Making the right moves

01/28/2021

In both chess and Chinese chess, one careless move can be the difference between winning and losing. Players need a well-thought-out strategy, mental agility and years of practice – just to maintain consistency. Three Institute members tell Erin Hale how they began playing, the importance of thinking ahead, and their key to dominating the chessboard



Arthur Lui, Finance Manager at Charles Taylor Mutual Management (Asia) Pte. Limited, began playing Chinese chess as a kid growing up in Canada. He continued playing as a university student in California.


Keeping an open mind is an important skill needed in each game of Chinese chess, and one that has also translated years later into the workplace for Arthur Lui, Finance Manager at Charles Taylor Mutual Management (Asia) Pte. Limited and and a Hong Kong Institute of CPAs member. 

“If my mind gets stuck in one direction or way of trying to beat my opponent, the original plan almost always doesn’t end up working,” Lui says. This requires him to take a step back and look at the bigger picture. “If a single way doesn’t work, sometimes you just have to look at the big picture, find where the ultimate goal is and try to work your way around to reach it,” he adds. 

It is moments like these that draw him to a game of Chinese chess. Board games have soared in popularity around the world in the past year thanks to COVID-19-related lockdowns and televisions shows like The Queen’s Gambit on Netflix. But for some CPAs like Lui, board games are no passing fad. They credit games of strategy like chess, Chinese chess and Go, another two-player strategy board game, with helping them to develop the discipline and critical thinking skills during their school years that they later needed to succeed in careers in accounting and finance. 

Chess can be traced back to India more than a thousand years ago, spreading through Persia before it developed into its modern form in Europe in the 1600s. Chinese chess, meanwhile, has legendary roots in China’s warring states period over 2,000 years ago, while Go, once considered one of the “four essential arts of the Chinese scholar” originated some 4,000 years ago. 

Growing up in Canada, Lui began playing Chinese chess in Canada against his father. But he quickly outpaced him and began playing in a club setting in high school. “My dad first taught me how to play – but he was pretty bad at it – so after a year or two, I would challenge my uncles to a game of Chinese chess every time they visited my house. After about three years, I started getting bored of playing against my parents and uncles. I was only around 10 or 11 at the time,” he recalls. 

When Lui entered high school, he was surprised they didn’t have a Chinese chess club nor students who knew how to play Chinese chess. “I wanted to find more people to play with, so I decided to found the Chinese chess club,” he adds. When he eventually went to university in California, he had less time to devote to pastimes, but still managed to visit the occasional bubble tea café in Los Angeles for a game of Chinese chess.

Lui was truly able to hone his skills as a student through practice, study, and interacting with players from different backgrounds at the cafés. Many of the lessons learned along the way, he adds, have stuck with him in the workplace.

“When I had just founded the Chinese chess club in high school, I realized I didn’t really know how to play strategically or in a methodical way,” Lui recalls. “I purchased books to help myself improve and brought them to the Chinese chess club during lunch hour to try and engage with other members. We would talk about classic Chinese chess strategies.”

One key strategy, Lui notes, is knowing how to think outside the box. “By taking my time and being creative, I find there is more than one solution to attack an opponent. Some strategies may be better than others, but I have to be able to come up with them first, before I can decide on which one to use,” he says. 

Playing International chess and Chinese chess also gave him different kinds of perspectives. In International chess, the pieces are ranked in power: the king mostly stays put while queen has the most weight followed by the bishop, knight, castle and all the way down to the pawn. In Chinese chess, all pieces are of the same value. 

“In Chinese chess, the attacking pieces have a much [more equal] value on the board. So during a game, every piece counts, as opposed to International chess, where you might want to sacrifice a weaker piece to maintain your stronger pieces. In Chinese chess, things are more even,” he said. 

Learning to play such strategic games, however, has helped him in his work life to visualize problems and plot his way out of a challenging situation. “There are always occasions where I feel like I’m at the bottom or about to lose. But if I persevere or challenge myself, I can change the outcome and overcome any obstacles.”

 


“If my mind gets stuck in one direction or way of trying to beat my opponent, the original plan almost always doesn’t end up working.”


Emil Chung, Vice President at Cassia Investments, has played chess all his life. He fell into the hobby as a secondary school student in Hong Kong and formed a chess club in Australia, where he also attended school.


Taking time, planning ahead  

Emil Chung says playing board games are akin to giving your brain a workout. “Playing chess or Go helps you to think ahead. The whole point of the game of chess in general, I would say, is to anticipate how your opposition will move,” says Emil Chung, Vice President at Cassia Investments, a consumer-focused private equity company, and an Institute member. “The more advanced you are, the better you are at thinking five steps ahead. Thinking ahead helps you to anticipate how the game will evolve and all the variations. It can get quite complicated,” he says. 

Chung began playing chess as well as Go while he was a high school student in Hong Kong and later in Australia. “When I studied in Melbourne for high school, my passion followed me there. Then when the Internet came about, I was able to find players online. They were just very friendly games. I remember just waiting for anybody to play chess with online,” he recalls.

“After studying in high school, there was a chess club at the University of Melbourne. That’s where I saw people playing Go, and why I played it there during my four years at university.” In a game of Go, pieces are added with each move as players try to capture the most territory on the board, with the game increasing in complexity as time goes on. 

