古今「棋」譚──象棋七十二變

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1999 / 10月

文‧張靜茹 圖‧邱瑞金


十年後,象棋可能成為奧運競賽項目?

由台灣佛乘基金會舉辦、總獎金高達台幣六百多萬的第三屆「佛乘盃世界棋王賽」甫落幕,各國棋手已摩拳擦掌,準備明年的比賽。明年的棋王,將與歷屆棋王飛往奧委會博物館所在地瑞士洛桑進行表演賽,此舉將成為象棋企圖進軍奧運的重要宣示動作。

隨著有心人推動、與華人社圈往外擴散,象棋這一華人市井小民的「頭腦體操」已逐漸步唐代象棋之後,再度流傳海外,成為國際益智活動。隨著象棋走向國際,長期來順應時代不斷變化的象棋遊戲,也在悄悄改頭換面,嘗試跟上現代節奏。


二十幾年前,兩位軍中同伍閒來下象棋消磨時光,輸方每每揚言要請出更厲害的朋友報一箭之仇,勝方也不服氣:你有高手當靠山,我就沒有認識棋功蓋世的高手麼?兩人於是相約在豐原市慈濟宮,各帶高手前來廝殺。果然,高手見面,分外眼紅,一場「豐原論棋」,殺得天昏地暗,圍觀者連連叫絕,幾十回合後,林姓高手略勝一籌,但陳姓棋俠亦非泛泛之輩,也不時讓對方難以招架。

賽後,兩位同為二十琅噹、也正服著無聊漫長軍役的棋林高手,雖相見恨晚、惺惺相惜,卻意猶未盡,展開前所未有的「魚雁過招」,以明信片你「炮二平五」、我「馬二進三」……每日一著,你來我往。象棋接龍賽一開,「當兵的日子感覺上快多了,沒下幾盤棋就退伍了,」當年高手之一、今天身為中華民國象棋協會秘書長的林益世說。

世事人生一局棋

提起往事,滿臉笑容、沈浸在愉快回憶中的林益世,甫參加在夏威夷比賽的佛乘世界盃歸來,此役雖未名列前茅,他卻慶幸棋手有日益增多的國際性比賽可以磨練棋技。過去像他這樣的棋癡,只能跑遍寶島,聽到哪裡有高手出現,殺將過去,拚個你死我活,從中累積棋技。今天的棋手,棋社就在自家裡,從電腦網站上隨時可以找到勢均力敵的對手磨棋、棋譜也不再似兩岸隔絕時代的稀有「武功秘笈」,到處可以購得高手對奕記錄,加上國際邀請賽增加,獎金逐日提高,靠象棋吃飯、發展職業選手制度的時日可期。

而昔日與林益世不打不相識的陳姓高手,則是今天專門開發奕棋軟體的晟業資訊總經理陳富陌。二十幾年前的南投水里夜市,可以看到年輕的陳富陌以自製的活動棋盤擺殘局與人博奕,他以長壽煙下注,對方輸一盤付他五元、十元,賺點不無小補的生活費。今天的他,依然以棋維生,卻不再甘於蠅頭小利,少年時代用來擺攤打擂臺的殘局,製成有四千個殘局的「象棋路邊攤」,與三年來陸續推出的象棋水滸戰、象棋兵法等軟體,已售出近十萬套。象棋武林帖、兒童象棋則被教育部推薦為優良教學光碟。

開發軟體同時,他也致力於將象棋規則譯成英文,準備推向國際;他的象棋網站「空中棋社」,不時有美國、日本、兩岸等地棋手賽棋;他與資策會合作舉辦象棋棋王與電腦大戰,不讓西洋棋電腦「深藍」專美於前。他更想法改良棋譜,將棋局改以圖案移動顯示,讓男女老少都可以輕鬆看懂棋局、學會下棋。

林益世從廟口找人拚棋,到參加國際象棋比賽;陳富陌在路邊攤擺殘局,到架網站邀請好手上網對奕,正如兩位高手的象棋人生,象棋在中國的發展,也有著同樣戲劇化的歷程。

春滿奕棋俱樂部

象棋與圍棋,同為中國人發明、至今仍有眾多愛好者的棋藝,然而象棋在各方面的發展,卻總是慢上圍棋一步。

「何處春深好,春深博奕家。一先爭破眼,六聚斗成花。兵沖象戲車,鼓應投壺馬。彈棋局上事,最妙是長斜。」唐朝白居易的一首詩,一網打盡了唐朝私人棋社、俱樂部裡人們玩的圍棋、象戲、投壺、彈棋、雙陸等游藝種類。其中圍棋在唐朝之前已經成為士子間的社交活動,孔夫子也認為閒來下下圍棋,比吃飽了沒事幹發呆強:「飽食終日,無所用心,難矣哉!不有博奕者乎?為之,猶賢乎已。」博,是擲骰子玩的六博;奕,指的就是圍棋。圍棋歷經周秦漢唐,歷史淵源流長,眾多的詩詞歌賦、民間故事,加上有孔聖人「背書」,漢魏六朝文人浸淫,充滿人文氣息,形象雅而不俗。

至於白居易詩中的象戲,卻只是今天象棋的「遠祖」。象棋的創始傳說雖多,從皇帝、堯舜到韓信點兵,卻都難以徵信,直到唐代象戲出現,才有具體關連。牛僧儒的傳奇小說《玄怪錄》中有一篇發生在寶應元年的故事提到:「天馬斜非度三止,上將橫行系四方,輜車直入無回翔,六甲次第不乖行」,此詩依序指馬、將、車、卒,唐代象戲已經具備現代象棋的雛形,也因此被視為象棋的老祖宗。

