Game time: Urumqi checkers

Gamers, they’re everywhere: in markets, at tourist attractions, on the street – literally, on the street.

From Beijing to Urumqi old men and women create a background symphony to daily life with the slap of cards in a game of Go or the loud crack of a checkers piece claimed in a lightening fast round. Less so in Kashgar, where they preferred to sit around drinking tea and eating ice cream.

I walked past many of these games, doing the same slow-motion sticky beak people usually reserve for car accidents.

I saw parks full of gamers and watched police take time out from a patrol to investigate the state of play, but I never received more than a glazed look from the audience, their expressions similar to those worn by teenagers who are enslaved by their computer.

So it was with surprise that, whilst wandering a side market in the Uyghur part of Urumqi, my sticky beaking met with imperative waves to join a checkers game.

At first I hesitated – how does one go about playing a game whose name you’re guessing at, where the rules are unknown, the pieces indecipherably coded in Chinese characters, and against veterans? With bravado.

I sat. We began.

My opponent, who it appeared had made quick work of the old men gathered around us, made an initial play. I copied. He made another quick move seemingly without even thinking. I copied. He put another counter into position. Bugger. This time I might have to think for myself.

I pretended to consider a move, before hovering my hand over a piece. Disapproving rumbles emanated from behind me. I hovered elsewhere, more rumbles. I gave up at all pretence and moved a piece, which was swiftly moved back into position by an arm appearing over my shoulder and another moved in its place.

Ok, I thought, I can do this. Or rather, my team can.

The game continued in this vein.

To start with I was given a chance to move pieces, before the collective experience behind me withdrew my right to immediate decision making and negotiated among themselves the best moves to make.

And yet, I still lost. Thanks guys.

But it wasn’t over. The board was rebuilt and it was all on for round two. Unfortunately it wasn’t until half way through round four that I started to work out the pieces and the moves they were allowed to make.

I went through three opponents in about five or six games, the last abandoned when some customers showed up and pretended meagre interest in the tacky objects in my final opponent’s stall.

That and the novelty factor of playing the white chick had descended into frustration and disappointment at my hopelessness at the game.

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