Author: Jim Png Hau Cheng
Note: This article first appeared on Xiangqi.com. on Jan 8th 2021.
"Checkmate." Another game lost. The emotions of despair, anger, helplessness, surprise, stupidity, et cetera appear again. Nobody likes to lose, especially in games of intellect like Xiangqi (Chinese Chess).
Over the years of promoting Xiangqi, in English, on the Internet, the author has always been asked the questions:
- How can I improve my game (Xiangqi)?
- How can a person improve his game significantly within a short period?
Unfortunately, there is no answer to the second question. Simply put, there is NO short cut to improving Xiangqi. Hard work and commitment are required for long periods to improve. However, improving your game is definitely possible and attainable.
For people who know Chinese, there are hundreds or even thousands of articles discussing the topic. Then there are the dozens or hundreds of Xiangqi courses available on Wechat or other interactive social media that guarantee to improve your game significantly.
The amount of information that the author has collected has been overwhelming. The topic of How to Improve your game in Xiangqi will be divided into several articles for discussion. This article will be a short review of the general advice provided by different Xiangqi Grandmasters and Xiangqi Masters with years of coaching experience. It will be an introductory passage about what is needed to be done and why it should be done. Technical issues will be presented in several different articles. This article would also not discuss how to improve children's games as they have other special cases to consider.
So, how can the average Joe improve his game of Xiangqi?
- A Rough Idea of What to Do
- How long is the time required to be a decent player
- Know thy time and Persevere
- Setting Goals
- Understanding the different aspects of Xiangqi
- A Brief Introduction to Xiangqi
- Identifying weaknesses
- Basic Kills and the Endgame Phase
- Opening Phase
- Midgame Phase
- Endgame Compositions and their value
- Areas that beginners should concentrate on
- Books and Theory
- Practicing Calculation
- Combining theory and play
- How to read Xiangqi books
- The Post-Mortem Analyses
- The Attitudes to Learning
- Choosing your opponent
- Grandmaster Liu Dianzhong’s recommendations
What would be needed to improve your level of play in Xiangqi?
- Play games
- Lots of post-mortem analyses
- Participate in Tournaments
- Read books or watch videos on theory
- Practice solving puzzles
- Learn and be inspired by the games played by the grandmasters etc.
The list given above refers to some of the fundamental activities that beginners need to improve at Xiangqi. All these activities are time-consuming and require much effort.
In his article "How to Improve your level of Xiangqi" (怎样提高象棋棋艺水平), Chinese Xiangqi Master Yan Mujiang (言穆江yán mù jiāng, 1952-present) from Jiangsu province listed six tips as advice for improving your skill. The article was selected as one of the journals in the 2015 Hangzhou Chess Conference, which has become the most prominent chess event (Weiqi, Xiangqi, International Chess, etc.) in China today.
Master Yan explained that Xiangqi was easy to learn but unimaginably hard to master. According to him, the average Joe would need at least three to four years of hard work to be a decent player.
He also stated that it would take at least a decade of hard work, natural talent, and a hospitable environment to cultivate a Xiangqi expert that could compete professionally in China. (1)
Master Yan has tons of experience to back his word. He was one of the earliest people in China to be given the title of Xiangqi Master in China. Master Yan was also in charge of the Jiangsu provincial team that has cultivated Chinese grandmasters like Xu Tianhong and Xu Chao et cetera, both past Chinese National Champions and World Champions. Other proteges include Grandmaster Wang Bin, Xiangqi Masters Xu Jianmiao, Tong Benping, Liao Erping, et cetera. He was also selected to have been one of the top ten Xiangqi coaches in Jiangsu and is currently one of China's top-level Xiangqi coaches (高级教练). (2)
Therefore, the first issue to improving your game would be to know how much time you can afford to spend on Xiangqi and allocate it based on the different activities given above.
Knowing the amount of time you can spend on Xiangqi would allow you to learn more efficiently. The average person can only improve if he puts in the time, the effort, and persevere.
Try to get chunks of uninterrupted time to play, study, and learn Xiangqi in your daily schedule. No matter how small the chunk of time is, concentrate solely on Xiangqi. Do not spend all of your time playing games only.
Xiangqi is a journey in life. Improving a person's level of play is a marathon, not a 100m dash. The average person will not learn much, much less improve, if he plays like crazy for a few weeks or months and then suddenly stop for a prolonged period. You have to keep practicing.
Progress can be slow and disheartening at times. But it would be like climbing a mountain. The day you reach the mountain top would be when you forget all the hardships, trials, and tribulations you encountered. Just keep going!
