Chinese chess king looks for an apprentice
It seems like everywhere you look in Shanghai you see people playing “Angry Birds” on their smart phones or tablets. So it’s even more impressive that the visually simple Chinese chess is making a comeback with Chinese youth, thanks to a new reality TV show, and Chinese chess legend Hu Ronghua (胡荣华).
Hu, a master of Chinese chess, started his own show on Hi Sports Channel called “Let’s play Chess together” (“弈棋耍大牌”), calling on Chinese chess fans to audition as his apprentice.
At age 66, Hu, a Shanghai resident, is one of the most brilliant chess players in China and is using this show to appeal to Chinese youth who have slowly turned away from the sport.
There’s no entry level for Chinese chess, it’s fate. If destiny calls, you will love it.— Hu Ronghua (胡荣华), Chinese chess master
Chinese Chess, just a memory?
In the 1980s and 1990s, Chinese chess games drew crowds of spectators in Shanghai's streets, parks and lanes. The interested crowds were a mix of young and old, all captivated by local matches of this traditional game.
A single well-played move could elicit cheers from a crowd. Yet such a long-lived game has lost popularity as Chinese youth turns to online games.
Today there are only a few seniors playing Chinese chess while chatting the day away in local parks and neighborhood gardens, and rarely do crowds gather like they used to.
“Fewer and fewer people are playing Chinese chess compared to a decade ago,” says Hu.
“However, for those who loved to play chess since childhood, this hobby is for ever. Chess is like this, once a love, always a love.”
Hu Ronghua takes an apprentice
To support this national pastime, Hi Sports channel decided to work with Hu on the Chinese chess program “Let’s Play Chess,” which started broadcasting its first season, which runs Monday to Friday 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. for eight weeks, in early March.
“Let’s Play Chess” has a simple premise: it invites people who want to play Chinese chess to face off during each show. Those who show the most promise can earn a coveted apprentice spot. The ultimate winner will go up against Hu himself.
“I don’t want too many people [as apprentices], just maybe five kids, ideally aged between 10 and 14 years old,” says Hu.
As the top name in Chinese chess circles, Hu is never short of potential apprentices, but he says doing a national TV show opens the pool of potential apprentices, instead of only looking at Shanghaining.
“China is too big, it’s too hard to find a non-local kid with potential without using television,” says Hu. “If I hire them through the show, people will gather from across the country. This way it’s more fair.”
In addition to getting Hu a few dedicated students, the TV show he says also serves another purpose: a recruiting call for the Shanghai Chinese chess team which is also looking to add more players to its ranks.
Charm of chess
For ordinary people, Chinese chess may appear to be simple game of black versus red, but Hu explains that there’s much more than that going on, allowing it to compete with even today’s modern games.
“Chinese chess can cultivate one’s mentality," says Hu. “The small chessboard is filled with life’s ups and downs. Seemingly winnable chess might end up in total loss, while losing games might have chances to win back.”
Playing, says Hu, helps people develop skill and patience.
Master Hu says some of the happiest moments in his life came when he thought of a move that nobody else had ever thought of, showing that his years of dedication and patience are paying off.
“That is a top-notch happiness,” he says.
When asked about what criteria he’ll be looking for in potential apprentices, Hu says he’s looking for the people the game has chosen, similar to himself.
Fewer and fewer people are playing Chinese chess compared to a decade ago. However, for those who loved to play chess since childhood, this hobby is forever.— Hu Ronghua (胡荣华), Chinese chess master
“There’s no entry level for Chinese chess, it’s fate,” he says. “If destiny calls, you will love it.”
Chinese chess advancements
Although Hu’s TV search for new talent is promising, it brings up the question of the future of Chinese chess as local youth look elsewhere for entertainment.
Hu points out that while new technology has pushed the game into a corner, Chinese chess is making its way back, using technology to relaunch the game in China.
For instance, says Hu, if you type in “Chinese chess” in Apple’s app store, there are dozens of Chinese chess apps available, with Tencent QQ's version as one of the most popular, offering the game for both the iPhone and iPad.
Other tech firms like Winger Technology (affiliated with Shanda Interactive) are also coming out with their own mobile versions of the game.
“Mobile is helping develop future of Chinese chess,” says a spokesman from Winger Technology.
“We have launched special games on smart phones and tablets such as ‘Killers of the Three Kingdoms’ [a version of Chinese chess]. Other chess and card products designed for the mobile Internet are also in development.”
Even Hu’s TV show “Let’s Play Chess” has abandoned the traditional Chinese chessboard. Instead, it mainly uses digital boards.
With all of these advances, Hu seems assured that more young people will discover Chinese chess, in both its traditional or modern form, revitalizing the game in China.