Chinese Checkmate

How China took to the Western game of chess

Chess China The West
Prodigious: The teenage chess player Wei Yi (photo: Andreas Kontokanis, via Wikimedia Commons)

When, two days into the year, I presented the winner’s trophy at the Hastings Congress — the world’s oldest annual international chess tournament — the nationality of the recipient, Zhao Jun, was not thought worthy of comment. It would have been a matter for amazement if a Chinese had won when I first began attending the event in the late 1970s.

Yet I told the 28-year-old winner that his crushing victory was now almost predictable, given the triumphant year Chinese chessplayers had just completed. In 2014 the national men’s team won the biennial chess Olympiad — the first time since the break-up of the Soviet Union that this event had not been won by one of the nations that formerly comprised the USSR. It was clear from the emotion and open tearfulness of the winning Chinese team after the final round just how much it meant to them to have broken the dominance of what we used to call the Soviet School of Chess.

This triumph is an augury rather than a summation. Last year a Chinese, Lu Shanglei, won the world junior chess championship (for the best players under 20). Yet Lu’s performance was almost overshadowed by that of 15-year-old Wei Yi, who took the silver medal. Yi is the most prodigious chess talent to emerge since Norway’s Magnus Carlsen: indeed, in rating terms, he has beaten the precocious world champion to a number of landmarks. And in May, still only 15, Yi won the Chinese national championship. China already has the youngest ever woman’s world champion in Hou Yifan — who won the title at the age of just 16. If Yi continues to improve at his current rate, it might not be long before China holds the most coveted title of all.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect is that more Chinese still play Xiangqi than western chess — and a number of its leading players, at least of the generation before Hou Yifan and Wei Yi, played Xiangqi at a high level before they switched to what we just call “chess”. Among those who switched was a remarkable man called Liu Wenzhe, who died in 2011 at the age of 70. He had been influenced by “fraternal visits” of grandmasters from the Soviet Union in the 1950s and 1960s — part of the attempt by Moscow to seal ties with Mao’s China. But as Liu explained in his extraordinary book Chinese School of Chess, he regarded the Soviet School as excessively scientific. Liu proposed a unique Chinese chess philosophy stemming from the Book of Changes, the first records of which date from around 670BC: “According to the Book of Changes, the number 64 synthesises all objective situations.” There are, of course, 64 squares on the western chess board — though this is not true of Xiangqi in its current form, with a board of nine files and ten ranks.

Liu’s devotion to the apparently incredible idea of making China the dominant chess power was not even thwarted by the Cultural Revolution and the Gang of Four, when western chess was banned. He spent those years, from 1966 to 1976, in a state of near-starvation, translating Russian writings on chess — more than a million words of knowledge and instruction, according to the preface to his book.

It was only two years after that ordeal was over that Liu, playing for China in the 1978 Chess Olympiad, became the first Chinese to beat a western grandmaster in such an event — and in a game so spectacular it went round the world. He was later appointed coach of the Chinese national training team, in which role, he recorded without false modesty, “Teaching by personal example as well as by verbal instruction, I can say without exaggeration that my chessplaying skills and moral authority influenced every member of the national team.”

One can see in this something of the same character as Mikhail Botvinnik, the first Soviet world champion, who also imposed his ferocious work ethic on a generation of players. One difference is that Liu was nothing like as strong a player as Botvinnik: he never became a grandmaster himself. Another difference is that the Soviet school made enormous contributions to the theory of openings, whereas the Chinese school — and perhaps this is an element of Liu’s stress on the intuitive over the scientific method — has not produced material which can readily be assimilated by those outside the system.

There have been suggestions that Chinese players have a sharper and more tactical style than their western rivals as a legacy of the fact that Xiangqi is a much more fluid game than chess. I would argue that there are no “Russian” or “Chinese” chess moves — just good and bad, and China now seems to be playing more good ones than any other nation.

Here is that game from the 1978 Chess Olympiad in which Liu Wenzhe astounded not just his opponent, the Dutch grandmaster Jan Donner, but the whole chess world. 1.e4 d6 2.d4 Nf6 3. Nc3 g6 4.Be2 Bg7 5.g4!? (On seeing this extraordinary move, Donner thought for no less than half an hour. His eventual reply was widely criticised, but his error came later) h6 6.h3 c5 7.d5 0-0?! 8.h4! (This looks odd after 6.h3 — why take two moves to get the pawn to h4? But with Black’s King castled this crude pawn storm is now hugely effective.) e6 9.g5 hxg5? (Only move 9, but this is already the fatal error. Donner had to play unconventionally himself with 9…Nh7! 10.gxh6 Bxc3+ 11.bxc3 Qf6 when he would at least have counterplay) 10.hxg5 Ne8 11.Qd3! (The unmistakable intention is to shift the Queen to the open h-file — and this can’t be prevented) exd5 12.Nxd5 Nc6 13.Qg3 Be6 14.Qh4 (Liu wrote that while thinking about this move he suddenly saw the winning sacrifice: “My excitement took complete control of me”) f5 15.Qh7+ Kf7 (Liu recalled “at this point Donner still seemed optimistic, in view of his threat to win the Queen with 16…Rh8”) 16.Qxg6+!! (Amazingly, this forces mate in seven moves. But Donner played on imperturbably) Kxg6 17.Bh5+ Kh7 18.Bf7+ Bh6 19.g6+! (Perhaps Donner had counted on 18. Rxh6+ Kg7 after which the mate disappears and Black is winning) Kg7 20.Bxh6+ resigns. It will be mate after 20…Kh8 21.Bg7 (double check!) Kxg7 22.Rh7.

According to the Czech grandmaster Lubosh Kavalek, who was playing in the event: “After he resigned Donner sat in his chair for another 15 minutes, staring at the chessboard with amazement.” Then he recovered sufficiently to observe that he would be famous for ever in China.