Strategical Advice in the Xiangqi (Chinese Chess) Middle Game
Author: Jim Png from www.xqinenglish.com
Note: This article first appeared on Xiangqi.com.
A game of Xiangqi is divided into three different phases: the Opening Phase, the Middle Game Phase (abbreviated as Midgame in this article), and the Endgame Phase. There are well-established lines called tabiya for both the Opening Phase and the Endgame Phase. There is no such thing for the player to fall back on in the midgame phase. Instead, the Midgame is based on pure strategy and the application of the tactics chosen to carry out the strategy.
The importance of tactical combinations in Xiangqi cannot be overstressed. However, its significance would vary in the different phases. In the endgame phase, there are fewer pieces on the board. The outcome can be predicted if specific criteria are met. These situations are called endgame tabia. In the opening phase, a similar situation occurs. Although tactics and strategy still play a vital role, opening lines have been so well developed that sometimes it would be more efficient in memorizing the lines than understanding them. It is also more beneficial, or it would be easy to run into time trouble.
Compared to the opening and endgame phase, tactics play a more critical role in the Xiangqi Middle Game. There are no 'midgame lines' as in the opening phase to fall back on. Midgame' tabia' are simply non-existent. The only way to play the Midgame is to have a sound understanding of the tactics that can be employed and how to counter enemy plans.
However, what determines the tactics to be employed in the midgame phase? The answer is strategy. A player will decide the strategy he will pursue and then choose the tactical combination available to him and apply it to the Midgame.
Therefore, if the wrong strategy was chosen, a player might be successful with his tactical combination, but he would still lose. Such a situation is analogous to 'winning the battle but losing the war.'
In the Midgame, choosing the correct strategy is very important. There are principles of the opening system to guide a player during the opening phase. But are there any principles to guide the player in the Midgame? The answer is yes.
In this article, the author will list some of the crucial principles of strategy in the Xiangqi midgame. It is based on the principles listed in Grandmaster Liu Dianzhong's book and remains one of the most comprehensive pieces of advice the author has encountered.
There were plenty of examples that were given in the book. However, for this article, the author will concentrate on the theoretical aspects.
The following list shows the contents of this article. It will also serve as an excellent summary.
- (1) The top priority is to gain control of the situation before attempting to gain positional advantage or material advantage
- (2) Controlling the essential lines and limiting the enemy would be beneficial to gain the initiative. Forcing the enemy and using discovered attacks would be helpful to achieving an advantageous position
- (3) There must be backup when attacking rapidly. Sacrificing material must be compensated with momentum and gains in the initiative. Capturing material must be done without losing tempi.
- (4) Never be in a hurry to capture 'dead' material. Never be greedy to try to even the material deficit after sacrificing material.
- (5) Trade away the enemy's strong pieces. Attack the enemy's weak pieces
- (6) It is better to threaten an enemy piece when one of your pieces is under attack. Rather than retreating passively, it would be better to fake an attack while retreating.
- (7) Concentrate your strong pieces to attack the enemy's weak area.
- (8) When having the upper hand, try to simplify the situation into a winning position. When placed in a disadvantageous situation, weigh the options carefully for forcing a draw.
- (9) Make use of the Rules of Xiangqi to your advantage
- (10) Coordinate your troops in a versatile and tacit manner
(1) The top priority is to gain control of the situation before attempting to gain positional advantage or material advantage
The two colors in Xiangqi are like different sides on a scale. When the scales tip to one side, one color gains the advantage, and the other is put at a disadvantage. The most important priority would be to try to achieve the initiative or control of the situation. (1 页 130)
Be Proactive! Say NO to passive play!
When trying to gain initiative or control, the player should always be proactive. Passive play will lead to nowhere.
When the enemy is already staring at you, one must be prepared to fight till the last breath. A proactive mindset will allow the player to try his best strategy and create chances that would be beneficial.
If the player becomes passive during a match, his mindset will be poisoned, and judgmental errors will follow. The situation will often be viewed from a wrong angle, and the resulting moves played with a passive mindset are usually loose and detrimental. (1 页 130)
Control the situation
Controlling the situation is another crucial lesson to learn. What is meant by controlling the situation? The Grandmaster explained that controlling the situation would mean getting your pieces to the advantageous positions such that things would be in your favor as the game proceeds. When attacking, the attack WILL NOT run out of steam. Instead, if the enemy can defend against an incoming attack, another attack will be ready to launch, targeting another area on the board. Contingency plans for attack should be prepared before the attack.
When defending, having control of the situation would mean that the defense is impenetrable.
Controlling the situation would also mean that the enemy pieces are limited in activity. The opponent will find it hard to defend or attack. It is an abstract concept that is not as straightforward as the application of a tactical combination. When you have control of the situation, the enemy will feel pressure. (1 页 132)
(2) Controlling the essential lines and limiting the enemy would be beneficial to gain the initiative. Forcing the enemy and using discovered attacks would be helpful to achieving an advantageous position
To gain the advantage, one of the most important things to do is command the board's focal points.
