workers like him tend to do, after a few months he went back home "to get married". There were a few friends and teaching colleagues who were also eager to try to learn the game in that first year, so I had other regular opponents too - but, as tends to happen in Beijing, they all left. I soon found myself without anyone to play against, and my interest in the game was relegated to the back burner.

Until last night........

The goofily amiable young barman at my habitual early evening (and sometimes late evening) hangout, Room 101, generally gives the impression of being one of the least sharp tools in the box, and his bartending skills leave almost everything to be desired, but...... damn, he knows his way around a xiangqi board pretty well.

Of course, I whinge that I am rusty at the game. And I am convinced that he got a double move in on me at one point. And I did blunder away a crucial piece through not realising which point his piece was on (we were playing with a tiny set, with a ruckled plastic mat for a board, and pieces were easily displaced so as to lodge ambiguously between two points - in Chinese chess, you play on the intersections of the lines rather than on the squares themselves).

Nevertheless, he did me good and proper. It was a very elegant end-game, painfully relentless.

I'm relieved I managed to hold my own for so long. But I really must learn how to mobilise my pieces more effectively (I had two chariots - rooks - on the same file for almost the whole game, and did nothing with them!).

I can see this becoming a regular ritual, at least on the quieter nights (of which they have many). But I think I need to get him a bigger chess set........

1 comment:

Froog said...

Aha! I knew it must have been just a fluke (or a cheat) that the goofy barman beat me.

I took him twice in succession last night.

We're pretty well matched, though. He makes me work for it.