xiangqi Asian GamesXiangqi, a chess game, has been played in China for over two millennia. But where does it fit into an athletic competition?

Just like the Olympics, the Asian Games are held every four years. The event attracts competitors from 45 nations and territories in the region.

The Asiad hosts international sports not contested in the Olympics such as bowling, cricket, golf and rugby.

In addition, there are a few sports of Asian heritage, such as dragon boat racing, wushu and sepaktaraw (a volleyball-type sport played with the feet, rather than hands). 

But the 2010 Asiad marks the first appearance of Chinese board games weiqi (go) and xiangqi (Chinese chess) in the competition. These follow the introduction of international chess at the 2006 Asiad in Doha.

Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, who famously support the World Bridge Federation’s attempt to add the card game to the Winter Olympics, take note. 

Like international chess, xiangqi is a game in which strategy is paramount. Each player moves 16 circular pieces one at a time around a board nine lines wide and ten lines long. The aim is to capture the opponent’s general and win the game. 

Do board games in which competitors never get out of their seats belong in an international athletic competition? More importantly, who watches weiqi and xiangqi being played, anyway? 

I attended the xiangqi gold medal matches in Guangzhou to find out. 

More librarian’s convention than Super Bowl

xiangqi Asian GamesThe xiangqi gold medal matches were held on November 19, at the Guangzhou Chess Institute, a 15-minute drive from the Tianhe Sports Center, where most of the Asian Games were held. 

Resembling a Suzhou garden more than a rocking sports arena, the quiet compound on tree-lined Hengzhigang Road hosted all three board game events: international chess, weiqi, and xiangqi.

Tickets were available free to the public. 

Upon entering the tranquil garden behind the compound walls, visitors could observe koi swimming through a pond, or rest on one of the benches before entering the “arena,” a museum dedicated to the history of weiqi and xiangqi.

The ambiance was more librarian’s convention than Super Bowl.

About 50 spectators sat on folding chairs in front of an electronic representation of the match projected on a screen. Yes, that’s correct — spectators don’t actually get to see the competition or “athletes.”

Apparently any form of audience participation in xiangqi is akin to tickling a weightlifter attempting a clean-and-jerk. 

Talgat Dochshamov, a spectator from Astana visiting Guangzhou to support the Kazakhstan boxers in the Asiad, had wandreed in to support his countrymen in a less violent pursuit.

“I don’t know the first thing about xiangqi; I just want to support Kazakhstan and hope they win some medals,” he told me.

Mr. Dochshamov would leave disappointed, as China team members Tang Dan took the women’s and Hong Zhi take the men’s gold. The achievement merited each of them one line of newsprint in the next day’s “China Daily.”

‘The brain is the most important muscle of all’

For chess zealots, the cultural and historic significance of xiangqi and weiqi warrant their inclusion in international sporting events.

Xiangqi’s history dates to the Warring States period (475-221 BC), and is likely based on an earlier game of Indian origin. 

“Xiangqi is a game with very deep Asian roots that is played throughout Asia; that alone means it should be included in the Asian Games,” explained Games volunteer Zhan Yonghe of Foshan, Guangdong Province. 

Xinlin Chen and Fenglan Shi are passionate teenage xiangqi players and hope to represent China at the 2014 Asian Games in South Korea. Both firmly believe in board games’ inclusion in the regional athletic competition.

“The brain is the most important muscle of all,” says Chen. “So, of course, we are athletes just as much as the competitors in other sports.”