The making of a Cambodian chess champion: from pagoda to podium

Cheav Bora, 24, plays chess in Toul Kork.
Cheav Bora, 24, plays chess in Toul Kork. Hong Menea

The making of a Cambodian chess champion: from pagoda to podium

Cambodia’s answer to Bobby Fischer barely looked at the chessboard as he decimated his opponent in 31 turns at a Tuol Kork coffee shop last Tuesday.

For most of the five minutes the game lasted, the polite but unsmiling Cheav Bora casually chatted on his mobile phone as he seemingly gave no thought to the game.

At one point he took a moment out of the call to lecture his rival on the finer points of Cambodian chess.

“Why did you take my piece?” he asked, pointing out that, in making the move, his challenger had inadvertently put his rook into the path of a bishop, which has the ability to advance forward in the Kingdom’s rule book.

Bora was last week’s winner at the 2014 Hun Sen Traditional Chess Championships during the 2014 Angkor Sankranta Khmer New Year celebrations at Siem Reap last week.

The 24-year-old architecture student at Norton Universit took home a $3,800 prize which he used to buy a new motorbike.

Bora, who is originally from Kampong Cham, had never played chess when he first arrived in Phnom Penh six years ago to attend university. He picked up the game quickly, he said, adding that his friends often play for drinks or pocket riel and that he wins around 70 per cent of the time.

Although much has been made on social media of Bora’s residence in a pagoda, with many Facebook users describing him as the poor “pagoda boy” who became a chess champion, Bora downplayed his humble origins in a recent interview.

“I stay in Nagawon pagoda with my uncle, who is a monk, because my uncle wanted me to stay with him and there is no need to pay for rent. For expenses like food and clothes, I get support from my family, and my university fee is from my uncle.”

Though he is a pro with the Cambodian rules, Bora said he is ignorant when it comes to the strategies of Western chess.

Descended from the same Indian game that inspired its European counterpart, a game of the Cambodian variety, known as ouk, starts with an empty row between the pawns and other pieces. Pawns, which are in the shape of fish, can only move one space for the first move, while bishops can only be moved one space at a time but can move both forward and diagonally.

The queen, which is powerful elsewhere, can only move one step diagonally. But the knights and rooks follow the same rules as in the West, and the game is still won by achieving checkmate. Although it is not known exactly how long the game has been played in Cambodia, it appears to be depicted on bas reliefs in Angkor Wat and the Bayon.

Thailand, Laos and Myanmar all have their own chess varieties with only minor differences from ouk, explained Ly Hout, chairman of the Cambodia Chess Federation. A regionally standardised version, known as ASEAN chess, is played at the biennial Southeast Asian Games, although last year’s games in Myanmar also featured a competition with Burmese rules. When Phnom Penh hosts the games in 2023, Hout said, it is hoped that the unique rules of ouk will also have a spot.

Hout said the large cash prizes raised by Angkor Beer and individual sponsors at last week’s championships serve as evidence the game is being taken seriously in the Kingdom.

“The event can prove a lot of Cambodian people are playing chess, because the prize is a big amount.”

For Bora, traditional chess is an essential part of Cambodian culture which he aims to do his part to promote.

“I want to develop chess, to play at the championship every year because I want to keep the culture alive.”

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