Eastern Chess Variants

As many of our customers probably know, the game we Westerners know as chess is in fact derived from a long line of earlier games that have their origins in India. Chaturanga, the first game recognized as having the essential features of a chess-style game – differentiable pieces with distinct styles of movement and a central piece whose capture is the focus of the game – emerged from the Gupta Empire and was widespread throughout India by the 6th century CE. From there it traveled to Persia, was widely adopted by the Muslim world during the expansion of the Arabian Empire, and eventually converged on Europe via both Russia and Spain. By the end of the 15th century, standardized rules for Western chess had been largely adopted throughout Europe, and modern chess as we know it had taken shape.

An ivory "Rukh" piece found in the Central Asian Ferghana Valley, dated to the 8th century CE. The "rook" that became the Western castle was in Indian and Persian variants a giant bird.

What our customers may not know is just how fascinatingly different many modern chess variants are from the classic tactical game we grew up with. At the same time Chaturanga and its descendants were traveling westward into the Middle East and Europe, Buddhist monks and merchants along the Silk Road were carrying these games eastward into China and the Far East, where they evolved over hundreds of years in isolation from their Western counterparts. Today, several chess variants thrive on the other side of the world, with rules and dynamics that utterly change the game’s strategy.

Here at Eureka, we’ve recently brought in two of the most popular of these games, along with books on their rules and strategy. Customers familiar with these games, or chess players looking to branch out and explore the ingenious modern counterparts to chess, will want to check out xiangqi (sometimes known as Chinese chess) and shogi (or Japanese chess). For the curious, here’s a brief overview of the most radical differences.

A model xiangqi board, as it's set up at the beginning of the game.

In xiangqi, pieces move along the intersections on the grid rather than the squares, as in the brilliant traditional Chinese game go. The board is therefore functionally 9×10 rather than 8×8, and the 16 pieces are distributed not only along the back two rows but throughout each player’s side of the board. The board also features two major terrain elements, a concept alien to Western chess. Each player has a fortress, a 3×3 grid that the general (equivalent to the king) and his two attendants (somewhat similar to bishops) may not leave. Across the center of the board runs the river. Soldiers (pawns, without the diagonal capture) that cross the river gain the ability to move horizontally, while elephants (no close equivalent) cannot pass the river.

Eureka's xiangqi set, from WorldWise Imports, with a beautifully decorated wooden board and reversible pieces featuring both traditional Chinese characters and easy-to-understand icons for non-native players.

Xiangqi‘s strategy is greatly influenced by the more limited movement of the pieces, who must contend with terrain features and greater restrictions on the distance they can move in one turn. Only the hugely valuable chariot, which moves just like a Western rook, captures with the speed characteristic of Western chess, while the cannons move like chariots, but can only capture by vaulting over a piece (whether friend or foe) between themselves and their target. Nevertheless, the pace of xiangqi is very fast, with the distribution of pieces encouraging early confrontation and the limited range of the generals resulting in a shorter endgame. All this may sound very peculiar to Western chess players – but perhaps not so peculiar as shogi

A model shogi board, as it's set up at the beginning of the game.

At first glance shogi may look more similar to Western chess. True, the grid is 9×9 and the 20 pieces are distributed a bit differently, but there is no river or fortress and the pieces are move across the squares rather than the intersections. By and large, the movements are more similar to chess as well: the jeweled general (just like our king) is free to roam the board one space at a time in any direction, the horses (knights) leap over pieces in their characteristic L-shape (although only by moving two spaces directly forward and then one space to either side), and each player has a single dragon and flying chariot, which move just like bishops and rooks in Western chess. The lances keep up the game’s dynamic pace, moving as far as they like straight ahead, and while the soldiers (pawns) are unable to capture diagonally, the gold and silver generals fill some of the role of Western pawns with their slow but versatile advance. Yet two qualities of shogi set it strangely apart from Western chess. The first is the concept of promotion. Pieces that reach the promotion zone (the three rows where the opponent’s pieces begin the game) may be promoted. The pieces are flipped over to indicate their transformation, and generally gain increased mobility – although for strategic reasons players may choose not to promote pieces when their initial movement options are more advantageous.

One of Eureka's shogi sets, a miniature wooden table with carved wooden pieces and drawers for storage.

The second, more radical difference between shogi and Western chess has to do with capturing. Astute observers may have noticed that the players’ colors are not differentiated; rather, the orientation of the pieces denotes who controls which. This is because capturing is taken more literally in shogi: when an opponent’s piece is captured, a player keeps it on hand, and may use a later turn to redeploy it on any empty space (with a few restrictions for the placement of soldiers). Players can even achieve immediate checkmate with a redeployed piece, so care must be taken to defend the jeweled general even from one’s own captured pieces. Naturally, sacrificing pieces in shogi is not taken lightly.

Eureka has all the equipment for beginners and advanced players alike to play xiangqi and shogi at home – if this article has piqued your interest, stop by the store and ask us all about these exciting members of the chess family that enjoy huge popularity in their native countries.

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