有趣的是,唐代象戲其實更像今天的西洋棋,立體象形的棋子,黑白相間的棋盤,縱橫各為八線、六十四格。開局方式先進馬、再進卒、後進車,也與今天西洋棋開局相仿。

唐代象棋的徒子徒孫

由於唐代象戲與西洋棋形制上驚人的相似,不少史家主張二棋系出同門,並推測是經由蒙古人雄跨歐亞兩洲的鐵騎大軍傳播,變化而成。蒙古承襲象戲創造的蒙古象棋,棋盤保留黑白相間格式,棋子轉化成塔、車、馬、炮、駝、卒,而塔即類似於今天西洋棋裡的城堡。棋史研究者認為,唐代象棋經蒙古向北流傳至西伯利亞,公元十六世紀在西班牙、法國才形成今天西洋棋的格局。

象棋、西洋棋的關係到底如何?還是棋史研究領域裡的一樁公案。事實上,各個民族的發展,往往經歷過大致相同的歷史階段,類似的文化現象在了無相涉的民族中或先或後發展出來,從軍事戰爭中抽象而出的棋藝遊戲,又是人類大腦思維的典型方式,各民族也都有自己發展出的博奕遊戲。只是,西洋棋與唐代象棋如此神似,棋史研究者難免要一探究竟。

唐代以來的象棋,也確實隨著歷代各國的交流,一路向鄰邦傳播,並在異國棋戲上留下它各個發展階段的風格。例如沒有楚河漢界的韓國象棋,將、帥卻直接以漢字「楚」、「漢」代之,下起棋來,還真是一場不折不扣的楚漢相爭。

棋子為什麼不站著?

象棋對外流傳,在各民族文化的溫床發展出不同的特色,但它在中國本身的變革卻最戲劇化。北宋中葉,象棋最基本的形制──立體棋子,一轉而為平面棋,棋子則越出格子,走線與線間的交叉點,棋盤並出現河界與九宮(將帥被限制的四方格)。程顥的詩〈象戲〉首度提到,過河卒子越接近對方九宮格,威脅性也越大。

「為什麼北宋人要對唐代象戲大力革新,形成了中國象棋迥異於西洋棋的體制?」大陸棋史研究者張如安提出這一有趣的問題。

今天人們比較象棋與西洋棋,總是理所當然的認為,棋戲的設計反映現實,中國帝王處在深宮大院,自然出現將帥「故步自封」於九宮格的侷促型態。歐洲封建君主帶兵到處打仗,因此西洋棋棋王在棋盤上來去自如,至於兵衝到底線,角色立即晉升為皇后,則可以激發奕者積極進攻的意識,也與當時歐洲人的侵略性格有關。

若依此推理,回溯唐代象戲中的王,也不受九宮限制,顯然唐代社會開放,同樣影響著象戲的體制。宋朝建立了專制的中央集權國家,「唐代象戲的格局,客觀上已不符合宋人的審美心理,於是北宋便對唐代象戲進行了大刀闊斧的改革,加進了九宮、河界,」張如安認為,唐代象棋只能絢爛於異域,中國社會最終選擇了帶有強烈國粹色彩的北宋象棋。

文化活動隨著社會型態發展呈現新的面貌稀鬆平常,象棋造型的改頭換面,原因也不只一端。由於平面棋比立體棋更穩定、易於行走,以功能看來,北宋對前朝象戲的修正事實上讓下棋更方便。對照今天,東南亞一些嘗試推展象棋活動的國家,擔心人們不懂漢字,代之以立體象棋,卻常無功而返。正如許多不懂漢文的人都能打麻將,象棋七個漢字不算什麼隔閡,「人們寧可下平棋,」來過台灣比賽的馬來西亞棋手張漢忠說。

下棋選女婿

棋戲在中國,種類繁多,變化萬千,經過象戲、七國象戲等形制,象棋總算在北宋大功告成,逐步完成棋盤縱十路,橫九路,河界分明,三十二子,將帥行走於九宮內的遊戲規則。

南宋之後,象棋的藝術性、娛樂性大大加強。明清一路而下,雅俗共賞的象棋,普及性真到了所謂上至達官貴人,下至販夫走卒。

宋代杭州出現專門製作象棋的手工業。漢唐兩朝有所謂「圍棋待詔」,專伺候皇帝下圍棋,到了南宋,也有了象棋待詔。「踏青鬥草皆餘事,閑集朋儕靜奕棋」,琴棋書畫樣樣精通的宋徽宗寧可關起門來下棋,不願郊遊踏青。「人人說道好女婿,……又聰明,又伶俐,雙六象棋通六藝」,根據元代話本這一說法,下一手好象棋儼然是乘龍快婿的必備條件了。

相較於麻將、圍棋,象棋棋子少、棋盤小,攜帶方便,甚至隨手一張紙都可以畫成棋盤,不僅家家戶戶都備有棋具,出門在外更可隨身攜帶。馬走日、象走田,車領先鋒橫直衝、炮飛過山破陣地,也成了中國人應有的基本常識!

