"Chinese School of Chess" by Liu Wenzhe

"Chinese School of Chess" by Liu Wenzhe

| 22 | Other

This week I will be reviewing an interesting and unusual book about the development of chess in China. The author, Liu Wenzhe, is considered to be one of the first promoters of western chess in China. Originally a XiangQi (Chinese chess) player, Wenzhe was one of the first - or perhaps the first - Chinese player to take a serious interest in "Western" chess. He began playing and studying in the late 1950-s, became the first Chinese International Master and the first Chinese player to defeat a Grandmaster. He later became the trainer for the national team. Therefore, he is considered to be the founder of the Chinese school of chess.

This book is quite unlike most chess books. Both the style of language and the content are unusual. Wenzhe approaches chess as "the art of thinking" and appears to want to reconcile the "Chinese" style of thinking with the western style of thinking, using chess as a backdrop. The chapter titled "The Origin and Nature of Chess" is particularly interesting. Wenzhe relates chess (and other board games) to the Book of Changes (the I Ching), saying that these games are manifestations of the Chinese view of the universe. Needless to say, he takes the controversial view that chess originated in China (many historians believe it came from India).

In addition to the philosophical aspect, there are many interesting and sharp games presented here. Proponents of the King's Indian, Benoni, and Sicilian will find it very interesting. The games are very deeply annotated with both long variations and also general comments.

Where I got it

In 2009 I went to Ohio where I played a simul and played in a team tournament. During this time, I stayed at a friend's house, and he had this book on his bookshelf. I started reading it, and bought it online in 2011.

What's good about it

Two things - first of all, the prose parts are interesting. The philosophical comments on the nature of chess and of chess thinking are thought-provoking, and it is historically interesting. Second of all, there is good analysis for those who play the openings which are covered, along with very exciting and well-annotated games.

How it impacted me

I've only had this book for a year or so, and I most definitely have not gotten better at chess in that time. So I can say that this is more a book I like rather than one which has had a big impact on me. However, I frequently remember the advice which Wenzhe repeats several times in the book - and which comes from Kung Fu: "If your opponent is not moving, never make your move. If your opponent is about to make a move, you must make yours first."

An Excerpt

Rather than one long excerpt that covers a whole game as I usually do, for this book I felt it would be better illustrated by multiple excerpts, covering the various subject matters.

"Chess is the art of thinking. This art requires not only depth and breadth but also variety of thought. The world of thinking includes not only the field of logic, but also one of non-logic. When I analyse my games, I do not think that winning is everything. I have a critical attitude to my play. In a word, you cannot stop thinking, because there is no limit in the universe!" (page 46).

"A very important question in the history of how chess and Go developed is, why were there 8x8 boards and black and white pieces in ancient XiangXi and the original form of Go? Scholars in the field of chess history have already provided many kinds of hypotheses and theories. The question also attracts the attention of scholars abroad. In January 1984, Chess in the USSR published an article entitled "The Origin of Chess", by Dr. Chelevcour, a research fellow of the Far Eastern Institute of the Soviet Academy of Sciences. He points out: "It is no coincidence that chess pieces are divided into black and white and that they are placed on a sixty-four-square board. It seems that the forms of chess derive from ancient Chinese symbols in the Book of Changes in the fourth century BC." (In actual fact the date is incorrect, because the written records on the subject can be traced back to 672 BC.)

Chelevcour continues: "White and black represent two kinds of universal forces - light, active and beautiful factors on the one hand, dark, negative and wicked factors on the other [yin and yang]. According to the Book of Changes, the number 64 synthesizes all objective situations. In the sixty-four hexagrams, everything has its symbol: a diagram which consists of six solid or broken lines [yao], many of which include the idea of interconnection and mutual joins."

Chelevcour is quite right to connect the origin and development of chess to the Book of Changes. The core of the Book of Changes is sixty-four diagrams formed from eight trigrams. The eight trigrams date from 7000 years ago, maybe even earlier. In recent years, archaeologists have discovered traces of the Book of Changes on stones carved by American Indians around 5000 BC. The Indians are a group of ancient Chinese people who crossed the ocean or mainland and moved to the Americas; there have been various proofs of this. The discovery of the Book of Changes on Indian carved stones means that the Book must be assigned to a much earlier date than was previously thought. The view on the origin of the universe and the world in the Book of Changes, its dialectical thought, its combination of simple materialism ad objective idealism, and its mystery of mathematics provide a summary of the Chinese understanding of the world. The Book of Changes is the starting point of  Chinese philosophy. The Chinese people are greatly influenced by its legacy. (Incidentally, the binary system used in modern computer technology appears initially in the Book of Changes.)" (page 63)


A tossed stone creates a thousand ripples. The play all of a sudden becomes sharp. Whenever I play this system for Black, I constantly watch out for White's possible attack with f2-f4. In my home analysis of 12.Re1, I considered 12.f4 premature and didn't conduct any deep analysis of its consequences.

A day or two after playing this game, I found it published in the tournament bulletin, complete with diagrams. The report said: "the Romanian grandmaster who chooses this risky move seems to underestimate the level of the Chinese player. He will be punished for this error."

I clearly recall that Gheorgiu thought for quite a long time before pushing his f-pawn. This shows that it was not a careless move. The time was probably spent in checking over his pre-game analysis. He may have wanted to give the impression that the move was an over-the-board improvisation. Conceivably, it really was.