The Devil is in the Details
When the situation and material are even, the deciding factor is usually the position of the pieces. Well-placed pieces with potential for further development would become the deciding factor. That is why an open piece with control over a significant area must be fully utilized. The player must appreciate the potential of such a piece and pay attention to the details. These chances do not come by often. (1 页 133)
Relentlessly Attacking a Weakness(es) (缠绕攻击 chán rào gong jī)
In the book, the Grandmaster advocated introduced the concept of relentlessly attacking a weakness in the enemy's formation (author's translation). The Grandmaster defined such a strategy as targeting single or multiple weak spots and persistently attacking them. Material is maneuvered and concentrated at the soft spot or spots, and the attack is relentless. For a player to do so, he would need to identify the weaknesses in the enemy's position and pay attention to the order of the moves. A relentless barrage of assaults is then carried out until gains are made. (1 页 135)
(3) There must be backup when attacking rapidly. Sacrificing material must be compensated with momentum and gains in the initiative. Capturing material must be done without losing tempi.
Never forget to defend when attacking and vice versa
Attack and defense are different sides of the same coin. As a game of Xiangqi progresses, it is natural for one color to be attacking while his enemy is defending. However, this would not be the status quo as there can be changes to the situation. Wherever possible, it is essential to defend proactively in what is known as an aggressive defense.
On the flip side of the coin, a player should not forget defense when he is attacking. He must be wary of the enemy springing counter-attacks. When defending, always be on the lookout for opportunities to attack. (1 页 136)
The Price to Pay for Carelessness
A player is only allowed to maneuver one piece for every move that is made. That is why the order of the moves is of the utmost importance. One way to determine if a move has been played in the correct order would be see if that move had addressed the main issue on the board. The efficiency of the move is another evaluating factor.
According to the grandmaster, in a situation where both colors are attacking, the player's focus would be to make a move that would really gain the initiative. If a false move were played, the tides would change, and the player's position could go rapidly downhill. (1 页 136-137)
Tempi should not be lost after gaining material
Material vs. position has always been one of the significant factors to consider when evaluating the situation. It can be a complex issue to assess at times.
When a material is gained without sustaining a loss in tempi, it is safe to say that the player has increased his advantage.
However, beginners would often be overly concerned with material gains and neglect the importance of losing tempo in the game. Can the gains offset any losses in tempi? Would the situation be beneficial after gaining material but losing tempo? Such a situation can be hard to assess. (1 页 137)
(4) Never be in a hurry to capture 'dead' material. Never be greedy to try to even the material deficit after sacrificing material.
A 'dead' piece (死子 sǐ zǐ) would refer to a piece that cannot escape capture. In Xiangqi, there is a saying: "Never be in a hurry to capture 'dead' material." (死子不急吃 sǐ zǐ bù jí chī). This idiom would stress the fact that tempi should not be lost when capturing an enemy piece that cannot escape. It capturing the enemy piece would result in a loss of tempi; DON'T DO IT! After all, that piece cannot run away! Instead, make a move that would be more efficient. (1 页 139)
Attack the enemy King instead!
If the situation permits, don't bother about capturing dead enemy pieces! Instead, attack the enemy King where more gains can be made! (1 页 139)
Never be overcome with greed and ignore the danger
This piece of advice is self-explanatory. (1 页 140)
Trade away the enemy's open Chariot and attack the enemy's weak Horse.
A common tactic to use in Xiangqi is to trade away the enemy's open Chariot to weaken the enemy's position.
In many cases, the enemy's weak Horse is often an obvious target to attack. (1 页 142)
Attack the Weak Pieces
Trade away the enemy's essential pieces. Utilize the King to join in combat.
There was an example of a game by Grandmaster Liu Dahua, who utilized his King very early to provide support and allow material trade to materialize. After trading away the enemy's important piece, the King would also join in the battle. Grandmaster Liu's position kept getting stronger and stronger until he won. (1 页 143)
(6) It is better to threaten an enemy piece when one of your pieces is under attack. Rather than retreating passively, it would be better to fake an attack while retreating.
Avoiding capture is not as powerful as initiating a 'counter-capture.'
According to the Grandmaster, this piece of advice is applicable to most situations. The reason for this is the issue of fighting for the initiative. Avoiding capture would often lead to losing the initiative. If a 'counter capture were initiated, both colors would be fighting for the initiative even though it might lead to a trade of material. It would be more desirable than simply surrendering the initiative as in the case of avoiding capture. (1 页 144)
Attacking the enemy's weak spots is the best defense!
When the enemy is attacking a particular area on the board, and you have the means to launch a counter-attack, it is a good idea to establish a counter-offensive. The goal would be to fight for the initiative. This concept would be the same as 'Besieging Wei to rescue Zhao' (围魏救赵, Wéi Wèi jiù Zhào), which happens to be the second stratagem in the 36 Strategems (under the section on winning strategems). (2) (1 页 145)
Attacking a weak area would often require the player to amass more men to overcome the enemy's defending pieces in that area. The concentration of the pieces is key to success. It would not matter if the attack were from the center or the flanks. In most circumstances, having more men in a particular area would mean that the player had a regional advantage. (1 页 146)
Concentrating material on one flank
In the process of a game, it is almost inevitable that regional areas on the board would be relatively weak and empty. There are many different scenarios that could arise. For example, the center might be vulnerable, or the flanks would be relatively void of material. Also, the quality of the attacking or defending pieces for a particular area will determine if a flank had strong defense or was vulnerable to attack. (1 页 146)
There are many ways to initiate a flank attack. However, the most commonly used tactical combinations include:
- Concentrating material on one flank,
- Trading material to weaken the defense in the flank,
- Forcing moves that compress the scope of the enemy material in one flank,
- Creating weaknesses in the enemy defense.