而公園、市場裡一窩蜂人下棋,圍觀者七嘴八舌,小孩兒找個縫隙鑽進去、支著下巴湊前看,久了也就會了,再到公園、廟口到處找人較量。如此代代相傳,象棋更隨著華人腳步,再度放洋,如今世界各地唐人街、華人文化中心,都少不了一盤盤將軍抽車、單騎見擄的好戲上演。

難怪極懂得享受人生的梁實秋先生要說象棋是中國人的最佳消遣:「瓜棚豆架之下,與世無爭的村夫野老不免一枰相對,消此永晝;鬧市茶寮之中,常有有閒階級人士下棋消遣,宦海裡翻過身最後退隱東山的大人先生們,髀肉復生,而英雄無用武之地,也只好閒來對奕,了此殘生。」除了消磨光陰,梁實秋認為,象棋之所以能使許多人樂此不彼,因為它頗合於人類好鬥的本能,是一種「鬥智不鬥力」的遊戲。「而人總是要鬥的,與其和人爭權奪利,還不如在棋盤上多佔幾個官,與其招搖撞騙,還不如在棋盤上抽上一車。」

車炮開路,馬卒決勝

《益智愉心的中國古代游藝》書中曾如此推理:由於文人雅士、騷人墨客賦予圍棋忘憂、淡然、超逸玄微的印象,讓文雅的圍棋曲高和寡,一種新的棋類游藝──象戲才應運而生。

相對於圍棋被稱為文棋,象棋有武棋之稱。圍棋盤面大、需考慮的陣地更多,但棋子只有黑白兩色;象棋棋子有具體位階,功能各異,加上規則簡單,易學易懂,下起來短兵相接,瞬息萬變,親和力更強,這種魅力使它輕易地跨越千家萬戶,在民間的普及率超過圍棋。

但象戲規則雖然簡單易懂,棋局變化卻也十分繁複。圍棋隨著戰況發展,盤面越下越滿;象棋棋子在有限空間內,隨著戰情從開局、中局到殘局,棋子越少,行走路線卻越多,攻防陣勢的組合無限增加,棋子威力也在變化。例如開局之初,馬容易被牽制,中局過後,棋子越少,絆腳石盡去,拐腳馬忽地進退自如,在一據點上,可以移動八個據點之多,所謂八面威風,勢如破竹,成為下棋人口中的「殘局馬勝炮」。

至於開局時威力不如士、相的兵、卒,只要老兵不死,作了過河卒子,頓時功力大增、不亞於開局時最具攻擊力的車與炮。

人間有棋痴,無關風與月

南宋之後,象棋規則雖然趨於穩定,但在小小棋盤上,「下棋的棋風也隨時代不斷翻新,」台灣六段棋手林見志說。例如清朝出現的「馬炮爭雄」時期,當時人專門在馬與炮的對局上動腦筋,僅僅以炮移到中間進行攻勢、對方將雙馬佈置成屏風抵擋的所謂「中炮對屏風馬」體系,就可以寫上好幾本書。一九五○年代,有人來個「殘局大革命」,扭轉了過去認為棋下到尾聲,棋子所剩有限,小兵已無大用的局勢,讓小兵也能立大功。

除了作為正式比賽、困難度較高的正規象棋不斷拓展出更精深的棋理,象棋也發展出盲棋、暗棋、憑空杜撰的殘局解盤,不僅可以獨樂樂享受棋局,也可以眾樂樂「合朋友之和,飾賓主之歡」。

《竹香齋》、《適情雅趣》,古來棋譜名稱多風雅,原因無非是許多棋癡往往一壺茶、風簷展讀棋譜,或在涼風習習中研究殘局,看紅、黑方如何交手,思考如何讓每一著棋更無破綻。有人竟夜思索,不眠不休;有人「春思逼人眠未穩,閑開棋局度清宵」。難怪某位有棋癖的老祖宗說,五官四肢不接觸適情的棋藝,氣脈就鬱結不得流利,天機就沈滯枯寂不復發揚。下棋,竟然外可以運行氣脈,內可以發越天機,達到養志游神效果。

解殘局、讀棋譜可以作為個人「修行」,大陸作家阿城的《棋王》一書中,主角王一生「一對九」下盲棋,則吸引了無數人潮。喜愛下棋的人都知道,棋下久了,就會在腦海中出現棋盤,並反覆設想每一步棋的走法,一般棋手也都可以棄棋盤口述比棋,或同時與兩、三人下盲棋,大陸棋手柳大華就曾在武漢以一當十八下盲棋而得到「東方電腦」的封號。

盲棋據說創於文天祥,明代朱國楨《涌幢小品》記載,文天祥嗜愛象棋,暑日喜愛在溪裡玩水,常與部將在水中以意象為棋盤,口奕象棋,一決勝負,愈久愈樂,暫忘塵俗之憂。

虛擬棋王?

象棋玩法推陳出新,但在發展過程中也曾被視作「無益之事」受到打壓。尤其走到工商業社會,現代生活繁忙,到公園、棋社下棋已成奢侈,家裡父母為生活忙碌,更無閒暇親子對奕,許多學生下棋,還被家庭視為浪費時間,不務正課。

不過,隨著社會對年輕孩子的各種誘惑增加,也開始有家長鼓勵孩子在家下棋。九月在台北艋舺福興宮的象棋比賽中,一位小棋手的父親就說,與其讓孩子四處溜躂、玩電動玩具,不如買象棋軟體讓孩子在家玩。

隨著科技媒介與大眾媒體的發展,象棋生態在二十世紀的尾聲彷彿又將展開一波新的轉變。許多過去勤跑棋社、棋苑的棋友,如今關在家裡磨練棋藝,磨棋對象更遍及全球。家住紐約、棋藝高竿的商人牟海勤在電腦網站為自己取了個「CCCC 」的代號,意指要讓對奕的敵手「死死死死」的很難看。他覺得,上象棋網站找人下棋,有運籌帷幄於帳內,決勝千里之外的快感。尤其美國紐約、舊金山、休斯頓各處雖有棋會,卻缺乏有系統的進行比賽,因此在電腦上下棋對他是再方便不過了。棋力五段的松山棋會會員林世偉也認為,在電腦上二十四小時隨時都可找到對手,不再像過去跑棋社找人下棋,常常空跑一趟。

