Checkmate champion

A group of spectators surround two boys sitting face-to-face on the planters of the “X.” In between the two boys, wooden pieces with Chinese markings sit on a white plastic sheet filled with grids.

Freshman Oscar Chen has been playing Chinese chess (also known as Xiangai) for seven years. Chen attended elementary school in Taiwan, and in second grade, a friend introduced him to Chinese chess.

“It’s a skill-based game. I can think strategically and plan out all my moves, and that’s what drew me into Chinese chess. It’s critical thinking instead of hand-eye coordination. It requires you to think,” Chen said.

Chinese chess is similar to chess; the goal is to eliminate the enemy king. However, the pieces are all round and are designated with a Chinese or Taiwanese word in red or black. The king is referred to as a “general,” and each player starts with 16 pieces, including rooks, cannons, knights and soldiers (pawns). Depending on the type of game, a match may last anywhere from 10-20 minutes.

“I like playing full board. There’s more skills involved because there’s no luck [involved]. It’s casual and not really a big deal to me,” Chen said.

The full board game mode (Xiangqi) has all the pieces revealed. However, the half board game mode (Banqi). Each players starts with their 16 pieces flipped upside down. On Chen’s turn, he randomly flips one of his pieces to reveal its identity and moves it accordingly. Chen and his friend play during lunch nearly every day. Usually, one or two spectators stand around and help Chen’s friend. Sometimes, a group forms to watch and give advice on what moves the two should make.

“I beat my friends most of the time,” Chen said. “[When people help my opponent], I feel it’s a fair match. I do make wrong moves, but I just take it as a loss. I ask myself, ‘If I do this, what can they do?’ I have to learn.”

Chen also plays against his father, learning a variety of defensive formations, such as leaving one of each piece on his side of the board and closing gaps around his general. In his free time, Chen watches YouTube videos on opening strategies, the first moves a player should make and how to avoid stalemates. Traditionally in Chinese chess, an unspoken agreement exists between the two players to avoid stalemates.

“I think stalemates take the fun out of regular chess. In regular chess, you can draw by stalemate, but in Chinese chess, even if I pin down every piece you have, you can still win,” Chen said. “The king must move.”

Although he spends several hours on Chinese chess, Chen has not participated in competitions yet.

“It’s like a hobby,” Chen said. “I play against a variety of different people. If I lose, it tells me what I did wrong. For every defeat, I learn something.”

By Phillip Leung, Print Production lead
Photo by Erin Tan

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