The Anatomy of the Xiangqi part 3

--the mid game

The opening in Xiangqi normally lasts for about 10-15 moves (by one side), by which both players choose the opening, counter and counter-counter that they like. Normally, unless deadly mistakes are made, the game proceeds to the mid-game. Unlike the opening and endgame, it is hard to define the parameters of the midgame. Most endgames have been studied to such an extent that there are definite conclusions to the outcome if no mistakes are made. So, the midgame can be defined as the period of play after the opening and before the endgame.

Characteristics of the mid game include lesser pieces than the opening, but still many more pieces as compared to end game. Thus there are many more possibilities to the outcome also. It is also perhaps the liveliest part of the game. Anybody who studies and memorizes the various openings and their variations will be at least well off in the openings. But the midgame is where your skills are tested. I personally think that the midgame is the hardest to learn too. And amongst the three, the midgame is the hardest to control.

Whereas the study of the opening is more or less restricted to the different major openings and their variations, the study of the midgame is more conceptual and strategy directed. There are already many endgame scenarios which have a definite result. The beginner is encouraged to understand and memorize these fixed “formulas”. Indeed, Xiangqi manuals on openings explain and show each variation in detail. And manuals on endgames well, just show the formation you have to arrive at and how you should carry on. Tricks are explained also. But for manuals on midgames, which happen to be the least in number of the 3, strategy is studied, with references to Sun Tzu’s Art of War, or other pearls of Chinese wisdom. Examples are then given to illustrate the ideas presented.  

It is beyond my ability to go into the detail all there is to know about midgame, but I will try my best to illustrate the simple strategies involved with examples. The following refers to a few terms that everybody should know:

战术 = tactics : a plan, procedure, or expedient for promoting a desired end or result (from dictionary.reference.com )
战略 = strategy : a plan, method, or series of maneuvers or stratagems for obtaining a specific goal or result (from dictionary.reference.com )
Simply put, a strategy is carried out by a series of tactics.