While his time playing both games has waned since then, as he found himself busy with work and family, the challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 pushed Chung to think five steps ahead. 

“Both games help me to think ahead. Not only do they help me anticipate what my clients or management may say or do in my day-to-day, but I have a clearer idea about the direction of a business. I think of five steps to achieve a goal, but when one step doesn’t work, I think about five next steps to fix it,” Chung explains. “This thinking process has been quite important, especially after being hit by the pandemic last year, which was one of the most challenging years in my whole career. Playing chess has helped with my mental performance and mental health at work and outside of work.”  


“The more advanced you are, the better you are at thinking five steps ahead. Thinking ahead helps you to anticipate how the game will evolve and all the variations.”


Kingston Ho, Non-Executive Director at Connect Academy Trust, hones his skills by playing against a computer. He is based in London.


Racing against time

For Kingston Ho, time is of the essence – especially in a nerve-wracking chess game. “My toughest opponent has always been the clock!” says Ho, Non-Executive Director at Connect Academy Trust, and an Institute member. Ho, who plays both Chinese and International chess, remembers one neck-to-neck tournament game back in secondary school where he managed to outmanoeuvre his competitor by playing faster.

“There wasn’t much hope of winning, so instead, I decided to go for a draw,” says Ho. His opponent failed to keep up with Ho’s quick new strategy and began running out of time. “Both timers were going to end soon, so he began to rush his moves. Finally, with a bit of luck, I got myself into a position where I could not move any of my remaining pieces, and the game ended with a draw,” he says. 

Each game of chess, Ho explains, has a slightly different objective and philosophy, but they are all strategic. In chess and Chinese chess, players try to capture an opponent’s “king” although pieces and maneuvers vary as International chess is the only version with the all-powerful queen. “In both Chinese and International chess there are many classic openings, or gambits. The queen’s gambit is a famous one in International chess, in which the white side loses a pawn in exchange for initiative,” explains Ho. Initiative refers to threats made by the player that cannot be ignored, which put an opponent in the position of having to spend turns responding to threats rather than creating new threats. “If the black side ‘dances’ to the music, white will take down a pawn after a few moves, squaring off on pieces and maintaining initiative gained. It is important to gain knowledge in the latest traps and tricks, and the corresponding best practice responses.”

Ho, who is based in London, keeps his skills sharp by playing against a computer. Online games against a computer give players the flexibility to play whenever and wherever they want, but as Ho notes, it can feel somewhat impersonal. While outsmarting a computer at a game of chess can be difficult, it isn’t as challenging as playing against a human opponent. “I guess supercomputers will one day outplay all human players, but I believe that strategy and other abstract thought is still beyond the reach of machines, perhaps until the day artificial intelligence and machines can compute their own probabilities and make judgements accordingly,” Ho says. 

Technology, however, has helped to bridge the gap between human and machine, adds Ho, noting that with options like Zoom and Skype, players can compete against friends in real time online – even during a pandemic. “In the past, playing in real life offered social interaction and enhanced bonding, as players could see and talk to each other face-to-face. Online games lacked this element. Nowadays, advances in technology have removed this limitation. But due to lockdowns, players can only play through online platforms,” Ho says. 

Ho is content that technology allows him to keep practicing chess, especially as lockdowns remain in place in London, noting that more time at home allows former and current chess enthusiasts to spend more time reconnecting with their interests with friends at home and abroad. 


“My toughest opponent has always been the clock!”

Trying a new challenge

Despite the many benefits of chess and Go, the legacy and reputation surrounding these games can make them intimidating for beginners – especially adult learners. Fortunately, technology has made it much easier for newcomers to try their luck in their own time, and also learn basic rules and strategy, says Lui. 

“Historically, newcomers could just join a club. There were often places with advertisements that welcome beginners to join and try playing the game. But nowadays, both learning and trying the game can easily be done online. There are many websites and applications that allow one to play Chinese chess [and other games]. People of all skills and range can practice online,” he says. 

Chung agrees, adding that the Internet has also opened up resources to learn more about strategy. Whereas players once needed specialty books, they can now learn about how to become a better player, right on their smartphone. “Newcomers can start learning how to play chess or Go by watching online tutorials to learn the basic moves and then download an app to start playing. They can adjust the difficulty level from beginner onwards,” he says. “My advice would be to enjoy the game, as the more you play, the more moves you will learn.”

Players, however, shouldn’t rely on technology too much, Ho cautions, adding that habits such as reviewing ones moves after a game concludes is crucial for improvement. While the Internet can make that easier, it’s a vital step that should be performed by each player themselves if they want to improve.


“Though many online chess games offer users the option to download a record at the end of a game, beginners should make it a habit to record and review their own past games so that bad moves can be identified, and better moves can be formulated for next time. This is one effective way to improve,” Ho says. 


Chess can be traced back to India more than a thousand years ago, spreading through Persia before it developed into its modern form in Europe in the 1600s. Chinese chess, meanwhile, has legendary roots in China’s warring states period over 2,000 years ago, while Go, once considered one of the “four essential arts of the Chinese scholar” originated some 4,000 years ago.