Indeed, for the first tip in his article, Master Yan stressed PERSEVERANCE.
It was no coincidence that Master Yan started with this tip. The vast majority of people reading this article are amateurs or Xiangqi lovers who may not have much time for Xiangqi. Under such circumstances, it may extremely hard to become a Xiangqi Grandmaster or Xiangqi Master. But it would not mean that being a solid player was not achievable.
Developing the correct mindset and attitude would be crucial to perseverance. It can only be done if you understood the commitment and time required to be a strong player.
Incidentally, the concept of 'knowing thy time' has been preached by the late Peter Drucker. It works. (3)
Setting goals would be the next step. It is also crucial for improving your Xiangqi. Many players just play Xiangqi endlessly without setting goals. As a result, after years of play, they would not make much progress.
Goals have to be as clear and specific as possible so that they would provide a direction in your Xiangqi journey. It also has to be practical and achievable so that you could reach the next level in your Xiangqi journey. But do not limit yourself when setting goals. Instead, raise the bar as high as possible!
Knowing the amount of time that can be allotted for Xiangqi would force a person to reflect and set attainable goals. It would cause a person to think of spending time efficiently to get to the next level.
But how do you set clear and specific goals?
There are several ways to do so:
- Participating in Xiangqi Tournaments
- Making the next level on Xiangqi Websites or apps
- Trying to defeat the local expert
- Reading Xiangqi literature
Master Yan Mujiang encouraged Xiangqi lovers to participate in tournaments where he felt that it was the best way to improve. Only through putting your skills to the test can a person know if the training he had done was on track or applicable. (1)
Tournaments are also beneficial in defining goals. For example, for a small tournament, a simple goal could be to win it. For large or open tournaments, the goal could be to finish in the top six or win a prize.
As this article may be read by people from parts of the world where Xiangqi tournaments are uncommon, the Internet would be a good alternative. With online Xiangqi play being more and more popular, there are several useful websites and apps where Xiangqi can be played. Most, if not all, of these sites or apps come with their own grading systems. For example, at www.xiangqi.com, www.playok.com, and www.clubxiangqi.com, players are grouped into different difficulty levels based on the points amassed. On the Tiantian Xiangqi App ( 天天象棋 tiāntiān xiàngqí), players are delegated into different classes. Indeed, in many Wechat Xiangqi groups, people often ask other players what level they were as a gauge.
The author recommends playing regularly on these sites to make the next level or gain the points necessary within a specific period. Such goals are attainable for both the short and long run. Being committed to these goals would also force the person to take their games seriously.
The author tries to find time to play weekly on the Internet. He has set the goal with a time frame of making the next level in a few of the apps. He has long given up the idea of making Xiangqi Master because work and family would not allow it.
Nevertheless, setting goals have seen the author trudge forward, and there has been an improvement in his play. He has enjoyed every single bit of the journey that he has been through, both the ups and downs.
Another way the author used when he was still schooling was to identify a person as a target to defeat. He could be one of the best players in a local chess club or community or the local King of Xiangqi. Or he/she may be a friend sharing a similar love for Xiangqi.
Another less commonly cited goal for Xiangqi would be to define how much Xiangqi material should be read in a certain period. For example, there are 550 puzzles in the Elegant Pastime Manual. A simple goal would be to complete ten puzzles per week and finish the book in about a year.
Whatever goals are set, it must be clear and specific. A deadline is also a necessity to make a person more focused and proactive.
After 'knowing thy time' and setting the appropriate goals, the next thing to know is what to learn. It would be like understanding the curriculum of a course.
The late Grandmaster Yang Guanlin (杨官璘 yáng guān lín, 1925-2008) wrote extensively in his book 'A New Compilation of Xiangqi' (《弈林新编》yì lín xīn biān) on the topic. Grandmaster Yang was one of the most revered Xiangqi Grandmasters of all time. This book happens to be one of the most widely read books in Xiangqi and has been recommended by other grandmasters alike. The first chapter was titled 'As to How to Play Chess' (关于如何下棋) contained advice on how to improve.
Grandmaster Yang introduced Xiangqi in the following manner (4) :
Contrary to the impression that Xiangqi is but an intellectual board game for two, Xiangqi is much broader and more profound. While the most crucial component is still over-the-board play in Xiangqi, there are handicap matches and also endgame problems to learn and master. A match or game could be further divided into the Opening Phase, Midgame Phase, and Endgame Phase. It would not be efficient to try to learn everything at the same time. Instead, the Grandmaster chose to classify the study of Xiangqi as:
- Main Syllabus (Actual Over-the-board play)
- Subsidiary Syllabi (Handicap Matches, Endgame Compositions et cetera)
The Grandmaster recommended focusing your learning efforts on the Main Syllabus, which would be the actual over-the-board game. Subsidiary topics like the study of endgame compositions and handicap play should also be studied. Still, they should take a secondary and supporting role, and they need to be studied with the ultimate goal of improving your actual game.
