“I think in English you would call it…five points,” Jumbo told me, clearly pulling the name out of thin air. He was referring to the game that I often see him and his fellow tuk-tuk drivers playing on the sidewalks of Siem Reap. The patterns of tiny square tiles that are found on the east side of the river or across from Khmer Kitchen make for a perfect game board, easily marked with bits of chalk or stone.
In Khmer, the game is called kro, and since the Khmer word for “poor” is nearly identical, kro enthusiasts joke that their verve for the game is a major distraction from more productive endeavours.
I’ll admit that I’m a bit of a board game nerd, especially here, where it can be difficult to find a partner for a rousing game of Scrabble. I can usually hold my own in battles of trivia or wordplay, so I was excited by the idea of a brainy Khmer pastime. Unfortunately, strategy games are my Achilles’ heel, and since the guys squatting over the chalk marks on the sidewalk bore the same looks of fierce concentration as the chess experts I used to see in the parks of New York City, I was a little concerned about my chances.
Early results were not promising. The rules, which my kro tutor Sitha was able to teach me using very little English, are tremendously easy. It’s basically an amped-up version of tic-tac-toe played on a constantly expanding grid, where opponents strive to get five marks in a row first. The simplicity, however, is deceiving. There seemed to be no fail-proof tricks as in tic-tac-toe (where you should never pick the middle square first, always the corner), or if there were, they were too complicated to immediately grasp. Sitha bested me five times in a row, with most matches lasting under two minutes. Slightly embarrassed, I decided to practice on my own, promising to return when I was a worthier opponent.
Practice opportunities were not hard to come by. Computer versions of the game (with silly names like Super-Tac!) are easily downloaded, but I found them dismal company, and losing against the computer took even less time than losing to Sitha. I coaxed my boyfriend into being my warm-blooded opponent, and since he was almost as new to the game as I, a few early wins boosted my confidence. I also found that, as in bowling or billiards, my skills improved considerably after one beer, though took a nose-dive after three.
With some practice under my belt, I headed back to kro corner. I earned some street cred by pulling off a victory against a friendly young man whose nom de guerre was Naga.
After that, I had my choice of opponents – as well as an exuberant audience eager to offer advice. They urged me to play one of the resident champions, Easy, and it was during our match that I realised the same posturing and trash talking that accompanies schoolyard basketball games is expected during a good kro match. The language barrier made it a little difficult for Easy and I to intimidate each other, but we gave it our best.
“I think maybe soon you will be able to have a long rest,” Easy said.
“I think maybe you are sleeping right now,” I retorted.
It was largely through luck and whispered suggestions that I managed to beat Easy in the first game, but my spirits were buoyed by the round of applause that followed, so much so that I almost didn’t mind when Easy thoroughly decimated me in the next match.
After most of the players had wandered off, I hung around to play a game against Sitha, my original teacher, who beat me soundly. Though this student is yet to become a master, I feel as though my dabbling in kro has gained me camaraderie. Now, instead of getting offered tuk-tuk rides when I walk down the street, I get invited to sit down to a friendly game of kro.