Analyzing the situation correctly in Xiangqi (Chinese Chess)
Xiangqi (Chinese Chess) is a battle of wits. Although the level of skill would vary, each game of Xiangqi would ultimately involve evaluating the situation and trying to come up with a plan which is executed. The plan would be decided by the strategy, which would determine the tactics to be used. However, developing a strategy and deciding what to do has to be based on a detailed and careful analysis of the situation on the board. In short, this process of analysis would be the first of a series of processes to winning.
An accurate and correct analysis would be the key to success.
As Peter Drucker wrote in “Know your Strengths and Values”: (1 p. 224)
“Successful careers are not ‘planned.’ They are the careers of people who are prepared for the opportunity because they know their strengths, the way they work, and their values. For knowing where one belongs makes ordinary people – hardworking, competent but mediocre otherwise—into outstanding performers. “
On a similar note, success in Xiangqi is not ‘planned.’ Success will only come to those who have prepared well, know their strengths of the pieces and formations on the board, how these formations can come together, and their value as a unit and not individually. Knowing the inherent characteristics of the situation on the board well is the first step to success.
The Webmaster has also come up with a simple acronym for winning: PASTE.
PASTE: For every Position given: Analyze --> determine Strategy and Tactics --> Execution of the plan.
In this article, the only focus would be the part on analysis. It will also be the Webmaster’s attempt at answering the following questions.
- What is the analysis of the situation on the board?
- What are the important factors and their implications?
- How do you go about analyzing the situation?
- Are there any differences in analysis concerning the different phases?
These are some of the questions that have plagued the Webmaster for decades.
Many articles touch on the subject that can be found on the internet, in Chinese. Most are one-time short answers that provide a little help, and often leave the reader bewildered.
In the same breath, it is even harder to come across books dedicated to this topic. In fact, the Webmaster has only one such book in his collection. It is called 《象棋形势判断》 or Analyzing the Situation in Xiangqi in English. The author is the most venerable Xiangqi Master Huang Shaolong (黄少龙 1938 – Present), a prolific author and one of the earliest professors in China to delve into computers and Xiangqi. Master Huang’s books have accompanied many Xiangqi enthusiasts over the past few decades. (2)
Grandmaster Liu Dianzhong’s book on the midgame phase would provide more insight, although it is dedicated to the midgame phase as a whole.
As for the process of analysis of the situation on the board, perhaps the authority would be a person who never knew Xiangqi.
Sun Zi (孙子 Sūn zǐ), the Chinese military strategist from over two thousand years ago wrote a treatise on warfare called the Art of War. There were thirteen chapters to his manifesto, of which there were several chapters that were dedicated to planning for war. The book has served to be the backbone of modern-day military strategy in both the East and West. (3)
In the Webmaster’s humble opinion, Sun Zi’s writings would also be the authority on analysis of the situation on the Xiangqi board. Afterall, Xiangqi has long been considered to be a game that resembled miniature warfare. As for Sun Zi, he is considered to have been one of the greatest military strategists that China has produced. Certainly, his Art of War has been studied throughout the centuries. Surprisingly, the wisdom contained in his book remains very applicable to the modern-day world and Xiangqi.
Sun Zi’s work has been translated into English many times. The earliest translations date back to the early twentieth century. However, the earliest translation was into French in 1772AD. However, of the translations that the Webmaster has read, he recommends only one, the one by Ralph Sawyer: The Seven Military Classics of Ancient China.
The translations in Mr. Sawyer’s book were, in the Webmaster’s opinion, the most accurate and modern translations. It was very accurate in the words that he used when compared to the original Chinese text. Again, it is the most highly recommended book by the Webmaster.
The translations by Mr. Sawyer would be used extensively in this article when there are relevant passages from Sun Zi.
Peter Drucker’s concepts in management would be surprisingly similar to analyzing the situation on the board. Some quotes from his writings have also been added.
Master Huang’s book will form the core of this article, which hopes to introduce the correct way of analyzing. The book was filled with examples and has been a very pleasant read. The Webmaster highly recommends it.
However, it would be impossible to present the entire book in this short article. Instead, the key points of wisdom would be given and explained. The Webmaster will add other bits of wisdom from other books and articles to provide more insight for the reader.
The contents of this article will be as follows.