Every player has his/her weaknesses. Identifying these weaknesses would be the next step in improving. The process of identification can be done if the game itself were divided into three phases:
- Opening Phase,
- Midgame Phase, and
- Endgame Phase.
Every person would be strong in one phase and weak in others. The ability to cover up the weakness or even turn the weakness into a strength would be a sure sign that improvements have been made.
Most of the ways that you can improve can be found in books.
Endgames and the Basic Kills are the places to start learning Xiangqi. The Basic Kills or methods of checkmate should be learned first. Many endgame situations have been studied so much that they have become endgame tabiat. The Grandmaster advised mastering this endgame tabia by understanding and repeating the different positions.
Master Yan had a similar viewpoint and said that the process was slow and painful at first but a fundamental skill to master. (1)
The Grandmaster suggested learning from the opening books available. However, he stressed that the Opening Phase was different from the Endgame Phase as the Xiangqi Opening would change drastically over time. It would not be fixed. Today's novelty would be busted wide open tomorrow.
But the Grandmaster stressed that it would not mean that the ancient manuals or older opening variations should not be learned. Instead, the focus when remembering the Opening Phase should be on:
- Whether the maneuvering the pieces was tightly knit
- Were there any moves that 'accommodated' the enemy?
- Be brave enough to go where no others have treaded
Master Yan had similar views. He added that theory would be more critical for the Opening Phase as well as the Midgame Phase.
The Midgame Phase was the most complicated of the three phases. The Grandmaster advocated learning from examples in books. If the comments or analyses were inadequate, one could try to work out other possible lines.
Endgame compositions (排局 pái jú) in Xiangqi would refer to deliberately created puzzles that would otherwise be impossible to reach in actual play. The International Chess equivalent would be studies or problems.
These endgame compositions would contain various tactical combinations that can be inspiring and lift a person's play to the next level. Some endgame combinations have a prominent theme that can help with a person's training in a particular endgame situation. For example, the Gathering of the Seven Stars is basically a Chariot-Pawn vs. Chariot-Pawn endgame. Grandmaster Yang specifically mentioned this endgame composition and noted that learning the endgame would allow a person to appreciate better how Chariot-Pawn endgames could be played.
In another book on endgame basics by Grandmaster Liu Dianzhong (刘殿中 Liú diàn zhōng, 1948-Present), similar advice was also given. Grandmaster Liu also advocated learning some elemental endgame compositions to allow the mind to think out of the box and be inspired. (5)
Most books in Chinese recommend starting with the Basic Kills and basic Endgames Tabiat. While learning the Opening Phase would seem significant, it should be learned only after the Basic Kills and endgames. Indeed, most beginner books in Chinese start with the Basic Kills, endgame tabiat before opening theory.
Grandmaster Yang also had some recommendations for beginners. Because everything would be new, there would be something to learn in all the game phases and even endgame compositions for the beginner. He advocated a mixed approach but also suggested the endgames as the best place to start. But the Grandmaster insisted that everything should be learned in such a manner that would benefit the actual game.
In his article, Master Yan mentioned that most Xiangqi players, especially the ordinary folk, spend too much time playing Xiangqi and too little time reading the books on Xiangqi.
A player can only improve rapidly if there is a combination of both actual play and book reading. (1)
Why is reading the books or literature on Xiangqi so important? There are two main reasons:
- Practicing calculation,
- Combining theory and practice into your game.
The most important fundamental in Xiangqi is the ability to calculate accurately and far enough. Books would be able to provide good practice. Books on Basic Kills would allow the reader to perfect his calculation. He would learn to see the board and think of different variations.
Practicing calculation is done by picking up a book and looking at the position, and attempting to solve it. It would not be advisable to use a Xiangqi board to move the pieces or any Xiangqi computer program. Instead, everything should be done mentally.
Initial progress will be slow, but after some time and perseverance, the ability to calculate far and deep would become second nature. The author has a few thousand puzzles for practice on www.xqinenglish.com
A lot more can be said about improving the Opening, Midgame, and Endgame Phase, but it would be beyond this article's scope. Instead, the author will cover in future articles.
