Players test their patience and skill in a game that has its roots in Cambodia’s ancient Angkorian kingdoms
Chess players at Cafe Truc Ly on Street 143 in Phnom Penh.
On any given day and at any given time across Phnom Penh, there is likely to be raucous games of Khmer chess, or ouk, taking place in cafes and on street corners across the city.
Ouk has long been a popular pastime for Cambodians, and records of the game in the Kingdom date back to at least Angkorian times, as is evidenced by bas reliefs on the walls of Angkor Wat, the Bayon and the Preah Khan temple.
Often heard before seen, the game takes its name from the sound that the wooden game pieces make when they are slammed onto the game board, a key aspect of putting one's opponent in check. Ouk also means "check" in Khmer.
Played mainly by men, the rules of Khmer chess are very similar to the rules of chess in the West, aside from a few essential differences.
Both games are played on a wooden board with 64 squares, although Khmer chessboards do not have the familiar checked pattern.
There are 32 "chessmen", or pieces, 16 for each player as in Western chess, but the names and shapes of the "men" in Khmer chess are distinctly Cambodian.
The small, flat pieces are called fish. Often interchangeable with bottle caps, fish correspond to pawns in the Western version of the game.
The bishop is the general, and is shaped like a two-tiered stupa, knights are horses and retain the horse-head shape; rooks are called boats, and are fat and round; the queen, or neang, is short and rounded with a pointy top; and the king, or sdaach, is the tallest of them all, and is in the shape of a three-tiered stupa.
chess is a battle. each player's men are like an army
protecting the king.
Each game piece has a set of rules as to which direction they can move, many of which closely match the movements of their Western counterparts.
As in Western chess, the object of the game is to capture the opponent's king. When the opponent's king is in check (or in the line of fire) the player attacking the king must say ouk (check). If the king cannot move out of danger, the attacker wins the game.
"You have to be very clever to play chess," said Vang Vuth, who has been playing chess for about two years now.
Vang Vuth learned how to play the game when he started frequenting Cafe Truc Ly on Street 143.
The cafe supplies patrons with wooden chessboards and chessmen, and is often packed with enthusiastic chess players.
"At first I would just come here and watch people play," said Vang Vuth. "Then I slowly began to pick the game up day by day. Now I come here to play ouk everyday. I usually play about five games a day."
Battle of wits
Vang Vuth explains that no matter what time of the day he goes to the cafe, there are always people there playing round after round of the game, or looking for another challenger.
"Sometimes the loser might give up his spot to another player, but more often than not they keep playing because the loser always wants to take revenge," said Vang Vuth.
Sok Keng, a Phnom Penh taxi driver and an ardent chess player since 1993, plays chess on a weekly basis, depending on his time schedule.
"I like to play chess because it is a battle. Each player's men are like an army protecting the king. Even the king is involved in the battle," he said.
Although most chess players in Cambodia do not play the game for money but rather as a way of exercising their mind, the annual chess tournament presents a lucrative opportunity.
The first Khmer Chess Tournament was held in May 2008, and was organised by the Cambodian Chess Association and the Olympic Committee of Cambodia in an effort to standardise the rules of chess in Cambodia, as well as showcase the Kingdom's top players.
Players spent three days vying for the title of champion chess master, and the grand prize of US$1,000 was awarded to 28-year old Chhoy Vira of Phnom Penh. Second and third place winners took home $700 and $500 respectively.
While most players appear excited about the prospect of one day competing for the big prize, for now they are quite happy to play the game as a form of entertainment.
"Really in the end, it's all about having fun," said Sok Keng.