- The importance and meaning behind analyzing the situation in Xiangqi
- Analyzing the Xiangqi Opening Phase
- Analyzing the Xiangqi Midgame Phase
- Analyzing the Xiangqi Midgame Phase in actual play
- Analyzing the Endgame Phase
- Analyzing the game as a whole
- In a nutshell
The importance and meaning behind analyzing the situation in Xiangqi
Analysis of the situation on the Xiangqi board can be best defined as:
- the understanding of position on the board.
Based on this analysis, a player would then form strategies and make moves. Analysis of the situation on the board does not stop here. As the game progresses, new analyses would have to be made, and the process is repeated over and over again until a game is finished (PASTE).
There would be a need to analyze the different phases of Xiangqi, namely the Opening Phase, the Midgame Phase, and the Endgame Phase. Unfortunately, the analysis of the situation is affected by the skill level of a player, whereby both correct and incorrect analyses will be made.
In the very first paragraph of Chapter 1 in the book, Sun Zi said: (4)
“Warfare is the greatest affair of state, the basis of life and death, the Way (Tao) to survival or extinction. It must be thoroughly pondered and analyzed.” (4 p. 158)
“If one who finds that the majority of factors favor him will be victorious while one who has found few factors favor him will be defeated, what about someone who finds no factors in his favor? … If I observed it from this perspective, victory and defeat will be apparent.” (4 p. 159)
“Thus the highest realization of warfare is to attack the enemy’s plans; next is to attack their alliances; next to attack their army; and the lowest is to attack their fortified cities.”
So, how do we strive to make the correct analysis each time and cut down the number of incorrect or inaccurate analyses? What is the GOAL of the analysis?
The Goals of Analysis
According to Master Huang Shaolong: (2 页 3)
- the primary goal of analysis would be to determine whether the situation on hand was advantageous or disadvantageous.
- A secondary goal would be to predict whether the game would be advantageous or disadvantageous as the game progressed
To be able to determine whether a situation was advantageous or not, the Master listed the following factors to consider:
- The material strength of both colors
- Control of space
- The characteristics of the formations
- The threats that could be seen when attacking et cetera
When these factors were compared for both colors, a player would be able to decide whether he had the initiative or whether the initiative belonged to the opponent.
In fact, the points mentioned above can be considered to be the general summary of his entire book.
The factors suggested by Master Huang would also conform to Sun Zi’s Art of War.
Sun Zi wrote:
“As for military methods, the first is termed measurement; the second, estimation (of forces); the third, calculation (of numbers of men); the fourth, weighing (relative strength); the fifth, victory.
Terrain gives birth to measurement; measurement produces the estimation (of forces). Estimation (of forces) gives rise to calculating (the numbers of men). Calculating (the numbers of men) gives rise to weighing (strength). Weighing (strength) gives birth to victory.”
Different Levels of Analysis
Determining which player had the advantage or initiative would still be insufficient. While it is the first step in analyzing, it only determines the general direction. In other words, it is a mere qualitative analysis. A quantitative analysis of the situation would be the next thing to do.
For example, the advantage that a person has can be divided further into:
- a slight advantage vs. a slight disadvantage
- an advantage vs. a disadvantage
- a huge advantage vs. a huge disadvantage, and
- a winning position vs. a losing position.
There are many more terms that can describe such an advantage, but knowing the quantifications mentioned above will be more than enough.
The Importance of Analysis
Although it would seem obvious, the fact that analysis forms the foundation for decision making cannot be overstated. Only after the situation on the board has been analyzed, then can the appropriate strategy and relevant tactics are chosen.
A correct read of the situation would result in the correct decision being made.
Sun Zi wrote:
“Thus one who excels at warfare first established himself in a position where he cannot be defeated while not losing (any opportunity) to defeat the enemy. For this reason, the victorious army first realizes the conditions for victory, and then seeks to engage in battle. The vanquished army fights first, and then seeks victory.”
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Analyzing the Xiangqi Opening Phase
In general, there are similarities for analysis of the different phases in Xiangqi: the material strength, the formations, the threats faced, et cetera.
However, if we were to go deeper during analysis, we would find that the inherent characteristics of the Opening Phase, Midgame Phase, and Endgame Phase would affect how analysis is done.
As a reminder, the Master explained that in the Opening Phase, the key goals were:
- To develop the major pieces,
- Choose an appropriate formation, and
- Fight for the initiative.