台大資訊系近兩年積極開發電腦象棋、並舉辦了好幾次棋王與電腦大戰,準備把千年來讓中國人陶醉無窮、百思未解的多變棋局,以人工智慧一一破解其中奧妙,找出下象棋的必勝之道。如今西洋棋電腦「深藍」與西洋棋王交手,已到了不分高下的程度,象棋電腦的棋力又如何?台大資訊系教授許舜欽一手「調教」、尚未命名的象棋電腦目前已有五段實力,可以進入台灣棋王排行榜前二十名了。

許舜欽解釋,由人工智慧的角度來看,棋的難易度與棋盤大小有關,比如圍棋棋盤有三百六十一個交叉點,每步棋的可能性比有六十四格的西洋棋多,若要將每步棋的走法都算過,圍棋遠比西洋棋困難,因此目前開發出來的圍棋電腦棋力連一段都不到。而盤面最小的五子棋,已被電腦破解,如今和電腦下五子棋,想佔上風可難了。象棋棋盤交叉點有九十個,困難度比西洋棋高,但隨著CPU(中央處理器)的改進,電腦象棋大約在兩年內晉升一段,不到五年,棋力就可以與台灣棋王、八段的吳貴臨不相上下。真有那麼一天,電腦打遍天下無敵手,到時還有人要玩象棋嗎?

老象棋與新工具

象棋電腦會為象棋帶來什麼衝擊仍是未知,但有十二億人口的大陸將象棋搬上電視螢光幕,已出現新型態的現代快棋賽,限制棋手在四十分鐘內必須走出四十步棋。但短時間內出手,讓棋手覺得下起棋來只靠反應、不靠思考,棋的「深度」不夠。為此有人感嘆,科技改變了棋的精神,現代人下棋只重商業化,不重藝術文化。

亞洲象棋聯合會秘書長林關浩卻認為,要讓國際人士參與、廣為華人社會下一代接受象棋,電視轉播與電腦下棋不可免,因此快棋必然成為一種趨勢,但慢棋也不必然因此消失。以圍棋為例,由於日本推動專業制度的建立,國際都不得不去接受、遵守一局棋單方就有九小時可用的規則。西洋棋的正式比賽,單方也可以走八小時,對局超過八小時,立即封盤,第二天再下,等於花兩天才下一場棋。

從沙場兩軍對峙到紙上談兵,再到對著電腦螢幕、電視攝影機對奕,千年來象棋仍不脫人類寓鬥於戲的天性。只是,愛把敵手逼入死角、欣賞敵手垂死前青筋暴露、紅頭漲臉窘態的生活大師梁實秋,會不會因此悵然若失呢?

p.41

雙車奔走、二馬驅馳、連珠砲響起如飛……。象棋沿襲自唐代,古今對照,夏威夷華人文化中心前的老移民,車馬炮佐以可樂,樂趣不輸元代「奕棋圖壁畫」裡有人捧茶一旁伺候著的老祖先。

p.42

(上)象棋的遊戲規則與棋具造型隨著時代與流傳地區不斷改變。韓國象棋棋子大小不一,以楚、漢代替將、帥。(左)以台灣海峽為中線,下起棋來煙硝滾滾,攻防味道更濃。(下)至於日本將棋,棋子形狀由圓而方,不知與有板有眼的大和精神有無關係?

p.43

中國棋游戲源流圖

├圍棋┬五子棋

│  └梅花棋

├塞戲—格五—蹙戎

├四維

├彈棋

├唐代寶應象棋┬日本將棋

│      ├宋象棋—現代象棋、七國象棋、三象戲、三友棋、蝸角棋

│      └蒙古象棋

├宮棋

└民間棋戰┬夾食

     ├旋螺城—十六目石、打虎棋、三虎棋

     ├馬城

     └多種棋戲

資料來源•《中華傳統游戲大全》製表•李淑玲

p.44

《古錦圖案集》一書收集了一幅宋代琴棋書畫織錦,可以看到中國最早的象棋棋盤與新疆少女正在玩的西洋棋盤(右圖)如出一轍。

p.46

象棋寓戰於樂,玩起來短兵相接,樂趣無窮。蘭陽舞蹈團表演人棋大戰,圍觀者眾。

p.48

(上)台大資訊系教授許舜欽把一本本的棋譜輸入電腦。電腦融各派高手棋技於一爐,未來的棋王非它莫屬。(右)讓「棋社就在自己家裡」的象棋遊戲軟體是否將改變中國人喜愛在公園、廟口對奕的傳統?

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EN

When a Timeless Game Meets Changing Times: Chinese Chess-Past, Present, and Future. . . .

Chang Chin-ju /tr. by Phil Newell

Ten years from now, will Chinese chess be an Olympic event?

The third Forshang Cup Chinese Chess (Xiangqi) World Championship, sponsored by the Taiwan-based Forshang World Foundation, which offered total prize money of NT$7 million, has just ended, and competitors from various countries are already back at work preparing for next year's competition. Next year's champion, accompanied by the previous champions, will head to Lausanne, Switzerland, home of the Olympic headquarters, to hold a demonstration competition. This event will be an important step in efforts to have Chinese chess accepted as an Olympic event.

Due to the efforts of dedicated individuals, and the spread of Chinese people around the world, Chinese chess-this "brain teaser" long enjoyed by the ordinary people of China-has, in the same way as Tang dynasty Chinese chess did, begun to spread to other lands. Moreover, as Chinese chess becomes international, this game, which has evolved and adapted to meet changing times over the centuries, is again quietly being renovated in an effort to keep up with the rhythms of modern life.


Twenty or so years ago, there were two soldiers who used to play chess to while away the time. After each game, the loser would declare that he would bring a highly skilled friend to avenge the loss. The winner was not impressed: "So you've got some hotshot to rely on, big deal! You think I don't know any world-beaters?" So the soldiers agreed to bring their champions to meet at the Tsu Chi Temple in Fengyuan City. As expected, when the experts came face-to-face, they were inspired to new heights, and they played on and on, to the delight of the crowd that grew around them, in the "great Fengyuan chess challenge." After dozens of games, the master player named Lin had gained a slight advantage, but the player named Chen was no pushover, and constantly had his adversary in hot water.

