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Prodigious: The teenage chess player Wei Yi (photo: Andreas Kontokanis, via Wikimedia Commons)

When, two days into the year, I presented the winner’s trophy at the Hastings Congress — the world’s oldest annual international chess tournament — the nationality of the recipient, Zhao Jun, was not thought worthy of comment. It would have been a matter for amazement if a Chinese had won when I first began attending the event in the late 1970s.

Yet I told the 28-year-old winner that his crushing victory was now almost predictable, given the triumphant year Chinese chessplayers had just completed. In 2014 the national men’s team won the biennial chess Olympiad — the first time since the break-up of the Soviet Union that this event had not been won by one of the nations that formerly comprised the USSR. It was clear from the emotion and open tearfulness of the winning Chinese team after the final round just how much it meant to them to have broken the dominance of what we used to call the Soviet School of Chess.

This triumph is an augury rather than a summation. Last year a Chinese, Lu Shanglei, won the world junior chess championship (for the best players under 20). Yet Lu’s performance was almost overshadowed by that of 15-year-old Wei Yi, who took the silver medal. Yi is the most prodigious chess talent to emerge since Norway’s Magnus Carlsen: indeed, in rating terms, he has beaten the precocious world champion to a number of landmarks. And in May, still only 15, Yi won the Chinese national championship. China already has the youngest ever woman’s world champion in Hou Yifan — who won the title at the age of just 16. If Yi continues to improve at his current rate, it might not be long before China holds the most coveted title of all.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect is that more Chinese still play Xiangqi than western chess — and a number of its leading players, at least of the generation before Hou Yifan and Wei Yi, played Xiangqi at a high level before they switched to what we just call “chess”. Among those who switched was a remarkable man called Liu Wenzhe, who died in 2011 at the age of 70. He had been influenced by “fraternal visits” of grandmasters from the Soviet Union in the 1950s and 1960s — part of the attempt by Moscow to seal ties with Mao’s China. But as Liu explained in his extraordinary book Chinese School of Chess, he regarded the Soviet School as excessively scientific. Liu proposed a unique Chinese chess philosophy stemming from the Book of Changes, the first records of which date from around 670BC: “According to the Book of Changes, the number 64 synthesises all objective situations.” There are, of course, 64 squares on the western chess board — though this is not true of Xiangqi in its current form, with a board of nine files and ten ranks.

Liu’s devotion to the apparently incredible idea of making China the dominant chess power was not even thwarted by the Cultural Revolution and the Gang of Four, when western chess was banned. He spent those years, from 1966 to 1976, in a state of near-starvation, translating Russian writings on chess — more than a million words of knowledge and instruction, according to the preface to his book.

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