Based on these goals, analysis on the Opening Phase should be centered around (analyses would, of course, refer to both colors):
- The speed of development of the major pieces
- The strengths and weaknesses of the formation chosen.
Simply put, the player who had faster development of the major pieces and a stronger formation would have the initiative.
For newcomers, having the initiative would mean that you would own the right to make threats such that the opponent can only answer. Having the initiative would mean that you were in the driver’s seat and could decide which direction the game was to go.
The Speed of Development of the Major Pieces
Returning to the book, what did the Master mean by the speed of development of the major pieces? Simply put, the player who was able to get his major pieces to control the important lines or focal points on the board faster than his opponent would have the initiative. The effectiveness of the pieces would also be another key point.
There were three areas that the Master stressed:
Increasing the effectiveness of each move
If each move that was played were able to meet their goals and do what the player planned, then the move played would be highly effective. Conversely, if a piece were moved, advanced and retreated many times, there would be a loss in tempi, and the resulting effectiveness of the moves would be greatly decreased.
If a piece that was moved could not do what the player had intended, it would also be an ineffective move.
Occupying the important lines and focal points
If the number of effective moves was the same for both colors, the next important factor to consider would be how well-positioned the pieces were. Simply put, the ability to occupy important lines or focal points would mean that there was an advantage in terms of structure and formation.
The Chariot was specially mentioned in the assessment of the opening. The speed of development of the Chariot and whether there were lines for future development were important factors in analyses. In fact, a subsection was given with interesting examples. However, for this article, the Webmaster has chosen to combine the last two points under the same heading.
The Strength and Weaknesses of the chosen formation
Pieces are not moved aimlessly in the Opening Phase. They are moved to achieve a certain formation that would benefit battle. A strong formation would result in advantage and is one of the many factors assessed during analysis.
A strong or desirable formation would usually have a balanced development of the pieces and a strong attacking potential. The Master summed up the characteristics of a strong formation with:
明车活马好炮位 (2 页 23)
Translated, it would mean that the Chariot had open lines, the Horses were mobile in movement, and the Cannons were well positioned.
Conversely, a weak formation would usually be filled with pieces not living up to their potential. The pieces would usually control the less important lines, and the potential for both attack and defense would be less than desirable.
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Analyzing the Xiangqi Midgame Phase
In the Midgame Phase, both colors would have clashed. Whatever advantage or disadvantage accumulated in the Opening Phase would be prominent and affect the game.
Master Huang Shaolong suggested that there were few factors to consider during the analysis of the midgame phase:
- Comparison of material strength
- The Lines for Development
- The Area controlled by one color
- The Threats of capturing material or checkmate
A summary will be given below for each point mentioned.
Comparison of material strength
The comparison of the material for both colors is the first factor to be considered when evaluating the strength of one’s position.
1. Compare material strength (number of chariots, horses, cannons, pawns, advisors, and elephants)
2. If material strength is the same or similar, compare the strength of the formation.
3. If the strengths of the formation were similar, compare the open lines available for the development of individual pieces.
Game is over if King is captured
Some consider it be the same as the Advisor
Most powerful piece
Weak in the opening, strong in the endgame
Strong in the opening, weak in endgame (due to lack of cannon mounts)
1 point before crossing the river.
2 points after crossing the river.
1 point after reaching the enemy bottom rank.
Note: The table given above was from the article on How to Play Xiangqi. In Master Huang Shaolong’s book, he gave the Elephant as 2 points, the Cannon as 4 points, and the Chariot as 8 points. Both are generally accepted point values. The additional 0.5 points given to the Elephant and Cannon were a result of considering the various endgame tabiat. And as a Chariot is estimated to be worth two Horses, or two Cannons or a combination of one Horse and One Cannon, it could worth 8 or 9 points depending on which system was used.
The Webmaster was brought up following Huang Shaolong’s system but has gradually shifted his views to the ones given in the table above. However, it would not matter too much as the table given above is just to help with and initial analysis of the situation.
During the evaluation process, the roles and functions of each piece would also need consideration.
The game is over if King is captured. Needs to be protected at all times. May be able to help out in checkmate by making use of the Royal Rule.
Mainly defensive function, but can act as a Cannon Mount to control one of the rib files or central file if necessary.
