In SEA Games debut, Cambodian chess gets a spotlight

Chheav Bora’s calm demeanour gives little away, even over the chess board.

If it weren’t for the intermittent congratulations from his teammates, there’d be no way to tell the former King of Cambodian Chess had just won another high-stakes match of ouk chaktrang, the variant of the game most popular in Cambodia.

As crowned by subsequent victories in national chess competitions of 2014 and 2015, Bora was humble and soft-spoken as he waited for his teammates to finish their matches. They were all playing for the home team in this year’s, Southeast Asian Games (SEA Games), hosted in Phnom Penh.

Bora was happy to be there – it was his first time representing Cambodia on the national team. In fact, it was the first time ouk was played in the regional sporting event across its 32 iterations. 

As the host country, Cambodia added the chess game to the roster of 37 different sports for the games, which drew to a close on Wednesday night.

“Whenever I play chess, I feel super calm,” Bora said after his SEA Games match, held on a balmy afternoon at the Royal University of Phnom Penh. “It makes me think consciously – whenever I want to do something, the way that I think, [the way] my mind processes, the order is not messy.”

Ouk is distinct from international chess in several ways, and though the variant is played throughout the Mekong region, many SEA Games athletes had to quickly learn the rules ahead of time to participate in this year’s contest. As ouk undergoes a resurgence in the Kingdom, the regional sporting event provided a showcase for the game on a wider stage, elevating the style to a new level of play and a never-before-seen visibility at home and around the world.

Still, despite what some might consider an inherent advantage, it wasn’t all easy for team Cambodia. Players from Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar, the Philippines and Malaysia were stiff competition for a team that might seem like it would have a home-field edge. 

“The Philippines and Malaysia, we had no idea that they would play very well like this,” said Pen Khemararasmey, another member of the Cambodian team.

The exclusion of international chess from the games met with some grumbles from the Philippines, where the ouk variant was unknown. But that isn’t such a bad thing, according to Kuch Kimlong, the president of the Cambodian Ouk Chaktrang Federation.

“Through the 32nd SEA Games event, [ouk] is becoming popular for people of ASEAN countries,” he said, pointing to the variant’s presence in Thailand and Vietnam. “They like to play this game very much.”

They also turned out to be pretty good at it. 

The rival Thais walked away with four gold medals, the most of any team through the seven ouk events, and Vietnam bagged two. 

Overall, Cambodia’s chess team closed out the SEA Games with one gold medal, four silvers, and one bronze. Bora, the former King of Chess, ended up placing second in the men’s triple 60-minute final event, netting a silver medal.

A modern tradition with ancient roots

Though ouk is typically described as Cambodian chess, the game is also popular in Thailand, where it’s known as makruk, and in Myanmar as sittuyin

Believed to have possibly split more than 1,000 years ago from chaturanga, an Indian ancestor of the internationally known version of chess, the exact historical roots of the game are lost to history. The progenitor of ouk may have come to Southeast Asia with travelling merchants by about 800 AD.

In the Angkorian period, at least two kings built temples and shrines with bas reliefs depicting what could be a version of the game. Today, ouk is commonly played in cafes and parks by tuk-tuk drivers, nine-to-fivers and anyone else who knows the rules and is up for a challenge. 

Ouk chaktrang is a part of Cambodian national identity,” said Bora, “there is a sculpture [of it] on the wall of Angkor Wat.” 

The pieces used in the game are the same as those used in international chess. But their names and rules of play are very different.

Where international chess calls pieces pawns, rook, knight, bishop, queen and king, a player of ouk would refer to them respectively as the fish, boat, horse, pillar, maiden and king. 

Both games share the aim of capturing an opponent’s king but vary in the ways of getting there. For international chess, the queen is the most powerful piece on the board, able to move as far as it likes in any direction. In ouk, the maiden can only move a single square at a time, and strictly on a diagonal line.

To find potential champions of this tiny battlefield, the Cambodian team drafted players through rounds of qualifications. This included recruiting competitors, such as Bora, who have already dominated the sport in the country, but also finding new faces with players who learned on the streets and in cafes.

The sound of clattering pieces and calls of “ouk”, which is said in the same way an international player would say “check” when attacking the king, are common in such settings.

While the game has always been held as a national pastime within Cambodia, Bora thinks recent years have seen an increase in its popularity.

“In the past, after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, most of the Cambodian chess players passed away,” he said. “Now, gradually, Cambodia is getting back a lot of ouk chaktrang players.” 

As the game’s visibility expands, its base of players might stand to change with the times. 

Ouk has traditionally been seen in Cambodia as a male pastime – while women are often expected to go home from work to care for their households, men are free to retire to cafes or other drinking spots where they can play with friends. 

National team member Khemararasmey, one of the women who represented Cambodian chess in the SEA Games, said she only learned how to play because her father owned a cafe where men gathered over ouk

She grew up around the game and said she doesn’t remember exactly when she learned to play. But when she heard ouk was to be featured in the SEA Games, she was quick to enter the qualifiers and win a spot on the national team. 

She hopes the future will see more women included at ouk boards around the country. 

“The society has changed, the next generation is more open,” she said. “After the SEA Games, this game will attract more women in Cambodia to play, because this game is very nice, it trains us to think, to be patient, to work hard.”

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SEA Games end with a bang in Phnom Penh

Adrenalin was high amid flashes of lightning in the humid air of Phnom Penh as spectators crowded into the new 60,000 capacity, Chinese-built Morodok Techo National Stadium. 

