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.”