What a shame, these two masters felt, that they had only just met! And for such a short time, since their desire to play against an opponent of such caliber had been far from exhausted. Thus these two men, who also relied on chess to while away their monotonous military service, began an unprecedented Chinese chess battle through the mail-each sending one move per day by postcard. Once they had begun this Chinese chess relay, says Lin Yi-shih, one of the combatants and now secretary-general of the ROC Chinese Chess Association, "the days just seemed to fly by, and after only a few games we were discharged."

Life is like chess

Lin, whose face lights up with joy talking about those days gone by, has just come back from the Forshang Cup competition in Hawaii. Although on this occasion he did not win, he was delighted at the opportunity to hone his skills against an increasing number of international competitors. In the past, chess addicts like Lin had little choice but to roam all over Taiwan, keeping their ears open for word of some skilled player somewhere, and then go on the attack, fighting do-or-die battles to refine their skills and establish their reputations. Today's players are much luckier: They can stay home and find opponents of comparable ability over the Internet.

Another advantage for today's players: Mainland China's chess world used to be inaccessible to Taiwan players. Now records of games played in the mainland-as well as anywhere else-are available. On top of this, the growing number of international invitational competitions, and the increasing prize money, mean that some players will be able to make a living at chess, so the day cannot be far off when there's a system for the development of professional players.

The Mr. Chen who held those epic battles against Lin Yi-shih so long ago is Stephen Chen, general manager of the Sohare company, which specializes in the development of Chinese chess software. Two decades ago, you could find young Chen in the night market in Shuili Rural Township in Nantou County. There he would set up endgames on a portable chessboard he made himself, and show others how to play. Chen would wager cigarettes, and if he won his opponent would pay him five or ten NT dollars. In this way he made a little pocket money.

Today, Chen still relies on chess to make his living, but it's not nickel-and-dime. The endgames he developed as a young man for his street-side business have become the foundation for computer software called "Roadside Chess Player," which features 4,000 endgames. This product, plus other chess software such as "Brothers of the Marsh Chess" and "The Art of Chess War," which came out beginning three years ago, have altogether sold more than 10,000 sets. Two other titles that Chen's company has produced for beginners have been cited by the ROC Ministry of Education as outstanding teaching materials for children.

At the same time, Chen is also working on a project to translate chess rules and principles into English in preparation for international promotion of the game. From time to time players from the US, Japan, or mainland China join competitions on Chen's website. He is also cooperating with the Department of Information Science at National Taiwan University to hold a competition between Chinese chess masters and a computer. IBM's famous Deep Blue chess computer isn't going to get all the glory! Chen has even thought of ways to improve the way games are recorded. He wants to produce visual layouts of positions, so that everyone can easily grasp the principles of Chinese chess.

Lin Yi-shih has gone from scouring temple courtyards and other public gathering places for worthy competitors to participating in international competitions. Steven Chen, once playing out endgames from a night market hawker's stand, now provides an Internet site where the best players can meet. The lives of these two chess masters have certainly changed dramatically. But that is only appropriate, since Chinese chess has itself had quite a varied and colorful life history.

The first chess clubs?

Over time, there have in fact been many types of Chinese chess. The one we have been talking about so far is known in Chinese as xiangqi. Another well-known form, called weiqi in Chinese, is known in the West by its Japanese name of Go, though it too was invented by the Chinese. Today, both forms have a large number of enthusiasts. It's just that xiangqi has always seemed to be a step behind weiqi.

A poem by Bai Juyi of the Tang dynasty mentions the many games enjoyed in the private chess associations and clubs of his day. Among them, weiqi had been long established as a social activity among the gentry. Confucius himself endorsed it as a pastime: "Just eating all day and never using your mind, what good is there in that? Is it not better to play chess? This would be the more virtuous course." The chess mentioned in this epigram is in fact weiqi.

The venerable history of weiqi can be traced to the Zhou dynasty (1122-255 BC). Over the following centuries it was mentioned in many verses, songs, and popular stories. Given the official endorsement by Confucius, and its immense popularity among the literati of the Han, Wei, and Six Dynasties, it gained a reputation as an activity suitable for refined persons, and it maintained an elegant image.

Besides weiqi, Bai Juyi's poem also mentioned a game called xiangxi. This was the forerunner of today's Chinese chess (i.e. xiangqi). There are many tales about the ancient origins of Chinese chess, going back to the legendary emperors Yao and Shun or to the general Han Xin, but there is not much evidence to render them plausible. Thus the references to xiangxi in Tang sources like Bai's poem constitute the first concrete link we can make to modern chess. Niu Zengru, a Tang-era author of an autobiographical novel, in one chapter set in the first year of the Baoying reign period, mentions a number of pieces used in xiangxi which also are used, by the same names, in modern Chinese chess-the horse, field marshal, chariot and foot soldier (or pawn). No wonder Tang dynasty xiangxi is seen as the embryonic form of modern xiangqi.

Interestingly, however, Tang dynasty xiangxi in fact resembles modern Western chess even more than it does modern Chinese chess. Its pieces were upright, and the board was divided into 64 (8 by 8) alternating black and white squares. Even the order in which the pieces were moved in many standard openings is similar.

The successor to Tang dynasty chess

Because of the amazing similarities between Tang dynasty xiangxi and Western chess, many historians suggest that they come from a common source. It is inferred that Chinese chess may have evolved and spread across Asia to Europe in the footsteps of the Mongol armies of the Yuan dynasty. Mongolian chess, which derives from xiangxi, retains the alternating black and white layout of the board, and many of the pieces-tower, horse, pawn-are quite similar to those in Western chess (though in Mongolian chess the tower functions more like a king than a rook). Western chess evolved into its modern form in Spain and France in the 16th century.