Amid performers intermingling national flags and fireworks echoing like a starting pistol, a flame was extinguished and the Southeast Asian Games were declared closed. 

The 17 May ceremony signalled the close  of the 32nd iteration of the bi-annual regional sports event. The Kingdom’s first time as host saw participants from 11 Southeast Asian countries vie for victory in 37 different sports, the highest number of any SEA Games so far. 

Now, at the finish line of more than two weeks of intense competition, the games have strengthened national identities, resurfaced old rivalries and laid the terrain for new sports and generations of future athletic champions from the region. 

There were 581 medals at stake in this year’s games, with last year’s host Vietnam yet again emerging in pole position with 355 medals in total, including 136 gold. 

The country set a winning pace when they beat Cambodia and gained an early victory over Laos in the “Group of Death” qualifying football tournament, which took place before the games’ official opening during the week of 24 April. 

The Vietnamese team racked up further victories in track and field, three-cushion carom billiards and Kun Khmer kickboxing, putting their final tally a commanding 42 ahead of Thailand, which came in second place with 313 medals. Indonesia placed third, with Cambodia taking fourth. 

On the other end of the spectrum, Timor-Leste trailed in 11th place, with eight bronze medals spread across taekwondo, boxing and karate. 

But behind the medal tallies are individual stories of personal motivation and achievement, particularly for host-country Cambodia. 

Runner Bou Samnang, 20, went viral after fighting to complete the women’s 5,000m race in a heavy downpour. Though she came in last, Samnang inspired viewers with her determination to reach the finish-line on behalf of the Kingdom.

Fellow Cambodian Chhun Bunthorn made history when he won the country’s first gold medal for athletics after clinching first place in the 800m race. The games also saw the entry of Cambodia’s women’s football team qualifying for the semi-finals. 

The team had spent six months training in China as part of an official arrangement, according to Sareth Keo, general secretary of the Cambodia Football Association.

“Beforehand, we never used to focus so much on women’s football,” Sareth said. “Now, the women’s team is doing better than the men’s.” 

Inspirational narratives aside, the games weren’t without their share of drama that ran contrary to the otherwise carefully constructed messages of regional collaboration and friendship. 

Thailand boycotted the Kun Khmer event after unsuccessfully demanding Cambodia refer to the sport as Muay Thai. The fighting disciplines are very similar, enough to where the countries regularly host cross-border bouts, and both sides claim to be originators of the style.

Fighting also broke out on the football field during the men’s football final on 16 May, which erupted into a brawl between the Indonesian and Thai teams. 

Coaches and players tore into each other following Indonesia’s mistaken early exit from the pitch, allowing Thailand to equalise 2-2 on a penalty. Five red cards were handed out to each team, and Indonesia eventually gained a 5-2 victory, winning their first gold medal in the sport.  

But despite the fierce rivalries, regional alliances and building relations lies at the roots of the SEA Games. 

“[It] is always an excellent opportunity to unite countries to rally and support their country’s best athletes … [and] also an opportunity for cultural exchange,” said Emily Ortega, head of psychology programme and sports psychology specialist at Singapore’s University of Social Sciences. 

The region’s largest sporting event has its origins in the first Southeast Asian Peninsular Games in 1958, following a delegates’ meeting that same year at the Asian Games in Tokyo. 

The brainchild of Luang Sukhum Nayapradit, then-vice president of the Thailand Olympic Committee, the first SEAP Games took place in Bangkok eight years before the founding of the ASEAN bloc. 

Hosted under the late King Bhumibol, the event welcomed more than 527 regional athletes from the six founding countries – Thailand, Burma, Malaya, Singapore, South Vietnam and Laos – who competed across 12 sports. In an early hint of the political considerations that attend the games, host Thailand made the inaugural event exclusive to neighbours which shared its anti-communist interests.

The SEAP Games Federation was founded the next year with a symbol of six interlinked gold rings, each representing a founding nation. 

The recent games also served as an opportunity for regional leaders to meet and discuss bilateral collaboration. The visiting Laos President Thoungloun Sisoulith reportedly had discussions with Hun Sen about enhanced disaster relief collaboration. And as Timor-Leste progresses towards its goal of ASEAN membership, former Timorese President Xanana Gusmão’s attendance at the opening ceremonies could be seen as a public sign of strengthened ties between the two countries. 

But hosting countries can also capitalise on the opportunity to boost their own soft power and national interests, not just through the selection of sports.

For this year’s SEA Games, the $160 million stadium that hosted the opening ceremony, neighbouring 3,000-capacity aquatic centre and 6,100 bed athlete village are a signal of Cambodia’s status to the wider region. Accommodation and food for the 5,300 athletes is estimated to have cost the Kingdom approximately $550,000, an investment in regional status.

Geopolitics aside, for many athletes, the games represent a cherished opportunity to compete on the world stage. 

For some, it was a long time coming. Cambodian football organiser Keo is a former professional footballer who used to play on the national team. He says he would have loved to represent his country, but his peak fitness and playing years coincided with the era when the Khmer Rouge’s brutal rule from 1975-79. 

Now, as the closing ceremony draws near, he feels a sense of victory for Cambodia that is not related to the medal tally or the evolving diplomatic relations, but a sense of history overcome.

“We have been waiting for 64 years,” he said. “This is about more than sport, more than football.”

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