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Zhibo: Encirclement Chess and the Holy Bible

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Zhibo is a weekly column in which Beijing-based American Taylor Hartwell documents his journey down the rabbit hole of Chinese livestreaming app YingKe. If you know nothing about the livestreaming (直播; “zhibo”) phenomenon in China, start here.

Survey Topic: Pick a Chess, any Chess

Chinese Chess, or xiangqi (象棋) is, as you might imagine, a pretty common sight in Beijing. I don’t really play, but it’s in the same basic vein as international chess — and before any sophomore IR majors accuse me of being an imperialist pig for assuming the Western version of something is the International version of something, I would like to point out that 1) Chess originated in India, and 2) the Chinese term for it is 国际象棋 (international xiangqi), so I now feel confident that I’ve won the argument against myself that I created for no reason.

It can be tough to think clearly from way up here.

Wait, what was I talking about? Right, chess.

Overall, xiangqi looks pretty similar to international chess. The pieces are round little disks with one of two different characters, which tell you their role depending on if they’re red or black. There’s and for foot soldiers (like pawns), 將 and for generals (like kings), and so on and so forth. You’re trying to capture each other’s king, there’s a special piece that has to jump to capture stuff, and there’s a row of foot soldiers that can’t retreat. It’s obviously not the same game, but they’re definitely in the same family. Kings of old played it in lieu of real battles to fight and now old people play it in the park. Got it.

What was an utter mystery to me up until very recently, however, was this:

As it turns out, this is NOT a modern art project

This game is called weiqi (围棋) or literally, “encirclement chess.” For all the things China makes questionably-sourced claims about regarding what they’ve invented, this game — commonly known as Go — really is just about the oldest board game on earth. The basic rules are deceptively simple: players take turns putting down black and white stones, and the player who captures the most area wins.

However, as a friend recently explained to me, because of all the spaces on the board, there are literally more possible game combinations in weiqi than there are atoms in the whole goddamn universe. Even though there’s perfect information and therefore technically no luck involved, there’s such an impossibly large range of options involved that it took until just last year for an AI (AlphaGo) to beat the world champion.

For those of you who aren’t supercomputers, that’s twenty f@#king years after Deep Blue beat Gary Kasparov at what I guess I now have to call Chess Lite. That means that figuring out how to program an algorithm that could play this game at an above-human level took more time than smartphones, tablets, social media, and six out of seven seasons of Game of Thrones.

Though not as effort-intensive as getting that 6th book out, apparently

It kind of puts the past few years watching students mess around with *that dumb-looking checkers-type game* in a new light.

So, I posed a question to my viewers: If you could be a master of one of these three games, which would you choose?

Chinese Chess/xiangqi (象棋): IIII I

Go/weiqi (围棋): IIII IIII IIII IIII III

International Chess (国际象棋): IIII IIII

I don’t know how much stock to put in the fact that International Chess slightly beat out Chinese Chess, but the main point is clear: Go mastery wins. Guess I should start spending more time in Beijing’s parks.

 

Video of the Week:

This fearless woman who is definitely not getting paid enough for this shit.

The not-at-all-uniform nature of the tire tracks is what has me particularly worried. You may say that obviously cars starting in slightly different places results in a wide spread of burnt rubber. I say that scientific levels of precision should be involved in several-ton vehicles doing donuts around squishy bags of blood and organs. 

 

Worrisome Comment of the Week:

You often speak of God, you like reading holy Bible

I think this commenter might be mixing up “speaking of God” and my proclivity for… um… taking the Almighty’s name in a hellauva lotta vain. As you might imagine, serious conversation about religion isn’t exactly a common occurrence on Yingke. I’ve mentioned before that the app has intentionally vague definitions when it comes to what you can and can’t do when it comes to religious discussion.

People do occasionally ask me “what I believe in,” to which my answer is usually something along the lines of “death, taxes, and being called a foreigner.”

 

Depressing Comment of the Week:

Sometimes you look handsome. But sometimes you look old.

8am is too early for existential crises, buddy. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to cover my face in coffee grounds or whatever the internet says this week.

Taylor Hartwell
Taylor has been living in China since 2014 on the basis that he's already sunk too much into studying Chinese and can't stop now. When not staring at himself on his phone, he can be found writing, teaching and consulting at various schools and companies in Beijing. His Zhibo column runs every Monday on Radii. He tweets @TaylorJHartwell

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