Similar role to the Advisor. Linked Elephants offer much more protection than as individual pieces. The Elephant is also the natural enemy of the Horse, and an Elephant can greatly impede the enemy Horse.
The most powerful piece and is used to control important lines and regions on the board.
The Horse becomes an important piece in the midgame phase. If it can cross the river, it can go for the Elbow Horse Attack, Angler Horse Attack, Tiger Silhouette, et cetera.
Still very strong in the midgame phase as there is still plenty of material available to act as cannon mounts. Most often used to attack when placed on the Central File or placed on the enemy’s bottom rank. It can also act as defensive pieces by linking the Cannons.
Still a relatively weak piece. One or even two Pawns might have been able to cross the river in the midgame phase, but their potential to do damage or defend would vary greatly and can only be assessed on a case by case basis.
The Lines for Development
The importance of the availability of open lines for the development of the various pieces cannot be overemphasized. It is also one of the factors considered when assessing the situation. But why is it so important?
Sun Zi said:
“In general, whoever occupies the battleground first and awaits the enemy will be at east; whoever occupies the battleground afterward and must race to the conflict will be fatigued. Thus one who excels at warfare compels men and is not compelled by other men.”
Note: The last sentence would also be a very good definition of the initiative.
While the previous section on the comparison of material strength was concentrated on the QUANTITY of material, this section and the following section would focus on the QUALITY of the strength of the pieces.
In general, a player whose Chariot(s), Horse(s), and Cannon(s) had open lines for development would usually have a significant advantage. For example, consider the situation when your Chariot was in the open while, in contrast, the enemy’s Chariot was closed or limited in movement. Even though the material value would be the same arbitrarily, the player with the open Chariot would enjoy a significant advantage.
The same can be said for the other major pieces.
The Area controlled the Pieces
As a continuation of the previous point, when a player has Chariot(s), Horse(s), and Cannon(s) that have open lines for development, it would also mean that these pieces would be able to control a significant area on the board.
Another quote from Sun Zi:
“… do not attack well-regulated formations. That is the way to control changes.”
The Threats of capturing material or checkmate
The last important factor in assessing would be the presence of looming threats of checkmates. This factor would become more and more significant, especially as the game progresses. In fact, the Master specifically pointed out that threats to checkmate the enemy king would usually appear by the late midgame phase.
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Analyzing the Xiangqi Midgame Phase in actual play
After a thorough analysis of the midgame phase, a player would formulate a plan to execute. The objectives of this plan or strategy can be broadly categorized into the following goals for the discussion.
One of the most important goals in the midgame phase is to gain material and build up the strength of one’s army.
If there is no imminent threat of checkmate, one of the main strategies would be to capture enemy material.
Another primary goal in the midgame phase is to improve the position of the pieces. It can be done in a variety of ways.
Presence of chances to checkmate
Some battles become very violent in the midgame phase, whereby there is a confrontation of the troops and clashes on the board. In these situations, the possibility of a checkmate becomes evident. Learning how to recognize these situations would become the key to winning. These chances for a checkmate would only appear very quickly, and often they will disappear by the next move as the enemy covers up his weaknesses.
This ability to recognize these fleeting chances would depend very much on a player’s sense of the board, and it is precisely the reason why learning the Basic Kills are so important.
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Analyzing the Endgame Phase
The Endgame Phase is the last phase of the game, and it would also be the moment of truth for both colors. Analysis of the situation in the Endgame Phase has many similarities to analysis in the Midgame Phase, like the comparison of material strength. However, there are still differences to be acknowledged during analysis.
For the initial comparison of the material strength, the lines of development, the area controlled by the pieces, and the threats present on the board, please refer to the section mentioned above.
Several additional factors are unique to the endgame phase that must be analyzed. They are:
The Potential of the Weak or Minor Pieces
In the Opening and Midgame Phase, the Advisor, Elephant, and Pawn do not play a major role as the focus would be on the Chariot, Horse, and Cannon. However, as the number of pieces on the board decrease, the Advisor, Elephant, and Pawn becomes increasingly important and can determine the outcome.
