Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Xiangqi: Chess in Chinatown



Xiangqi

Whether you are seriously hooked on chess or casually intrigued by it, you probably think of the tables in Cambridge's Holyoke Center as the Boston area's one big outdoor chess venue. That's, after all, where the Chess Master sets out his board a few tables down from his counterpart, the redoubtable Chess Mister. That's where you can play both regular chess and blitz, the high-speed version, most any day, for $2.00 a pop, against skilled competition. (If you win -- it does occasionally happen -- you get your $2.00 back.) And that's where, if you're learning, you can find a teacher. Of course, if you'd been bitten by the chess bug, you didn't need me to tell you about the scene at Holyoke Center. You knew.

But if you knew, you probably thought that's all there is to outdoor chess in Boston. If so, you were mistaken. There is another venue where the game is played with at least as much passion and relish -- the game, that is, if you're capable of wrapping your mind around the fact that chess speaks more than one language.
I was trying to tell a friend about this other locale recently, saying, "I'm back into chess. I go to Chinatown a lot, where there's plenty of Xiangqi."

"Oh? I hope you're careful."

"Why? It's not dangerous."

"No? Didn't you just say there were plenty of junkies?"

"Xiangqi", at least as I pronounce it, can come off as "junkie" to an American ear, but I only meant to allude to Chinese chess, which happens to be thriving in Boston. The Big Dig beggared Massachusetts to the tune of twenty-two billion dollars, but in planting the Rose Kennedy Greenway on space the Central Artery had occupied the Dig has been a boon for Xiangqi. Chinatown Park opened at the southern tip of the Greenway last year, and has been a magnet for lovers of the game -- mostly Chinese but also other Asians, and lately, me.

I'll mention only to set aside the inevitable question about the origins of chess. Did it begin in China, as some argue, and spread from there to India, Persia, and, by means of Islam and the Arabs, to Europe? Or did it propagate from its root in India, circa six century AD, toward both the east and the west? It's an issue that stalemates the scholars.

What matters, though, is that Xiangqi is indubitably chess, related to and seductively different than the Western variant, properly known as international chess. At the moment, I'm hooked on the Chinese game. Whether I'll ever work my way back to the chess I grew up with remains to be seen. Right now, I'm tearing out old chess wiring and repurposing it for Xiangqi.

This summer, I've inadvertently positioned myself as a sort of Xiangqi/ international chess portal. I set up a Xiangqi board in Holyoke Center, mere yards away from the Master and the Mister, and am usually surrounded in short order by Asians delighted to see their game in an unexpected American setting, and ready to play. Many are students or tourists. Few knew they could find Xiangqi, weather permitting, most any day in Chinatown.

I've played in Chinatown, too, but suspect the regulars are embarrassed about demolishing me as easily as they do -- for now, anyway -- and maybe a little irked to be diverted from more rewarding competition. So I mostly watch. I'm accepted as a member of the crowd assembled around the games, though I lack the facility in Mandarin necessary to join the raucous debates about moves. Xiangqi is a much more communal -- much more an "it takes a village" -- kind of game than international chess. It's no breach of etiquette in Xiangqi for an onlooker to reach down and revoke an objectionable move, replacing it with his own, which might then, after due discussion, suffer a similar fate.

Sometimes, after studying Chinatown Xiangqi, I shuttle back to Harvard Square to play the game.

Whether or not Xiangqi goes viral in Boston, I am, at the moment, a Xiangqi-bearing microbe. And Xiangqi might well go viral. The Beijing Olympics may well provide just the boost the game needs to be globalized. The Xiangqi world championships will take place in Beijing this October. Asians will accord the games the kind of respect chess gets here only if it's on the order of Bobby Fischer vs. Boris Spassky, or Garry Kasparov vs. Deep Blue. Following on the Olympics, Chinese chess may blast into western attention suddenly and for good.

I often wonder what Bobby Fischer might make of Chinatown Park. Could he fail to recognize that the game being so vociferously enjoyed and argued about was a variant of his beloved chess? I think that unlikely. I think, after a double-take, he would have seen been enthralled.

If you care to try Xiangqi, here are several resources.

- elephantchess.com, where you can find sets that translate the ideograms identifying Xiangqi pieces into more universally recognizable forms.

Ultimately, though, if you want to play native Xiangqi players, you'll have to make the leap to the ideograms. Don't worry. It's not that hard.

Two books I refer to often:

- David Li, "First Syllabus on Xiangqi." This is smart and helpful despite the author's need to editorialize about all the ways in which he deems Xiangqi superior to tired old international chess.

- Sam Sloan, "Chinese Chess for Beginners." Sloan is a rarity, both a highly (FIDE) rated international chess player, and a Xiangqi player who has, he says, been accorded the title, "Foreign Master" by Chinese chess authorities. Sloan's observations about the differences between the Asian and European versions of the game are to the point.

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