Just what is the relationship between Chinese and Western chess? In the field of chess history, this is still an open question. In fact cultures often evolve similar objects, sooner or later, without any mutual contact. Chess is an abstraction from war, and a great brain-teaser, and various cultures have developed similar games. It is just that the similarity between Western chess and Tang dynasty chess is so striking that chess historians can't help but wonder. . . .

Whatever may be the answer to that mystery, we can speak with much greater certainty about modern Chinese chess (xiangqi). Xiangqi, which arose after the end of the Tang dynasty, has certainly crossed over into neighboring countries and left its mark on the local games. For example, in Korean chess, though there is no "Chu River boundary with Han" (a "river" which runs across the center of the xiangqi chessboard), its "field marshal" pieces are marked with the Chinese characters for the ancient Chinese states of Chu and Han. A game of Korean chess is, quite literally, a battle between Chu and Han.

Toppling the pieces

As chess moved overseas, it developed differing characteristics in the soils of different cultures. Yet the most dramatic changes occurred in China itself. By the middle of the Northern Song dynasty, formerly upright pieces became uniformly flat; the pieces no longer moved from square to square, but along the lines from intersection to intersection; a boundary river was added to the center of the chess board; and on each side the field marshal was confined to a square "palace of nine halls" (so-called since a square encompasses nine points where lines intersect). The first mention of these changes is in the poem Xiangxi by Cheng Hao, in which he points out the danger that pawns crossing the river pose to the field marshal in his palace.

Zhang Ru'an, a mainland Chinese scholar of chess history, asks: "Why did the Northern Song make so many changes to Tang dynasty chess, causing Chinese chess to become so different from Western chess?"

People comparing Chinese chess and Western chess today feel that the answer is obvious: The design of the games reflects the realities of the two cultures. The Chinese emperor lived in a secretive enclosed palace, so naturally the field marshals also came to restrict themselves to the nine-hall palace. European feudal lords, in contrast, led their soldiers everywhere as they fought, and this is why in Western chess the King can move freely around the board. Another example is that, in Western chess when a pawn reaches the last rank, it is immediately elevated to a queen. This stimulates the aggressive attacking nature of the players, which certainly fits right in with the expansionist drive in European culture at that time.

By this logic, looking back at the fact that the field marshal piece in Tang dynasty xiangxi was not limited to a particular location, obviously Tang dynasty society was more open, and this correspondingly influenced the structure of chess. The successor dynasty to the Tang, the Song, constructed a system of centralized authority. "The Tang dynasty chess layout objectively did not fit with the aesthetic psychology of Song people," avers Zhang Ru'an. "Thus the Northern Song undertook major changes in Tang dynasty xiangxi, adding the nine-hall palace and the river boundary." Today descendants of Tang dynasty chess live on only abroad. Chinese society has ultimately chosen Northern Song chess, which seems to be more purely representative of the Chinese nation.

It is normal and common for cultural activities to change as social structure develops. But that is not the only reason for changes in the form of Chinese chess. For example, flat pieces are simply more stable than upright pieces, and are easier to carry around. Functionally speaking, the changes made in the Song dynasty made the game more convenient. Recently, there have been efforts to promote Chinese chess in Southeast Asia. Because of concern that non-Chinese find it difficult to read the Chinese characters which differentiate the uniformly shaped flat pieces, the promoters attempted to switch to upright pieces, but this proved futile, and they have since gone back to the flat pieces. After all, if so many people who can't read any Chinese can play mahjong, the seven Chinese ideographs used in chess shouldn't be such an insurmountable barrier. Concludes a player from Malaysia who has been to Taiwan to compete, "people prefer the flat pieces."

How to choose a son-in-law

After going through many adaptations, modern Chinese chess (xiangqi) is basically the same as the game that evolved in the Northern Song dynasty. It was then that key rules were formalized, including a playing board of 10 rows by 9 rows, the division of the board by a river boundary, the set of 32 pieces, and the confinement of the field marshal to the nine-hall palace. The aesthetic quality and entertainment value of chess were greatly strengthened beginning in the Southern Song dynasty. Through the Ming and Qing dynasties, the game was widely popularized to the point that it truly could be said that it was played by everyone from the highest officials to the most ordinary commoners.

In the Song, a chess-set handicraft industry arose in the city of Hangzhou. In the Han and Tang dynasties, there was a system under which master players of weiqi (Go) were at the beck and call of the emperor whenever he wanted a game. By the Southern Song, there was a similar system for xiangqi. Song Huizong, an emperor who was also adept at music, calligraphy, and painting, was said to prefer staying home to play chess to going out. An old proverb has it that a good son-in-law should be intelligent and nimble, "skilled at the six arts and at chess." If you believe this Yuan dynasty saying, it appears that chess ability was a requirement for the post of son-in-law.

Compared to mahjong, Chinese chess has fewer pieces and requires only two players; compared to Go it has fewer pieces and a much smaller board, so it is easier to carry around. In fact, you can sketch a chess board on any piece paper. Over time, every Chinese has come to know that a horse moves kitty corner, a chariot can move freely in any straight line, and artillery can fly over obstacles and strike the enemy from a distance.

In parks and street markets, there are always knots of people playing chess. Onlookers make comments and kibitz, while children wedge their way through spaces between adults' legs and watch intently, their jaws thrust forward, until after a while they too can play, and they will go to the parks and temple courtyards to look for people against whom to test their skill. This is how the game has been passed along generation to generation. In fact, following in the footsteps of Chinese people, it has crossed over the oceans, and today, in Chinese communities and Chinese cultural centers around the world, there is always certain to be a good show involving generals, chariots, and horses parading about the chessboard.