The point system for the individual pieces becomes less important as there are many situations whereby a player might have an extra pawn or Advisor, and it would enough to secure a win. For example, a single Chariot would usually be a draw against a Full Guard (two elephants and two advisors). However, if the player with a Chariot had an extra pawn, it would be all that is needed to guarantee a win. The arbitrary value of the pieces would just be two points (pawn would cross the river) in the two different situations.
The actual value of the weak or minor pieces would be much greater than as suggested by the table given above. Hence, when analyzing the situation in the endgame phase, the potential of these pieces should be taken into consideration rather than the actual piece value.
For example, an elephant might be worth only 2 or 2.5 points, but it would be able to force a draw against a lone Horse, which would be worth 4 points.
Knowledge of the basic endgame tabiat IS ESSENTIAL.
For example, if you had the advantage, and that after trading pieces in a particular situation, a book win endgame situation would result, it would not be difficult to know what to do.
If you know that upon the simplification of an endgame situation, a draw would most probably ensue based on the endgame tabiat, you will opt to trade material if you were at a disadvantage. If you had the advantage, you would NOT want to trade material.
Hence, in the endgame phase, the weak or minor pieces suddenly become very important, and their potential to affect the outcome of the game CANNOT be ignored.
The Control of the Central File
The control of the important lines in the endgame phase is similar to the midgame phase. However, control of the CENTRAL FILE becomes exceptionally important in the endgame phase, and evaluation or analysis of the situation must deal with the central file in a different light.
In many endgame situations, the outcome can be decided on this one factor alone. For example, a 1r1p combination vs. a 1r endgame situation is decided by this one factor. Whichever color had control of the central file would decide the outcome. If the color with the 1r1p combination controlled the central file, it would be a book win situation. If the color with the single Chariot controlled the central file, it would be a book draw.
Weak or Disadvantaged Positions
As the quality of the pieces takes precedence over actual material value in the endgame phase, weak or disadvantaged positions would become very susceptible to attacks.
If your opponent had a weak position, the obvious strategy would be to attack the weaknesses in that position to claim victory. Conversely, if you had a weak position, it would be imperative to cover up these weaknesses as fast as possible.
Master Huang Shaolong further classified these weak or disadvantageous positions into the following categories:
Area placed under a blockade
Empty (no defense available) sections
These categories were described per se, and it would be beyond the scope of this article. However, as mentioned in the two sections above, knowledge of the endgame tabiat would be crucial in decision making.
Calculating the number of moves required to checkmate
In situations where both colors are attacking, the number of moves required to checkmate would become a key factor for analysis. The player who required the lesser number of moves to checkmate would win. This concept may seem simple, but it can decide the outcome in endgame situations.
For example, if Red required seven moves to checkmate, but Black needed only six moves, Red would have to use certain tactics to slow down the enemy’s attack while continuing with his. These tactics include playing an intermediate move or using discovered attacks or checks to disrupt the enemy’s defense to force the enemy to defend and stop attacking for the time being.
This concept can be abstract, so one of the examples listed in the book will be given below.
Many other examples were given in the book to illustrate this concept.
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Analyzing the game as a whole
The discussion above has been about analyses of the three different stages in Xiangqi. However, in the final chapter of the book, Master Huang Shaolong discussed the factors of analyses that had to be taken note when the Xiangqi went from the opening phase to the endgame phase.
Opening Phase transitioning into Midgame Phase
Theoretically, both colors would have a formation already on the board and were prepared for head-on clashes in the midgame. An important concept to remember was to try to predict the various possibilities that might occur in the midgame with different moves.
The concept was abstract, and there were many boards to exemplify it. One of the examples is given below. The Webmaster has added a few variations and explanations to the board. Please see the comments.
Midgame Phase transitioning into Endgame Phase.
Towards the end of the midgame phase, there would have been after many clashes. The material would have been traded and left the board. The remaining pieces on the board would often be scattered without any obvious offensive or defensive formation.
At this point, if a player felt that he had the advantage, the goal would be to try to accumulate more advantages until a winning position materialized.
If a player were at a disadvantage, the practical goal would be to try to even the odds and aim for a draw while patiently awaiting the chance to turn the tables.
To achieve their goals, both players would have to reorganize their formations accordingly.
There were several examples to explain the concept mentioned above. The shortest example found in the book is presented below.
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Master Huang Shaolong’s summary of the factors to analyze would serve as guidelines for what to consider during analysis. However, it may be too difficult for the absolute beginner who does not know the endgame tabia et cetera.
