Saturday, February 23, 2013

Human Chess in Vietnam

                                                            by Jim Goodman

arrival of the  opposing teams
     Since its introduction into Vietnam several centuries ago the Chinese version of chess has become a popular national pastime. Players set up little cloth chessboards in the public parks, using wooden disks inscribed with the Chinese character that identifies the piece. Less frequently, they may be seen hovering over their game in a coffee house or bia hơi. Chess is one of the entertainment activities in many village festivals, with a row of chessboards lining one of the lanes outside the temple compound.
     In fact, one Hanoi temple holds a chess tournament as its annual festival. Named for the legendary chess player Đế Thích and built to venerate him as the patron spirit of all chess players, the temple, also known as Chùa Vua, stands on Thịnh Yên Street in Hanoi’s Hai Bà Trưng district. For three days, beginning the 6th day of the first lunar month, players pair off and play, winners then facing winners until the third day, when a champion finally emerges. Temple authorities present him with a special chess set that is displayed in the Đế Thích temple on for one year, after which he can keep it in his home.
a popular game in Vietnam
     Westerners used to their own version of chess will find the Vietnamese game a bit difficult to follow. The objective is the same—to capture or checkmate the king (in this case the general)—and many of the pieces have their exact counterparts. But the Vietnamese/Chinese version has pieces which are different, no queen or equivalent, some pieces restricted to a small area and a different initial set-up.
     The grid of the chessboard is similar, but larger. The pieces do not occupy the spaces, as in Western chess, but the points at the intersections of the lines. Each side has five ranks and nine files. The general sits in the middle file of the back rank. On each side of him sit his mandarins. The movements of these three, the general non-diagonally, the mandarins diagonally, are limited to the points beside them and two ranks in front, an area known as the castle. To their sides are the elephants, which can only move two unoccupied points diagonally and no further than the fifth rank. Next to them are the horses, which move one point forward or sideways and one point diagonally. Finally, at the flanking files are the chariots. Like the rooks in Western chess, they can move non-diagonally any number of points.
Chùa Vua chess tournament
     Two ranks in front of the horses are the two cannons, which move like chariots, except when capturing a piece. Then they have to leap a piece from either side, called the screen, to make the move. On every other point in the rank in front of the cannon stand the five soldiers. They move one point forward. But after the fifth rank, which is unoccupied in the beginning, a river divides one side from the other. Elephants may not cross the river. But when soldiers cross the river they can then move one point sideways or forwards.
human chess pieces
     Some of the festival venues have large chessboards painted on a field beside or within the compound. Flag chess is played on such a ground. The pieces are represented by flags, with the appropriate identifying Chinese ideograph, mounted on metal poles, which players insert into holes at the points on the chess ground. The opponents play the game by moving the flags around.
     The same kind of chess ground is used for human chess, the most spectacular form of the game. In this version humans, one set of boys and one set of girls, play the role of the pieces. They dress in fancy costumes befitting their roles in the game, in contrasting colors. One side yellow and the other side red, for example, or the boys might dress in yellow trimmed with green, while the girls dress in green trimmed with yellow. Key pieces like the general might wear different colors. The participants are usually adolescents and village elders choose them according to their moral standing in the community. (That’s not such a hard task, since villagers all know which families have good reputations and which do not.)
moving the 'pieces' while the drummer plays
     An older male beating a gong leads the boys onto the chess ground, while an older woman beating a drum leads the girls. When all have taken their places the players emerge. Each wears a scarf around his waist the color of his team and carries a tasseled stick or pennant. When directing a move the player walks over to the boy or girl playing the piece, waves the stick, then walks over to the intended point to move to and waves the stick again. The boy or girl then moves to the new position. If one is captured then that boy or girl moves off the ground.
contemplating the next move
     To heighten the tension a man plays a drum while he follows each player as he deliberates his move. Meanwhile, at the side of the ground a woman narrates the progress of the game by song. Sometimes she improvises. Other times she sings a set piece lamenting the “death” of a soldier, elephant, etc. and a mournful one for the captured general at the end. Beside her table stands a large board depicting the game as it progresses. This is for the audience to watch, for they may have trouble following the game when they are standing at the same level as the players and the pieces.The players themselves never glance at the board. They remain on the field with the pieces. They do not direct their moves from towers at either end of the ground, with a broad overlook akin to bending over a chessboard. They cannot see the whole field at once so cannot have a clear view of all the positions. It is a much more difficult way to play. The game itself is analogous to war, with its generals, soldiers and cannon. Playing human chess is like commanding troops in an arena of hand-to-hand combat.
But that is the whole point of human chess. It is more difficult to play this way, so the winner is better appreciated, both by the audience and by himself. And with its ritual presentation, gorgeous costumes and musical accompaniment this version of chess is more enjoyable to watch. As an exalted form of a popular game, human chess is a uniquely Vietnamese form of entertainment.
human chess at the Chèm festival
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