Basics of Xiangqi (Chinese Chess) 05 The Opening Phase

Xiangqi can be considered a mindsport whereby you may win, lose or draw the game against your opponent. There are many ways to describe the sensation obtained with winning, but there are even more ways, some even using expletives to describe losing…
Nobody likes to lose. There is little or no luck involved and you and you alone are responsible for your own fate. To improve your level of Xiangqi, we must study it systematically. References will be made to International Chess to make things clearer. Anatomy can be defined simply as the discipline or study of bodily parts. If we were to dissect the game of Xiangqi or International Chess, we would find that it consists of the opening phase, the middle game phase and the endgame phase.
Most games last till the endgame. Unless your opponent is much stronger or you were drunk or high or whatever when playing, seldom does the game end in the opening or mid-game.
Opening game: The opening in Xiangqi is basically the first 10-15 moves by one person, that is 20-30 moves in total. The thing to do in the opening is to play a variation that you like, hopefully one that your opponents dislike or is uncomfortable with (nothing beats seeing your opponent writhing in agony from the very beginning…). By default, red moves first and has an advantage of 0.5 to 1 moves over black. Thus, the goal for red in the opening is to gain momentum and increase your advantage (be it positional or material) before entering mid-game. Conversely, black, being down or slow by 0.5 to 1 moves, aims to delete red’s advantage and wait for the chance to overturn the tables. There are many strategies involved but the key concepts in openings are: for red to increase the number of moves he has over black for black to decrease the number moves behind. There have been many articles written in Chinese about the principles or rules in Xiangqi openings, but I will only introduce the basic ones. Please check out the videos on basic Xiangqi opening principles. It is based on a book by Grandmaster Liu Dianzhong with very practical advise.









Things to do:

  • 1. Try to move your big pieces (rook, horse, cannon) to control important positions on the board as early as possible. This is perhaps the most important rule.
  • 2. Try not to lose effective moves when exchanging pieces. For example, if I had required 3 moves to get my red rook to an advantageous position, an exchange with the opposing rook who only moved one move is not advisable. Two effective moves are effectively lost in the exchange. Efficiency can be calculated roughly and will be discussed later in this article.
  • 3. Try to increase the efficiency of each piece and try NOT to make any inefficient or empty moves.
  • 4. Be very careful of the order you move your pieces. Placing the same pieces in the same positions but with the wrong order can often be fatalistic.

Things NEVER to do:

  • 1. Never move the same piece too many times.
  • 2. Never move the rook too late in the opening. Never push your horse into enemy territory too early, without backup. Same goes for the cannon.
  • 3. Never lose advantage over material. That is, if a piece taken would result in loss in efficiency, then that move is questionable. Two terms will need to be clarified here. Initiative 先手, refers to the above mentioned advantage by default that red has. 后手,refers basically to black’ situation. So, in Xiangqi’s terminology, red’s primary aim is to increase the initiative 扩大先手. As in International Chess, good development of the pieces are essential. A balanced development is encouraged.

Below is an introduction of the roles played by different pieces in the opening.

Unlike International chess , there is no castling in Xiangqi.

So, unless, threatened so very early (which is very seldom), the king 帅/将does not need to move about. Let the man rest and direct his troops…

The Advisors usually start moving slightly later in the opening.

Which one to move to the center is crucial. Many games have been lost due to an incorrect advisor being in the wrong position.

The Elephant is initially used for defense and consolidation

The elephant相/象 or bishop has a similar role like the advisor, though in the elephant opening (which moves either elephant to the center as the first move), it is used to link the cannons up for defense. More on this when we get to the elephant opening, known as 飞相局, or sometimes called the flying elephant opening.


Horses First Defend and Attack Later

The knights or horses 马/馬/傌, have more of a defensive role in the opening. Because horses can be blocked in Xiangqi, it is hard to get them into enemy territory so early in the game. And, because of positioning, they provide excellent protection of the middle pawn. Conversely, it is essential to move the pawns as early as possible to make space for the horses. More will be said of the horse especially in the horse opening, or 起马局 .


Chariots Are Key Players in the Opening

The chariots 车/車 have to protect the horses by default in the beginning of the game. So the fastest you can move the chariot is normally by the second move. There is a saying in Chinese that if the chariot was not moved by move number three, you would lose the game. This is not true now as many new variations confound this rule but it highlights the importance of chariot movement in the opening. Use the chariot to attack ( one of the earliest pieces into the enemy territory ) , to defend ( like patrolling the river ), to threaten and to protect. Basically, early in the game, there are two ways to move the chariot, by R1=2 or R1+1. The former movement is known as the filed chariot(WXF) 直车; whilst the latter is known as the ranked chariot 橫车. Each has its advantages and disadvantages and is crucial to every opening game. More will be said later on the role of the chariot in the various openings.


The Cannon leads the charge

The cannon 炮/包/砲, is usually the first to move in the opening. The central cannon opening 中炮ie 炮2=5, is the most commonly used opening. It has been estimated that more than half of the games in Xiangqi begin with it and in fact most of the openings in manuals revolve around it for the past few centuries. Other less common cannon openings include Palcorner cannon仕角炮(C2=4) and Cross Palace Cannon 过宮炮 (C2=6) opening. The cannon has a similar role to the car in the opening. Much , much more will be said on the cannon in detail in specific openings


Pawns help the hooses out initially

As mentioned above in the section about the horse, the pawns block the horses early in the game, so early movement of the pawns is usually done to facilitate the movements of the horses. And by default, as pawns face each other across the river, whoever moves the pawn first controls that point on the river. However, pawns are frequently exchanged in the openings to make space for the other cavalry. And unlike International Chess, there is no en passant and no promotion of pawns to other pieces. Special reference must be made to the central pawn. Like in International Chess, it is a crucial piece of the center.

Last updated: 20th March 2011/3/21
References :
In Chinese, <<象棋入门>> by 李浭 and 馬正福 In Chinese,
<<少兒象棋啟蒙篇>> by 傅寶勝 In English, Chinese Chess,
An Introduction to China’s Ancient game of Strategy by HT Lau In Chinese,
<<象棋四日通>> by Master 黃少龍 In English, In English