Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Chinese chess takes stage at Asian Games

GUANGZHOU: Narumi Osawa never cared much for sports. She doesn't do cardio exercise, she never hits the gym. Her training consists mainly of sitting around and moving her fingers.

"I tried running a 5-kilometer once," she said. "I didn't like it."

Osawa is one of a dedicated cadre of athletes at the Asian Games who play board games. Chess is the best known, but Osawa's sport is a new addition to the games called Weiqi, or in Japan and some other areas, Go. It has joined the games' sports program with another Chinese board game known as Xiangqi.

The games are the pride and joy of China, this year's Asian Games host.

"Weiqi is a mind sport that originated from China. It has been popularized from 2,500 years ago," the games' official blurb notes. "It fully embodies the Oriental way of thinking and ideological system, and is one of the major contributions China has made to the world civilization."

Weiqi is deceptively simple. Black and white "stones" are played one by one on a Weiqi board with 361 crosses made of 19 vertical lines and 19 horizontal lines. The object of the game is to "occupy" as much of the board as possible by surrounding your opponent's stones and thereby rendering them "dead."

Whichever player wins more area on the board wins the game. The game is widely popular throughout east Asia, where millions of people play it and programs analyzing the moves of grandmasters are a staple of late-night television.

"What I love about the game is the freedom of expression," Osawa said after her match on Wednesday. "I've been playing since I was six, and I have never seen a game that was the same. Each time you play, it's different."

Osawa noted that although computers have caught up with even the best chess players, Weiqi remains a human domain because there are five times more spaces on a Weiqi board than on a chessboard, meaning the number of possible moves and variations is vastly larger.

"I hear they are catching up, but not yet," she said. Not surprisingly, China is the country to beat in the game. But South Korea has also fielded a tough team, as has North Korea, which trains with Chinese pros.

"We can't take any of them for granted as easy wins," said Yoshitaka Morimoto, a Japanese journalist who specializes in Go for the Nihon Ki-in foundation.

Weiqi is not a big draw at the Asian Games as far as spectators are concerned.

Because of the need for unbroken attention, fans are not allowed anywhere near the players' room. Instead, they have to watch from outside on a different floor of the same building. On Wednesday, only a handful of people turned out to watch the day's action replayed move by move on a large video screen.

Osawa, a professional Go player, said that inside the game room, she was in a world of her own as she defeated her Thai opponent.

"Go is exercise for the mind," she said. "We use our mind muscles."

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