The Kingdom’s best Cambodian chess player yearns for better opponents after beating every local challenger and dreams of travelling abroad to play masters
CHHOY Vira became a legend amongst his peers in the world of Cambodian chess when he won the first-ever National Championships last year. For his efforts, the 30-year-old received a gold medal, and a cash prize of US$1,000.
Since then, Chhoy Vira has struggled to find local opponents who can challenge him and dreams of playing in regional and world tournaments. “This is not me being boastful, but I really want to play against real opponents,” he said. “Especially with chess players from ASEAN nations because I cannot step up to the world level directly.”
The champ is a regular at Rong Roeung Sea Lareach coffee shop near Tuol Kork market, a popular haunt for local chess masters. But in recent years, Chhoy Vira has played there infrequently, preferring to eat and drink and watch other people playing, rather than rattle off a succession of easy victories.
Chhoy Vira cannot find worthy opponents in non-human form either. “Chess computers were created by man,” he remarks. “They can calculate the next seven steps. But me, I can know what happens in the next eight steps.”
Cambodian chess, or ouk chaktrung, is similar to Western chess, with slight variants in rules and starting setup. The game dates back to the early Angkorian era in AD800, and can be seen depicted in bas reliefs on Angkorian temples such as Angkor Wat and the Bayon.
Chhoy Vira says fate played a role in introducting him to the game, after his family moved from Kampong Cham to Phnom Penh. “In 1994, when I was 14 years old, destiny sent me to meet my master, Ponlok,” he recalled. “We shared the same interests, and he accepted me to be his student.
“And one year later, we started together the mission to find chess players all across Phnom Penh,” he stated, adding that Ponlok had learnt the game from Master Lak, who had been awarded a golden medal in Cambodian chess during the Sangkum Reastr Niyum regime (1954-70) of Norodom Sihanouk. By 1999, Chhoy’s reputation as the man to beat in Cambodian chess was cemented.
Tragically, Master Ponlok died in a road accident in 2006. “I will always respect him, even if I beat him many times, because without him I could not have reached the success I have,” Chhoy Vira noted, with a smile.
Chhoy compares strategies in the game of chess to strategies of war battles. “When I play, I always consider myself as top leader in the Kingdom,” he reveals. “Sometimes, I have to put the fishes [pawns] in danger as we let some infantry die. And then, we try our best to destroy the military camp before killing the rival king.”
He also showed his admiration for the leadership of Prime Minister Hun Sen. “Like playing chess, [Hun Sen] led the country with a view to the future. He knew well the positive and negative steps to take in advance. So that’s why Cambodia has developed a lot under his direction.”
The Cambodian champion can play play other forms of chess, including Russian and international, but said he doesn’t like playing under Chinese rules. After clinching the title in 2008, Chhoy Vira formed a strong relationship with the National Olympic Committee (NOC) and the Cambodian Chess Federation. Vat Chamroeun, recently appointed general secretary of the NOC, wanted Chhoy Vira to form an association, with the objective of increasing the number of competitions of Cambodian chess, and helping locals reach international level.
“I really want the people of the world know the strength of Cambodian chess players, alongside ones from India, Bulgaria and Russia,” Chhoy Vira said. “I’m not saying I’m the best one, but I won’t hesitate if someone presents me with the opportunity to play against other champions in the world.”
Suy Sopheap is a friend of Chhoy Vira from the local chess circuit.
“I believe that Vira could gain victory in international tournaments,” Suy Sopheap said. “The way that he plays is so complicated, I don’t understand his methods. It’s difficult to find his weakness.”
Sea Lareach, owner of the chess coffee shop, appreciates the talents of Chhoy Vira. “When he plays, many people come to my shop,” he said.
However, playing chess is not a profession for Chhoy Vira, and following his graduation with a bachelor’s degree in accounting in 2006, he started work with his brother. Chhoy Vira remains happy to teach others who want to learn from him, suggesting that retention of knowledge also depends on the fate of the person.