No wonder Liang Shih-chiu, a man who knew something about enjoying a high quality of life, declared chess to be the best pastime for Chinese: "On farms, you will find village elders and farmhands sitting under the melon trellises playing chess of an evening. In the tea houses in the cities, you will find gentlemen of leisure whiling away the long day with a game of chess. 'If one doesn't do anything useless, how is one to pass a whole long life?' High officials who feel itchy for action after retirement and have no outlet for their energy will compete in a chess game to fill the emptiness of their lives."

Besides being a pastime, Liang argues, chess also provides a healthy outlet for man's warlike nature, turning the primitive struggle for survival into a battle of wits: "Man is combative and tricky by nature. To win a victory on the chessboard is better than to win in a struggle for political power; to fool an opponent by crushing his chariot through a double-play is better than to gain some economic advantage through false pretenses."

Chess for the masses

A book entitled Ancient Chinese Games of Intellect offers the following surmise: People had the impression that weiqi (Go) was something by which the literati whiled away their time and forgot their worries, so weiqi acquired a rather aristocratic and transcendent image. This is why a new type of chess game-xiangqi-appeared.

Weiqi was also known as "literary chess" while xiangqi became known as "martial chess." Weiqi is played on a bigger board, and there are more angles to be considered, but on the other hand there are only two kinds of pieces, black and white. In xiangqi, on the other hand, there are many different pieces with different positions and functions. In addition, the rules are easy to learn. Games develop quickly, and the situation can change in an instant. These attractive features made it popular among the masses, and it became more widely played than weiqi.

However, though the rules of xiangqi are easy to learn, the situations, positions, and possibilities are immensely complex. In weiqi, as the battle intensifies, the board becomes more and more obstructed. In xiangqi, on the other hand, as the battle progresses from the opening moves to the mid-game and on into the end game, the number of pieces declines, while the options for movement increase. The combinations of attacking and defending increase without limit, and the relative importance of the pieces changes. For example, in the early moves, it is fairly easy to restrict the movement of the horses. But past the mid-game, as the number of pieces declines and obstacles are removed, the horses can move freely about. If nothing stands in its way, a horse can command eight spaces up to a radius of two spaces away, which is called "a commanding presence over eight strategic locations." This is why Chinese chess players say that "in the endgame, a horse beats a cannon."

Meanwhile, the pawns, which don't have the importance of other pieces at the beginning, suddenly become much more important if they can survive and get across the river. Indeed, they become no less valuable than pieces like the chariot and cannon, which have the most value at the beginning of the game.

Blind chess

Though the basic rules of Chinese chess were stabilized by the time of the Southern Song dynasty, "chess playing styles have continually changed with the times," says Lin Chien-chih, a level 6 grandmaster from Taiwan. For example, in the late Qing dynasty, experts devoted a great deal of attention to solving problems related to battles pitting horse against cannon. A number of books were written on even a single variation of this problem, such as how to use horse pieces to defend against an attack on the field marshal by the enemy's cannon. In the 1950s, there was a "revolution in endgames." In the past people had thought that when the game was winding down to the end, and the number of pieces was limited, then the pawns were of little or no value. But under the new thinking, the pawns became extremely useful pieces.

Besides formal competitions and ever more sophisticated and complex chess theories, variations have been developed-like blind chess (no looking at the board, or even no board at all), "hidden" chess (in which the pieces start turned over and in random positions), and pre-arranged endgames. These not only provide entertainment for the individual, but are a recreational activity among friends.

Chess instruction texts or books of recorded games from ancient times have rather elegant sounding names. One can imagine chess lovers reclining with a pot of tea and enjoying a cool breeze as they go over classic contests of the past, watching as the red and the black sides battle it out to see who can make their position impregnable. Evidently some people have found chess so addictive that they have neither slept nor rested, and there is a saying to the effect that "thoughts of spring make it hard to sleep, but chess can help pass a clear night." No wonder some ancient chess aficionados declared that unless they were in contact with chess, their chi (energy flow) and pulse would become irregular and unsteady, and their brains would atrophy.

Working out endgames and reading records of past games can even be a kind of self-cultivation. In the book The Chess King by the mainland Chinese author Ah Chung, the main character Wang Yisheng attracts crowds of people by playing blind chess against nine opponents simultaneously. Chess lovers all know that after you've played for a long time, there is a chess board in your head, and you can repeatedly play out imaginary games. Many chess players can dispense with the board altogether and play verbally, even against two or three opponents at the same time. The mainland master Liu Dahua once played blind chess against 18 opponents simultaneously in Wuhan, earning the nickname "Asia's Deep Blue."

Legend has it that blind chess was invented by the patriotic general Wen Tianxiang. A book by Zhu Guozhen of the Ming dynasty says that Wen, a lover of both chess and swimming, used to entertain himself by playing verbal chess against his commanders as they wallowed in the river on hot summer days.

Virtual grandmaster

Chess has a history of creativity and innovation, but there have always been some people who have seen it as a "useless activity." Especially in today's commercial society, with the fast pace of modern life, it is a luxury to linger in the park or at the chess club for a game. Many parents are too busy to stay home and teach their children themselves, and in fact if their children do play chess, the parents see it as wasted time that could otherwise be spent studying.

However, as the number of temptations for young people grows in society, some parents are beginning to encourage their children to stay home and play chess. At the Chinese chess tournament held at the Fuhsing Temple in Taipei in September, the father of one of the competitors said that he would rather buy chess software so his child could stay home and play than have the child out roaming the streets and playing in video arcades.