Basic, commonly used tactics in Xiangqi 

  • 困子 = trapping your opponent’s pieces. See footnote [1]. Xq is basically a battle between 2 forces. Naturally, the stronger side normally has the advantage and better chance of winning. When there is no visible way to kill immediately, sometimes trying to trap your opponent’s important pieces or limit its function will slowly turn the tide in our favor. Trapping your opponent’s pieces can only be done when there is no loss of initiative on your side. If a loss of initiative is encountered, it is not worthwhile, and can be considered a sacrifice by your opponent (who loses a piece to gain initiative).
  • 抓双 = Fork (WXF). When one of your pieces can attack two or more of your opponent's pieces, a fork is done. Although the direct translation would be to attack only TWO pieces, a fork if used in conjunction with a horse, can capture >=2 pieces at the same time. Used to gain material advantage.
  • 抽子 = Skewer (no official WXF notation found yet, but a good diagram is seen on Wikipedia). The WXF has a term though called 将军抽子 = capture with discover check. A piece is skewered when it is attacked and, on moving, exposes a less important piece to be captured. It can be considered an aggressive form of the fork as, when used as a conjunction with a check (which must be resolved), your opponent’s piece is definitely captured. Chariot skewers are common but skewers involving the horse and cannon are also common and require a little bit more skill.
  • 运子 = deployment (WXF). 运子取势=deployment for advantage (WXF notation). Simply put, it means placing or positioning your chess pieces such that they occupy good positions for attack, for defense or both. By good deployment, a relatively useless piece can be made much more valuable. Normally refers to the deployment of the chariot, horse and cannon. Sometimes, when there is no visible kill, or the game is in a deadlock, this tactic is used to gain momentum in attacking or gain initiative. Conversely, forcing your opponent’s pieces to bad positions is also a good strategy
  • 兑子 = exchange pieces (WXF). Normally refers to the exchange of chess pieces of similar value. However, positional advantage is gained and momentum in attacking is increased. Sometimes, an exchange of pieces for the weaker side can simplify the game, making it easier to draw. The key concept is to have better positioning after the exchange. 
  • a)   兑子争先 = exchange (pieces) for initiative by the WXF: exchanging your own pieces with your opponent’s to gain better positioning (for example exchanging an ill-positioned piece for a well-positioned opponent’s piece)
  • 弃子 = sacrifice (WXF). Any piece other than the king can be sacrificed. As compared to international chess, sacrifices in Xiangqi seem to occur much more frequently. The key concept to know is that a sacrifice is worthwhile only if the sacrificed piece can be retrieved and/or positional gain is attained. If no positional gain is obtainable, it would be suicide. There are two forms of sacrifice :
  • a)      弃子抢攻 = offensive sacrifice (WXF) : which means sacrificing a chesspiece(s) to gain momentum in attack
  • b)      弃子入局法= sacrifice to kill (no WXF translation yet). Often in the mid-game, there are chances for a kill with a sacrifice. The main goal of the sacrifice here is to lure your opponents pieces away from defending positions, or jam your opponent’s palace so that it cannot defend well. Sometimes, your own pieces get in the way of attacking, so you sacrifice it to attack. The downside is that if it does not work, you will be down a piece.
  • c)      先弃后取 = abandoning (a piece) before gaining (back a piece with positional advantage) by the WXF: that is sacrificing a piece a few moves earlier, and then regaining it with positional advantage a few moves later.
  • 牵制 = restrict or impede (no WXF translation yet). When the game is in a deadlock, you try to manipulate your pieces to impede your opponent’s pieces from progressing into a more advantageous position. If successful, your opponent cannot move that piece(s) freely without a positional or material loss. You try to restrict the more important pieces of course.
  • 封锁 = seal off or blockade (WXF). Similar to restricting, except that your opponent’s pieces are sealed off or cannot move in a particular area on the  chessboard. More aggressive than restriction. As the chariot is the most powerful piece on the board, blockade most often refers to restricting the chariot’s movement. After blockade, the aggressive side can proceed to increase his initiative with other pieces and gain both positional and/or material advantage or even make a kill.
  • 突破 = Breakthrough (no WXF translation yet). Breakthrough in xiangqi refers to forcing a break in your opponent’s defense, thus forcing the king/general to be in a predicament and eventually be checkmated. Breakthroughs in Xiangqi often involve taking away the opponent’s advisor(s) and/or elephant(s).
  • 10.  合击 = combined attack (no WXF translation yet). A combined attack refers to the coming together of major pieces from different directions like center and side to make a kill.

Similar terms found in International Chess:
In international chess, Zugzwang (German for compulsion to move) occurs when a player is forced to make an undesirable move.
The player is put at a disadvantage because he would prefer to pass and make no move, but a move has to be made, all of which weaken his position. Situations involving zugzwang occur uncommonly, but when they do occur, it is almost always in the endgame where there are fewer choices of available moves. Similarly for Xiangqi, these occur sometimes but are very rare.

Zwischenzug (German for intermediate move) is a common international chess tactic which, instead of countering a direct threat, a move is played which poses an even more devastating threat, often an attack against the queen or the king. A similar situation can occur in Xiangqi. In fact, almost all the Xiangqi endgame compositions are examples of Zwischenzug. The Chinese translation would be 解杀还杀 or counter mating according to the WXF. 

The above list are by no means exhaustive. It is basically condensed and summarized from a few beginner’s manuals. There are also many other articles discussing deeper topics like the formation of the attacking side, the timing of the moves…etc.  More strategies will be discussed in detailed with more diagrams later.

Footnote:
[1] There seems to be a typing mistake with the WXF notations. It gives the English translation of 困as block which should be trap.

Last updated: 22nd March 2011                            To the next article: The Anatomy of Xiangqi part 4

References:

  1. In Chinese, <<象棋入门>> by 李浭 and 马正福
  2. In Chinese, <<象棋四日通>> by Xiangqi master 黄少龙
  3. In English, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Xiangqi
  4. In English, wiki’s introduction to international chess tactics http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chess_tactics

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