WHEN China's paramount leader Deng Xiaoping recently trounced him at bridge, Nie Weiping didn't mind losing.
"Deng often wins," says Mr. Nie nonchalantly.
But while understandably submissive as a frequent guest at Mr. Deng's card table, Nie is fiercely competitive as a master of the Chinese chess game weiqi (pronounced "way-chee").
"I love any competitive games, anything with winners and losers," says Nie Weiping (Nee-yah Way-ping) in the gruff tones of his native Beijing. "When I play, I am unyielding."
By far China's best player, Nie is one of the world's top five or six weiqi masters and has won dozens of national tournaments. Over the past decade, he has almost single-handedly restored China's reputation as a force to contend with in weiqi, more commonly known in the West by its Japanese name, "go."
Chinese invented weiqi some 3,000 to 4,000 years ago as an instrument of astrology and expression of the yin and yang of Taoism. The grid-like board with its rounded, white-and-black stones, evolved into the world's oldest chess game.
But during the Sui and Tang Dynasties (581-907), Japan imported the game and gradually eclipsed China in technique and skill. So when Nie led the Chinese team to victory against Japan in 1985 for the first time in decades, it was an epochal, jubilant event for China - and an extreme loss of face for Japan.
"The Japanese who lost all shaved their heads," says Nie with a grin. "They had to apologize to the Japanese people for their offense."
Bespectacled and boyish, with scruffy hair and a slight paunch, the middle-aged chess master displays an absent-mindedness that masks genius. Once seated before the weiqi board, his bookish persona evaporates and "Whirlwind Nie" takes control.
"When the wind blows, it is devastating!" bemoaned the top-ranked, or nine-dan Japanese masters shocked by their loss to Nie, then a 24-year-old upstart, at a Tokyo tournament in 1976.
Nie owes his childhood interest in the intellectually demanding game to his father, a high-ranking Beijing official, who greatly enjoyed weiqi. "I learned by watching my father," says Nie. Initially, Nie's goal was to beat his younger brother, who, to Nie's chagrin, was the better player.
But a more decisive influence on Nie's progress was the intervention of Marshal Chen Yi, an ex-Red Army general and China's foreign minister. Like Chinese emperors, generals, and scholar-officials for centuries before him, Marshal Chen was a chess enthusiast and not a bad player.
Historically, to be skilled at weiqi was one of four qualities considered essential for a cultured Chinese. The other three were the ability to play the qin (a stringed instrument), write fine calligraphy, and paint in the traditional ink-and-brush style. As commander of the New Fourth Army during the 1940s revolutionary war, Chen had the habit of playing weiqi in the midst of directing a battle, according to Hua Yigang, the coach of China's national team.
When Chen learned of Nie's talents in the early 1960s, he immediately sent a chess master, Guo Tisheng, to live with the boy and tutor him. Soon Nie could beat Chen, at whose home he often played. By 1965, Nie had won the national championship for his age group. He was 13.
One day, Chen sat Nie down for a pep talk. "Weiqi," he began, "is a Chinese game, but it was driven away by the Japanese," Nie recalls Chen saying. "China has nuclear weapons, but no nine-dan weiqi player. If you become a master, you will meet Mao Zedong," the marshal said.
"This was a great motivation for me," Nie says.
Soon afterward, ironically, Mao launched the radical 1966-76 Cultural Revolution and came close to ruining Nie's career and eradicating the game. In 1969, Nie was "sent down" to labor in the countryside with millions of other urban youths. Living in a remote village in the harsh northern borderland of Heilongjiang Province, Nie toiled planting beans and wheat. He was often hungry and exhausted.
Mao was attacking all aspects of ancient Chinese culture, so few people dared play weiqi. Nie did, secretly, pitting his left hand against his right. But these games ended when Mao's rebel faction arrived to "supervise" the village.
Despite the lack of practice, Nie says hardship may have improved his game. "Before, my outlook was narrow, but in Heilongjiang the land stretched to the horizon. It opened my eyes," he says. "The environment was bitter, but this tempered my willpower."
In 1973, as the Maoist violence ebbed, Premier Zhou Enlai, a friend of Marshal Chen, managed to revive the national weiqi team. Nie, then 21, was begrudgingly given a place on it. "At first, everyone thought I was a fake, that I had no ability and was just trying to get out of the countryside," a major preoccupation of city youths at the time, Nie says.
Then, in 1974, a Japanese nine-dan player arrived for a tour of China. After he easily defeated six Chinese, no one else dared play him, so Nie was given a chance. He beat the Japanese in just 2 1/2 hours.
Quoting a Chinese proverb, Nie says, "The newborn calf does not fear the tiger."GRAPHICCHINESE CHESS: Spectators surround two players in a Yuan Dynasty (1280-1368) mural from Shanxi Province; image, upper left, is Tang Dynasty (618-906) silk painting unearthed in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region.GRAPHICNIE WEIPING: The Japanese 'go' masters he helped defeat shaved their heads and apologized to the nation.