Advances in information technology and mass media may be offering Chinese chess a new lease on life at the end of the 20th century. Many people who in the past found it tiresome to head out to chess clubs or parks can now hone their skills at home, and find opponents from all over the globe. Mou Hai-qin, a businessman and skilled chess player who lives on the US West Coast, says that chess gives him the same thrill a general must feel planning strategy in his tent. His website handle, CCCC, homophonous for the Chinese words "death, death, death, death," warns would-be opponents what he holds in store for them. Since Mo has a hard time finding equally competitive opponents (New York, San Francisco, and Houston all have Chinese chess clubs, but no organized competitions), he really benefits from being able to play on the Internet. Lin Shih-wei, a member of the Peitou chess club who plays at level 5, says that you can find opponents on the Internet 24 hours a day, so you don't have to waste time on trips to the chess club just to find out there's no one around you want to play against.

The Department of Information Science at National Taiwan University has been actively developing a Chinese chess-playing computer for the last two years, and has held a number of events pitting Chinese chess masters against the computer. The plan is to use artificial intelligence to plumb the depths of this game that has intoxicated Chinese people for so many centuries. Today, IBM's Deep Blue computer can already compete in Western chess at a world championship level. How well does the Chinese chess computer play? Hsu Shun-chin, a professor of Information Science at NTU, says their computer-which has yet to be christened-plays at level 5, and would be considered one of the top 20 players in Taiwan.

Professor Hsu explains that, as far as the use of artificial intelligence is concerned, the difficulty of a form of chess for the computer depends on the size of the board. For example, Go has 361 possible places to move, which makes it more complex than Western chess, with its 64 squares. For the computer to calculate all possible moves is much more difficult. That is why thus far computers can not even play Go at level 1. On the other hand, wuziqi (something like Othello), which has the smallest board, has already been completely resolved by computers. It would be hard to imagine anyone beating a computer at this type of chess today.

Chinese chess has 90 spaces, making it quite a bit more difficult for the computer than Western chess. But as central processing units improve, the computer should be able to upgrade its ability by one level about every two years. This means that within five years or so, a computer should be playing Chinese chess at a level comparable to that of Wu Kui-lin, Taiwan's reigning grandmaster, who plays at level 8. If that day really comes, and computers can beat all comers, will anyone still be interested in playing chess?

Old chess, new forms

It's still unknown what impact a chess-playing computer will have on the game. But in mainland China, with its 1.2 billion people, chess is now on the television screen, in the new form of speed chess, in which players must complete 40 moves within forty minutes. Some critics say that the time limit makes the game a matter of reflexes, not of planning and calculation, robbing the contest of its profundity. They say that technology is changing the spirit of the game, and that people today are only interested in commercialized versions of the game and not in its value as a form of art or culture.

Lim Kwan How, general secretary of the Asia Xiangqi Federation, does not agree. He says that if the game is to be internationalized and accepted by the next generation of Chinese, use of television broadcasting and computers is inevitable. Thus, he says, speed chess is also inevitable. But this doesn't mean that traditional chess has to disappear. Take Go for example. In Japan, where internationally accepted standards are set, games can last as long as nine hours per day, and in Western championship chess, a game can carry over several days.

From military maneuvers on a battlefield to strategic ideas on paper, to television screens and computer monitors, Chinese chess has continued to provide people entertainment in a competitive setting for thousands of years. But, if people play more and more online, what will happen to the joy-as described by Liang Shih-chiu-of seeing the look on your opponent's face as he or she is trapped?

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The rumble of chariots, the galloping of horses, the roar of cannon. . . . Chinese chess has been with us at least since the Tang dynasty. Comparing these two scenes-one from a Chinese cultural center in Hawaii, the other from a Yuan dynasty painting-it doesn't seem as if the game is any less entertaining now than it ever was.

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Chess rules and pieces have evolved over time. In Korean chess (top), the pieces have different sizes, and the "king" pieces are stamped with the Chinese characters for the ancient states of Han and Chu. Another version (left), with the Taiwan Strait as the dividing boundary, brings to mind sharp images of smoky battlefields and furious maneuvering. What can the relationship be between Japanese chess (below) and the history of that country?

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Geneology of Chinese Chess Variations

CHESS

Weiqi (Go): Wuziqi (Five-in-a-Row Chess)/Meihuaqi (Plum Flower Chess)

Saixi (Wall Game): Gewu (Five Square)/Cumao

Siwei (Four Maintains)

Tanqi (Bullet Chess):

Tang dynasty Chinese Chess: Japanese Shogi/Song dynasty

Chinese Chess: Modern Chinese Chess/Qiguoqi (Seven States Chess)/Sanxiangxi (Three Elephants Game): Sanyouxi (Three Friends Game)/Guojiao (Snail Shell Chess)/Mongolian Chess

Gongqi (Palace Chess)

Popular Chess Variants: Jiashi/Xuanluocheng (Conch Fortress):

Shiliumushi (16-Eye Stone)/Dahuqi (Strike the Tiger Chess)/Sanhuqi (Three Tigers Chess)/Macheng (Horse Fortress)/Other varieties

Source: Zhonghua Chuantong Youxi Daquan (Encyclopedia of Ancient Chinese Games)

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This photo from the book Patterns of Ancient Chinese Embroidery shows that the earliest form of chess in China bears a striking resemblance to today's Western chess, as shown on the opposite page being played in Xinjiang Province in mainland China.

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Members of the Lanyang Dance Company play out a life-sized chess match for onlookers.

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Professor Hsu Shun-chin of National Taiwan University (above) feeds records of past games into the computer. The computer puts all the moves of the great masters into a big melting pot, resulting in a recipe that is sure to make it unbeatable in the future. Will Chinese software (opposite page) that allows people to stay at home undermine the admirable tradition of chess gatherings in parks and temple courtyards?

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