(8) When having the upper hand, try to simplify the situation into a winning position. When placed in a disadvantageous situation, weigh the options carefully for forcing a draw.
The concept of Materialist Dialectics (唯物判证法 wéi wù pàn zhèng fǎ) can be applied to Xiangqi. The following passage from Wikipedia defining the concept of materialistic dialectics would best fit the context of Xiangqi. (3)
In Marxist dialectics, as a materialist philosophy, emphasizes the importance of real-world conditions and the presence of contradictions within things, in relation to but not limited to class, labor, and socioeconomic interactions.
When applied to Xiangqi, the nature of the position of any piece will, under specific circumstances, change after crossing a specific threshold. The situation on the board is affected but not limited by many different factors. There are also innate contradictions within a position that will surface if the conditions are right.
Experienced Xiangqi players pay a lot of attention to this aspect in both advantageous or disadvantageous situations. A tiny change in the situation could snowball and turn the tide. (1 页 146)
Appreciate the changes on the board and adjust accordingly
To win in Xiangqi, a player would need to be vigilant and appreciate the changes to the situation with every move by both colors. Adjustments are required as a player would need to fine-tune his approach every move.
There was a lovely example of a game by Grandmaster Li Laiqun that was presented in the book. In that example, the Grandmaster covered up tiny weaknesses in his position patiently before the time was ripe to launch a counter-offensive. (1 页 149)
Trade material to eradicate any advantage that the enemy has. Use the pin to force a draw.
This advice is self-explanatory.
The ability of a player to make use of the rules reasonably to his advantage is considered to be a fundamental trait of a good player. To do so, the player would need to spend some time on the Rules of Xiangqi and master them. He must then be able to apply the various Rules of Xiangqi in actual matches.
Another thing that a good Xiangqi player possesses is the ability to read the situation correctly and identify possible situations where the Rules can be used to his advantage. He must be able to explain the rules accurately before identifying possible situations where he could put the Rules of Xiangqi to his advantage.
Finally, the player must be kept up-to-date with changes or amendments to the Rules.
Using the Rules of Xiangqi to your advantage can often be seen in prepared opening variations. In the Midgame, using the Rules of Xiangqi to your advantage would mean using the Rules such that the situation going into the endgame phase would be favorable. A book win situation is an ultimate goal. In some circumstances, however, this strategy can be used to force a draw. (1 页 147-148)
The situation on the board is determined by the arrangement of the pieces for both colors.
An ideal formation should allow the pieces to coordinate with each other on both the offensive and defensive ends of the board. The formation should also allow for a balanced development of the pieces. Any issues with the strong pieces and weak pieces should be resolved. There is a backup for pieces attacking at the front line, and the attacking pieces can also be called back to defend. There is also good coordination between the flanks as material. Theoretically, they should be able to lend support as needed.
The player must keep the lines open with appropriate communication between different pieces to strive for an ideal formation. An ideal formation can only be achieved with excellent positioning of the pieces and great efficiency of the moves played. (1 页 153)
Balanced development of the pieces and a steady improvement of the situation.
An example was given in the book of a game. Grandmaster Yu Youhua played the match against Master Huang Shiqing from Guangxi. Throughout the game, Grandmaster Yu developed his material nicely, and the advantage he commanded grew slowly but steadily until a winning position was reached.
The difference between moving the Left and Right Elephant
The Xiangqi board is symmetrical. In the opening phase, pushing the Left Elephant or the Right Elephant to the central file is often used to designate different variations in the Opening.
However, the situation on the board is greatly affected by the Elephant moved to consolidate the defense. An example of a game played in 1957 was used to explain this concept.
Diagram 4 Photo credit goes to Rick Knowlton.
The advice that Grandmaster Liu Dianzhong gave in his book is very practical. Some of the advice may seem to be a matter of fact. Other advice is fascinating. The reader is advised to go through this advice as much as possible and apply them to their games.
Although some of the concepts presented here are abstract and foggy at times, they represent rare instances of advice in Xiangqi.
1. 刘殿中. 象棋新编教程 象棋中局战法. 北京 : 北京体育大学出版社, 2003. 7-81051-905-0/G.756.
2. contributors, Wikipedia. Thirty-Six Stratagems. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. [Online] 1043055051, Sep 8, 2021. [Cited: Oct 11, 2021.] https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Thirty-Six_Stratagems&oldid=1043055051.
3. —. Dialectical materialism. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. [Online] 1048337842, Oct 5, 2021. [Cited: Oct 10, 2021.] https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Dialectical_materialism&oldid=1048337842.