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How To Play Chinese Chess (Xiangqi)!

How To Play Chinese Chess (Xiangqi)!

SamCopeland
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Chinese chess (xiangqi) is an exciting form of chess, played nearly universally in China. It is so universal within the world's most populous country that many have argued that it is the most popular form of chess - even more popular than international chess.

There are many similarities between Chinese chess and international chess—the most important being that the goal of the game is to checkmate the opposing king, but there are also many fascinating differences in the rules and piece sets. The result is a fast-paced, attacking game with loads of unique tactical patterns. If you want to learn the basics of Chinese chess in as little time as possible, check out my 60-second guide!

For a fun place to play with lots of English-speaking opponents and lots more info, check out xiangqi.com.

How To Play Xiangqi

In the following "pages," I'll break down each piece's movement in more detail, but to start, here are some of the most important high-level rules differences.

  • Pieces are placed on the intersections of squares, not within the squares. As a result, the board is a larger 9x9 size; the extra space creates an "open" and attacking game.
  • Checkmate AND stalemate win the game.
  • The board is split by the "river" which limits some pieces, but crossing it empowers others.
  • Each players' king and advisors reside within the nine-intersection "castles" that are located at the back and center of each play

As with chess, the first step to learning to play is simple - learning how the pieces move.

Chariot (Rook)

Chariots move vertically and horizontally, exactly as rooks do in international chess. One difference is that there is no queen in Chinese Chess so chariots rule the board. They are worth between 9 and 10 points, twice as much as any other piece.

Rooks, Chariots, Chinese Chess, Xiangqi

Cannon

Cannons are one of the most interesting pieces in Chinese Chess. The cannon moves exactly like a chariot, but cannons may capture only after jumping over one piece (termed a gun mount). Cannons make possible many interesting and unique patterns including triple and even quadruple check. Cannons are worth approximately 4.5 points.

Cannon, Chinese Chess, Xiangqi

Horse (Knight)

The horses move one square vertically or horizontally and one further square diagonally. I find this more useful than thinking about movement in the shape of the capital letter "L," particularly because horses in Chinese Chess CANNOT jump like knights do in chess. A piece on the intervening intersection will block or "stuff the horse's eye" and prevent the horse from moving in that direction. Horses are worth about 4 points.

Horse, Knight, Chinese Chess, Xiangqi

Elephant (Bishop-ish)

Elephants move exactly two squares diagonally and cannot cross the river. As such, each player's elephants are limited to only seven available points on their side of the board, rendering them primarily defensive in nature. Like horses, elephants cannot jump and a piece in their path will block their movement. Elephants are worth about 2 points.

Elephants, Bishops, Chinese Chess, Xiangqi

Pawn

The pawns move forward as in international chess, but they certainly don't capture diagonally. They do promote after the cross the river, gaining the power to move horizontally in the enemy's territory. Pawns are worth 1 point before crossing the river and 2 points after crossing the river.

Chinese Chess, Xiangqi, Pawn

Advisor

The two advisors are clearly defensive pieces and are limited to moving diagonally within the castle. Thus, they are only able to move to five points in total and primarily are used to shield the king. Advisors are also worth about 2 points.

Pawns, Chinese Chess, Xiangqi

General (King)

The generals move only one square vertically or horizontally and are restricted to the castle, but they do have one potent offensive ability that may apply in all phases of the game. Generals may not face each other directly. Thus, the generals may play an important role in the attack by covering the opposing general's escape squares or by "pinning" an intervening piece to the other general.

General, King, Chinese Chess, Xiangqi

Strategies

I am not very good at Chinese Chess so take the following with a grain of salt, but here are some thoughts that have been useful to me in slowly learning the strategies at play Do you have some favored strategies? Share them in the comments!

  • Material is far less important in Chinese Chess. The board is open and quickly dominated by heavy pieces. Bring out your most powerful pieces quickly and effectively, and you will rarely bemoan the loss of a pawn.
  • By the same token, material value is far more contextual. For example, cannons are much less valuable in the endgame when there are few pieces for them to capture over.
  • Mobilize your cannons and especially your chariots as fast as possible. In international chess, the knights and bishops lead the way, not so in Chinese Chess. The heavy pieces should be your early game focus.
  • Be wary of an early cannon capture in enemy territory. Often, the cannon will be trapped and unsupported.
  • The "Scholar's Mate" of Chinese Chess would be something like this checkmate. Note that the leading cannon cannot be captured by an elephant as it is the back cannon giving the check, but if a piece tried to block the check, the leading cannon would then be giving check. Be wary of your opponent's cannons at all times. Especially for international chess players it is easy to underestimate the cannon. A fast way to lose is to let your opponent's cannons dominate the central file.

I hope that this is enough at least to get you to try a game! Have you ever played Chinese Chess or another form of chess before?

Closing Puzzle: In international chess, double check is the most powerful form of chess, but in Chinese Chess, triple check and even quadruple check are possible! Can you create a position with quadruple check? Feel free to try here.