Chess in China: Unveiling the Chinese System
Chess in China has been on a meteoric rise, with the ascendent Chinese men's team winning the Olympiad this year. Today, let's take a look at the system that discovered and nurtured all those distinguished chess players.
He Zhizhou - one of the participants in the Beijing University League this year, whose game we previously saw:
The first time I encountered chess was back in the spring of 2002. I was only six, and had not yet began attending primary school, but was playing with my toys on the bed with my mother. She had just bought me a chess set – and I was attracted to this most curious ‘toy’ at once, and immediately demanded that my mother play it with me. Rather (too!) conveniently she knew the rudiments of the game, so she taught me the rules. Come to think of it, she was my first ever chess teacher.
My interest in the game did not lessen with age, so eventually my mother decided to take me to a chess academy to formally study the game. We lived in small town, so there was, at the time, no local chess academy. Nevertheless, a sports school had opened a board-game class, so that’s where I found myself. At the time, a nearby primary school provided a chess class on Saturdays, and I registered for this as well with my mother.
OK, I know this is what probably you're thinking, but it was a tad bigger than this...
and more like...
...this. It is China, after all!
At first, I didn’t have a fixed training schedule – it was all quite loose and patchy. My parents treated it as a casual hobby of mine anyway and we didn’t take it overly seriously; this continued for about a year, when the SARS epidemic hit in 2003, and the lessons came to an abrupt halt.
My chess studies resumed again in the autumn of that year, when we would play in the sports school, in the home of a local chess teacher, and with classmates.
In 2005, the chess teachers of the sports school organised the first ever local chess club (this was expanded to include a bridge contingent in 2006, and so it became a chess & bridge club). In the club, the players were divided into different classes by strength (beginner, intermediate and advanced, etc.), and we all studied together. The chess lessons mainly took place on the weekends, as well as after school on the Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, along with organised training sessions. So as you can see, the training was pretty serious. In the classes, coaches would begin the very basics of how the pieces move, and then move on to introducing the openings, middlegames, endings, etc. At the same time, we were given numerous problems to solve (mates & tactical combinations in the main), to improve our tactical abilities.
No, not those combinations...
Of course, frequent training on its own is not enough – over the winter and summer breaks we would participate in youth tournaments. The most prestigious of these was of course the ‘Li Chengzhi Cup’ – it was the largest and strongest tournament in the whole country. There were a number of other competitive events as well, of course, ranging from the ‘Children’s Chess Cup’, the ‘National B League’ to the ‘National Ranking Tournament’ etc., with some events being organised annually at the provincial level as well. Even in our city, chess matches and weekend congresses were a common sight, so there were certainly many competitive events for us back then. I gained some good results in a number of tournaments, and had the opportunity to enter the national youth squad for further training, but ultimately gave this up to concentrate on my academic studies.
In 2007, our city built its very own chess academy – this was an official institution, which was directly overseen by the municipal sports bureau. Thus on the Saturdays and Sundays, you could find us training there, studying from manuals, solving problems and playing chess. As I was entering high school, I no longer had the time to play chess, and the last time I trained there was in the 2011 summer holidays.
To make better sense of the Chinese chess scene, you really have to first understand the chess ranking system in China. There are really two tracks for chess players. One is run by the National Chess Association & the National Chess Academy, as well as the associated provincial- and municipal- level chess academies. They award certificates for amateur players, from level 6 (the lowest) to level 1 (the highest), which are followed by the titles of Candidate Association Master Association Master & National Master. Meanwhile, the National Sports Bureau uses a different classification system entirely (recognising instead the ‘Athlete system’), bestowing upon the elite players the titles of Third class (the lowest), Second class and First Class (the highest) Athlete, National Elite and International Elite.
Chinese athletes don't just come on the track and field, you know!
Of course, the two systems are not entirely disparate – Candidate Association Master is taken to be roughly equivalent to a Second Class, although National Masters are generally regarded as worthy opponents for the National Elite. Many tournaments are partitioned by the level of the chess players according to these systems – Association Masters, for example, can enter the Second Class section, etc. The top performers have the opportunity to enter the provincial teams, and represent the province in the ‘National A League’. For young players of an even higher calibre, the national youth team/squad is a distinct possibility, where they would play for the nation. Chess players gaining the required norms (gaining a certain placing in some designated tournament perhaps, or satisfying the required win rate) can apply for First Class certification. For example, I gained the titles of Association Master and First Class Athlete through competing in various events.
So this is the story of how I studied chess, full of joy, disappointment, resounding victories and heart-breaking defeats. Chess has heavily influenced my life – for life is akin to chess – every step has to be made with the next in mind.