Life & Leisure

Enter the Dragon: Chinese efforts to become a major chess nation succeeding

By Guillermo Benavides

Beijing, May 12 (EFE).- When chess grandmaster Ding Liren earned the sport’s most prestigious title on April 30, he ended China’s decades of quest to gain a global recognition marked by centuries of tradition.

Ding’s historic triumph over Russia’s Ian Nepomniachtchi in a tiebreaker at the World Chess Championship in Astana, Kazakhstan, dethroned Norwegian Magnus Carlsen.

Ding thus became the first Chinese to hold the title, ending the supremacy battle between chess and ‘xiangqi’, also known as Chinese chess.

The International Chess Federation (FIDE) listed a total of 45 grandmasters (36 men and nine women) and 36 international masters (23 men and 13 women) from China, making it the third country with the most representatives after Russia and the US.

The achievement would have been impossible in 1965, when Liu Wenzhe – considered by many to be the father of chess in China – beat one of the great Russian masters of the time, Nikolai Krogius.

Liu’s victory did not prevent chess from being banned in the country during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) since it was considered a symbol of “decadent capitalism,” an expression once attributed to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leader Mao Zedong.

However, in 1975 Liu and Malaysian billionaire Dato Tan Chin Nam launched the “Great Dragon” project to boost chess in China and transform the country into a major chessplaying nation.

China’s National Sports Committee then created chess academies in Beijing and other cities for the young players would to learn from the best.

With Liu now heading the Chinese Chess Association and shaping the future, the “sleeping giant” woke up and won its first world championship with Xie Jun in 1991.

Xie became the first Asian female to become a chess grandmaster and was followed by five other women, among them the current Women’s World Chess Champion, Ju Wenjun.

According to China’s Sports Administration, there are 13 professional teams and around 5,000 coaches, of which only 20 have a professional degree.

The objective is to cultivate future talents from more than 30 national development centers and a 1,000 institutions, where approximately 150,000 young people between the ages of 4 and 12 are learning chess.

Even though chess is now booming, it lived for decades in the shadow of ‘xiangqi’, the country’s most popular board game.

In ‘xiangqi’, the opposite sides in the 9×10 grid are separated by a central ‘river’ and there is a palace at the back of each side.

Each player’s objective is to assault the opponent’s ‘palace.’

Both ‘xiangqii’ and chess are believed to come from the Indian ‘chaturanga.’

But while the first is thought to have appeared in China in the warring states period (475-221 BC), the second was born in the 19th century.

Therefore, it is not surprising that, according to data from the 2019 Chinese Chess Development Report, 41 percent of the country’s population, some 550 million people, had played ‘xiangqi’ at least once in their lifetime.

Comparatively, only 1.2 to 30 million people have placed chess at least once.

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