Luckily, Taiwanese International Master Chao Ifan would come to our rescue. He came up with a summary. For analytical purposes, the following are the important factors to consider.
Strength of pieces:
Comparing the number of pieces of each kind are there on the board.
Position of the pieces:
Comparing the position of the pieces of both colors on the board. There are some extra points to consider. For example, are the pieces linked? For example, linked Chariots can do much damage in the attack and also provide much defense. Linked Cannons are a powerful defensive entity.
Possible movement of the pieces:
What can a chess piece do if it could move? What effects would it have on the game? Could it control a specific line or section of the board? Again, comparisons must be made for both colors.
Interaction between friendly pieces:
There are seventeen functions that each piece can have, which can be divided into three major categories:
Capturing of material (related to the ability to capture material):
- Simple Capture 吃,
- Chasing enemy material 捉 especially forks,
- Controlling intersections/lines/areas of the board 控,
- Protecting friendly 保pieces,
- Pinning enemy material 牵,
- Targeting specific enemy pieces or areas using the Cannon 瞄.
Functions that a piece can have just by being on the board (does not have anything to do with capturing enemy material):
- Blocking enemy material (e.g., the enemy Horse, Elephant), and to defuse enemy checks 挡,
- Reveal or clearance (used in discovered attacks) 亮,
- Move a piece to act as a cannon mount (the cannon mount is moved before the Cannon can attack) 架,
- Removal of cannon mount (in discovered attacks/checks, and also to prevent the enemy Cannon from attacking) 拆,
- Decoy and Deflection (leading an enemy piece to an undesirable is called decoy while bringing an enemy piece away from an important intersection is called deflection. Usually achieved with a sacrifice) 引,
- Removal of hindering friendly pieces. Sometimes a friendly piece of friendly pieces would get in the way. They are sacrificed so that the initial attack can go ahead. 除,
- Escaping from enemy attack逃
Abstract concepts (that cannot be classified into above two):
- Attacking the enemy’s weak areas on the board by moving a chess piece before an attack is materialized虚,
- Preparing for an ambush (moving a piece to a pre-designated position so that an ambush could materialize) 伏,
- Waiting/Idle move 等,
- Prophylactic move (for both attack) 预.
In a nutshell…
As mentioned in the beginning, analysis of the board can be simply defined as understanding the situation on the board.
A good detailed and accurate analysis would determine if you have the advantage, or the opponent had the advantage, or if the game was similar. Only then can you determine your overall strategy and choose the appropriate tactics to carry out your plan.
There are simply too many articles that emphasize the various tactics that can be employed in Xiangqi. However, in the Webmaster’s humble opinion, understanding the situation would be more important.
One of the key concepts on effectiveness that Peter Drucker emphasized in his writings was:
“To be effective is the job of the knowledge worker… the knowledge worker is, first of all, expected to get the right things done.” (1 p. 191)
Therefore, in this article, the Webmaster hopes that the reader would able to identify the important factors required in the analysis. Only when the ‘right things’ are done can the player have an accurate analysis and be on the path to success.
Rome was never built in a day. Learning to analyze the situation in Xiangqi needs time to master. The more you compare the differences between the colors in any given situation, the more accurate your assessment will be. Hopefully, over time, it would be fairly easy to obtain an accurate analysis of the situation. Only then can the correct strategy and tactics to be employed for success.
Ralph Sawyer's Seven Military Classics in Ancient China can be found on Amazon --> https://amzn.to/2EcDLFo
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1. Drucker, Peter F. The Essential Drucker. New York : Harper Collins, 2001. 9780061345012.
2. 黄, 少龙. 象棋形势判断. 成都 : 成都时代出版社, 2002 (5th Reprint). 7805485526/G.533.
3. contributors, Wikipedia. The Art of War. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. [Online] Page Version ID: 975690702, Aug 29, 2020. [Cited: Aug 30, 2020.] https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=The_Art_of_War&oldid=975690702.
4. Sawyer, Ralph D. The Seven Military Classics of Ancient China Including the Art of War. Boulder : Westview Press Inc, 1993. p. 568. 0813312280.
5. 刘殿中. 象棋新编教程 象棋中局战法. 北京 : 北京体育大学出版社, 2003. 7-81051-905-0/G.756.