Books also provide theory and knowledge about different aspects of the game. This knowledge results from centuries of observations that have been distilled into tenets or gems of wisdom.
Reading books on Xiangqi theory would allow players to access many other people's wisdom and be inspired. Master Yan Mujiang insisted that knowledge can only be gradually increased, and there is no such thing as a shortcut.
The most efficient way to improve your game is to combine theory and practice and infuse it into your game.
It would be impossible to use only one or two tricks to win. In fact, there is no such thing as an invincible skill or play in Xiangqi. The Master mentioned that the 'best' move could only be seen when your skill level has reached the required level. The process may be slow and tedious, but one day, the moment of epiphany will arrive!
Perhaps the most valuable insight that Master Yan gave in his article was the section on how to read Xiangqi books.
According to the Master, preparing for a tournament meant that you would have to read books on particular variations, designed specific variations, do post-mortem analyses, et cetera.
Books by the Xiangqi Grandmasters or Xiangqi Masters would provide valuable insight and can be very inspirational. However, the gap in the skill level would mean that beginners would not understand the concepts and end up learning nothing.
Instead, beginner books on essential knowledge, practical endgames, frequently used openings, treatises on specific topics, et cetera would provide more knowledge. It would also be necessary for the reader to be interested in the contents.
As for commentaries on games by the Xiangqi experts, most people would focus on the comments and the most complicated variations. Unfortunately, these detailed variations are meant for other experts, and the beginner would usually gain nothing.
Instead, Master Yan suggested focusing on the areas where there were no comments and try to understand them. Sections of the game where there were no comments would indicate that they were considered basic knowledge and fundamental. The ability to understand these passages would be most beneficial to the beginner.
The importance of learning your own mistakes to avoid repeating them cannot be overstated. The best way to avoid repeating the same error can be known through the post-mortem analysis.
According to Master Yan, the first post-mortem analysis should be done together with the opponent immediately after the match so that both could learn from the game. It would be ideal if the player would then revise the game again in his own time. (1)
Grandmaster Liu Dianzhong had the same advice in his book. (6)
How to carry out the post-mortem analysis would be discussed in another article.
Your attitude determines your altitude.
Master Yan added that a fine Xiangqi player would show the will and desire to win. He would also adapt to the constant changes on the board and demonstrate versatility by altering his strategy. Excellent Xiangqi players also show grit and fight till the very last pawn on the board. When things are going smoothly, he will grow from strength to strength. When the winds are against him, a strong Xiangqi player would not back down but persevere. Indeed, a person's real power can be seen when things go wrong.
But most important, each game must be taken seriously. Master Yan suggested that playing one game seriously was more beneficial than playing ten games nonchalantly.
While most Xiangqi experts hope to play with the Grandmasters, doing so may not be suitable for improving their skills. Instead, both Master Yan and Grandmaster Liu advocated playing against opponents who were slightly stronger or similar in strength. It would be much easier to understand and anticipate the enemy's plans. In this way, it would be easier for both players to learn from their games. Post-mortem analyses and references to books would benefit both players more. (1) (6)
Grandmaster Liu Dianzhong recommended the following 'syllabus' for beginners (6 页 4-10):
- Starting with how to move the pieces and record the moves.
- Learn the simple rules and slowly learn the history of Xiangqi.
- Start with the Basic Kills before learning the basic endgame tabiya.
- Understand how many types of Xiangqi openings there are. Learn the common variations
- For the Midgame Phase, start with how to checkmate in the midgame. Then learn the common strategies and tactics before delving deeper into the commonly used strategy and tactics.
- Be inspired by the games from the experts and try to understand the thought process.
- Try to put what you have learned into actual play.
1. 言穆江. 怎样提高象棋棋艺水平. 边锋. [联机] 2015年Nov月20日. [引用日期: 2020年Nov月8日.] http://qw.bianfeng.com/articleDetail?id=210.
2. 言穆江. 百度百科. [联机] [引用日期: 2020年Nov月8日.] https://baike.baidu.com/item/%E8%A8%80%E7%A9%86%E6%B1%9F/9131885.
3. Drucker, Peter F. The Essential Drucker. New York : Harper Collins, 2001. 9780061345012.
4. 杨, 官璘. 弈林新编. 天津 : 人民体育出版社 新华书店北京发行, 1977. p. 489. 7015.1545.
5. 刘, 殿中. 象棋新编教程 象棋残局基础. 北京 : 北京体育大学出版社, 2000. 7-81051-485-7/G.415.
6. —. 象棋新编教程 象棋初学门径. 北京 : 北京体育大学出版社, 2000. 7-81051-484-9.