I played my next move without any hesitation. I knew that White's rook on e1 was worse placed than on f1 to defend against Black's counter-attack.

To this day, among a million games in the computer database, there is only one that features 13.f4. This shows that players and theorists have a negative attitude to the move, and agree with the way I dealt with it. 

13...Neg4 14.Bf3

When I played 13...Neg4 I believed, quite simply, that White had no way of resisting Black's various threats. After White replied 14.Bf3, my first thought was to launch an attack with the knight sacrifice 14...Nxe4. I pondered this move for fifteen minutes, but no matter how many lines I calculated, White always turned out to have an effective defence. Therefore I gave up 14...Nxe4 and began considering 14...c4 15.Nxc4 Qc7.

Returning to the game today to annotate it, I gave this position to my computer for analysis. Among Black's 36 legal moves, it gives first preference to 14...Nh6, a move I never considered at the time. The computer's logic is very simple: first withdraw the knight to h6, then move the other knight from f6 to g4, opening the path of the bishop. It gives the variation 14...Nh6 15.Nc4 Nfg4 16.e5 Qh4 17.Nxd6 Qxh2+ 18.Kf1 Qg3 19.Kg1, with a draw.

Let us look into this. On 14...Nh6, White has 15.h3! Qe7 (the computer's move) 16.Re2! (my own move, stopping the computer's plan of Nh6-f5-d4) 16...Nd7 17.Nc4 Bd4+ 18.Kh1 Rb8 19.f5 (this is my idea again) 19...Kg7 (after 19...Bg7 20.Bf4 Ne5 21.Nxe5 dxe5 22.d6 Qd7 23.Bxh6 Bxh6 24.fxg6 hxg6 25.Bg4 f5 26.exf5 gxf5 27.Qd5+ Kh8 28.Bh5, White has a decisive advantage) 20.Bf4 Ne5 21.Nxe5 Bxe5 22.Qd2 Bxf4 23.Qxf4; White stands slightly better.


It is this move, amounting to a sort of "over-protection", that makes White feel the weight of the various threats. Today, studying the position again and again at my leisure, I find it incredible that White couldn't find any way out of his difficulties. In order to find this move in practical play, under the sway of emotion in the search for a combination, Black needs intuition, calculation and logic; above all he needs to be calm at this particular moment.

Black is eager to move his dark-squared bishop to d4 giving check. For this purpose the knight on f6 must vacate the diagonal, but this knight is covering the other one on g4. Without the involvement of this other knight, the bishop check on d4 would lead to nothing. Therefore, before the f6 knight can move, the g4-knight need additional support, and the only way to supply it is by playing the h-pawn to h5.

The move 14...h5 also had a further point: if the knight on g4 is attacked by h2-h3, Black can sacrifice it. The white pawn takes the knight, the black h-pawn recaptures on g4, gaining an important tempo by attacking the bishop on f3. Black then brings his queen to h4 and pushes the pawn to g3, increasing the attack.

All this is logical, but it is the logic of post-mortem analysis. During the game these things are unclear, because they are all mixed up with emotions and calculations. How did I decide on 14...h5? Was it a matter of feeling, or calculation, or logic? I don't exactly remember, but I think it began with a feeling, a kind of inspiration, which came into my brain in a instant. I made my decision after calculation and analysis based on this inspiration. I don't think the inspiration was accidental. I see it as an extension of my positional feeling, a leap forward in my understanding of the position." (page 148-149)

"I roughly divide chess intuition into four aspects. The first is imagination, visualization, and divination; the second is inspiration; the third is passion, feeling, and various human moods; the fourth is positional sense. I will briefly outline these four concepts." (page 99)

"From 1964, prompted by the need to develop chess in China, as well as for reasons of his own ambition, Liu Wenzhe shifted his focus to "standard" chess. He began to show his talent for this game in 1965. When he played against a Soviet Grandmaster in that year, Liu Wenzhe applied some modes of thinking from XiangQi to a game of chess, and won the game like floating clouds and flowing water. For well-known political reasons, he was deprived of the chance to play chess from 1966 to 1976. At that time, moreover, he could not even feed his family and himself. All his food for a day was two steamed buns. He would go in his shabby clothes to Beijing Library to translate Russian writings on chess, and would study them when he came back home at night. During those years, he translated more than a million words in total." (page 7, the preface by Yi Shui)

Any Downsides?

There are a few. First of all, Wenzhe injects some politics into the book, and he was definitely a bit of a nationalist. He was an extremely dedicated, obsessive worker and includes many of the thirty-move-long variations he analysed - however, some people might be put off by such long variations, and of course such long variations are sure to contain many errors, regardless of how much effort was put into working them out.

Wenzhe definitely likes complexity. He does not want to make chess a simple game. Therefore, this book is certain to confuse lower-rated players. I think it is better for players rated higher than 1800. There is not a lot of emphasis on sound positional concepts here.

There are also some very obscure sections in this book in which most people would not be too interested. For example, he includes his plan for training Xie Jun for her women's world championship match. The plan includes such things as meal times and bed times. In case you were wondering, she should be in bed by 10:15 pm.

What you should eat/drink while reading this book

Peking duck and green tea.

More from GM BryanSmith
Magnus Carlsen And The Nimzo-Indian Defense

Magnus Carlsen And The Nimzo-Indian Defense

Vishy Anand And The Semi-Slav Defense

Vishy Anand And The Semi-Slav Defense