Exploring Chinese Chess

Late last year I was introduced to Chinese Chess. I don’t remember the path that took me to that interest, but I mentioned my curiosity to one of our Chinese engineers who happened to be coming to our site for training. She brought me a wonderful Chinese Chess set and we spent some time after work with her teaching me Chinese Chess and my reciprocating with Western Chess, which she had an interest in.

After she left, we played a few games online but for various reasons (holidays, family, etc.) what had started out as a regular time to meet online and play petered out. Recently we’ve been emailing about resuming and I look forward to doing so.

Chinese Chess, or more properly Xiangqi, is easier to learn than the Western Chess version that most of us Westerners are familiar with. The overall premise is the same: battle between two armies to capture the enemy general or king. Yet, my familiarity with Western Chess caused me to have some problems playing. For example, the Horse may move like the Knight in Western Chess, but unlike the Knight, the Horse can’t jump over intervening pieces. The other rule I had difficulty remembering translates basically to “there is no stalemate” in Xiangqi such as I’m used to in Western Chess.

I naturally went looking for a Xiangqi program that I could use to learn and practice with. Eventually I wanted one that I could study with as well. In the end, I wound up installing and playing with three programs: HOX Chess, Qianhong, and XieXie Master. I find myself using XieXie Master the most.

Screenshot of the About popup for the XieXie Master computer program.

The About information from XieXie Master.

Along with not playing much over the holidays, I haven’t been playing much on the computer either. Recently, I began studying the pieces in a couple of interesting, to me anyway, problems. My original intent was to learn how to use certain pieces together.

Towards this end, I set up several mental problems involving the only four pieces that could cross the river: Chariot, Horse, Cannon, and Soldier. Naturally the General is involved. By mental problems, I mean that I simply worked them out in my head over time. I did set up one or two in XieXie Master to verify. The first problems I set myself were: Given the two Generals and only the two pieces of any one of the four pieces, how would I capture the Red General if it were Red’s turn to move?

Image of Chinese Chess (Xiangqi) board showing the starting positions of the pieces for the two piece problems mentioned in the text.

Typical start setup for the two piece problems.

The opening position of the piece between the two Generals was deliberate to give the Red General as much play as possible. As you can see in the above image, I set myself the challenge of figuring out how to force the Red General to move into checkmate. The two Chariot were no problem at all and quickly resolved. The two Cannon, likewise, but due to the way the Cannon captures, there was an interesting defense situation I had to keep in mind that could allow the Red General to briefly escape the trap. The two Horse took some doing, and this variant is what drove home the stalemate issue (more below). The two Soldiers likewise took some thought and had the same issue as the Cannon, but once I figured it out for one piece (Cannon or Soldier) the solution was obvious in either case: neither piece should ever move in front of the General once the opening sequence was played to lock down one of the outside Castle files.

What I learned is that any two identical pieces working together with no interference can put the opposite General in checkmate. I also learned more about making them work together.

The Horse problem brought up an interesting situation. From my Western Chess background, the only way to avoid stalemate, in which you don’t really win, is that I had to time the placing of the two Horse. To checkmate, I thought, the sequence of moves had to be one Horse would force the Red General out of the corners of the Castle, say f0 or f2, to f1 immediately before the next Black move which positions the other Horse to move on f1 in the final Black move. Checkmate! If I did not sequence the moves correctly, I risked trapping the Red General on f1 unable to move to f0, f2, or e1 but not yet attacked on f1.

This image below shows this situation.

Image of Chinese Chess (Xiangqi) board showing the four pieces mentioned in the text

This is not stalemate under Xiangqi rules.

In Western Chess, it being Red’s move, this would indeed be stalemate: the Red King cannot move into a location where he would be in check. With no legal move for the Red King here under Western Chess rules, it’s stalemate and neither side wins. In Xiangqi, though, this is actually still a checkmate for Black. By Xiangqi rules it’s a case of Red having to move but he has no move that does not end with his capture by Black’s next move. This I had to send to my Chinese friend for verification, even though I read and re-read the Xiangqi rules several times. It was just difficult for me to get my Western Chess raised mind to accept this as checkmate and learn not to focus on achieving a Western Chess style checkmate. I like it, though.

My next set of mental problems was similar, but this time with only one of the four pieces able to cross the river. The setup used is illustrated below with each piece starting where the Soldier is.

Image of a Chinese Chess (Xiangqi) board showing the setup of the pieces at the start of the new problems.

Setup for the problems involving a single piece.

As fully expected, checkmate of Red can be accomplished with all four pieces except the Cannon. There’s just no way to trap the Red General against the side and still have the Cannon able to completely block the Red General or attack him. The Chariot was once again trivial, the Black General and Chariot easily trap the Red General against a corner in just a few moves. The Horse and Soldier can similarly take advantage of the “no stalemate” rule but do need some careful maneuvering to do so. The Cannon’s need to jump over a piece to capture is its undoing in this situation but with any second piece available, whether it can cross the river or not, the Cannon can also force checkmate.

This has been a fun exercise and I feel I’ve learned quite a bit about the capabilities of the four pieces. I feel more comfortable teaching others to play now and giving stronger players than I a good game for their time.

Next, I’m going to play with any one of the four pieces and learn how to efficiently work it with any one of the other three.

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