The Cambodian chessboard is 9 x 9 cells in size - see diagram below.
There are a total of 36 MPs/mps (18 pieces for each player)…
1 King KI
2 Rook RO1 and RO2
2 Knight KT1 and KT2
2 Elephant EP1 and EP2
2 Official OF1 and OF2
9 Fish FH1 to FH9
There are a total of 18 MPs/mps per side in Cambodian chess.
Moving ability of the Cambodian Fish
Monogram: Fish (FH) FH1, FH2, FH3 etc.
First Move Option: (FMO): 1 cell straight forward
Capture (*): 1 cell straight forward
All other Moves: (AOM): moves the same as a KI (2nd move)
Promotable (#): No (FHs move as KIs on the top 4 ranks).
The KI is the same as used in traditional chess.
The RO is the same as used in traditional chess.
The KT is the same as used in traditional chess.
The Elephants (EP1 and EP2) move as a KI but are not permitted to capture behind. Note: The EL (elephant) is used in Shatranj, EL1 and EL2. The ET (elephant) is used in Burmese chess, ET1 and ET2 [note that a different monogram is used to distinguish between these two types of elephant].
The Officials (OF1 and OF2) move one cell diagonally (4 directions) but are only permitted to capture forward (2 directions).
They cannot retreat. For :A
Pritchard presents the Hill’s game as “an old variant displaying elements of Burmese Chess, Chaturanga and Makruk”. This definition could certainly have been applied to the real ‘Ouk Chatrang’ but not at all to the game he is presenting! Actually, the Hill’s game appears to be a sort of hybrid between Xiangqi and Makruk rather and nobody can tell why it is supposed to be old. Here the rules are given by Pritchard according to Hill’s details.
Each side has 18 men: 1 King, 2 Boat, Elephant, Horse, Official, 9 Fish. The array is displayed above. The pieces are figurines, the pawns [FH] are disks. The board is an 8 x 8 uncheckered board but play occurs on the intersections (9 x 9).
From Makruk, one finds the King, the Horse, the full line of Pawns in an advanced position and the uncheckered 8 x 8 board. The Rook is common to all chess games, Xianqi included, but the name of ‘Boat’ is from Makruk. From Xiangqi, one finds the play on intersections, the first line of 9 pieces [mps]. The Fish, FH (or, Cambodian Pawn) and its promotion is very original although inspired by Xiangqi. The Official is original although inspired by its counterpart which is identical in Makruk and Xiangqi. Then, this game looks like a puzzling hybrid. If this is true, it would be a very important stepping-stone in the history of Chess, being a bridge between the Western and Oriental games.
Both national varieties are in fact almost the same game. The very first account of ‘Siamese Chess’ is due to La Loubère, the ambassador of French KI Louis XIV to the Kingdom of Siam in 1687-8. More was given by Captain James Low to Asiatic Researches in 1836 and, finally, Edward Falkener supplied reliable information he had got from Prince Devawongsee, Minister of Foreign Affairs of H.M. the KI of Siam, in 1889. Siamese Chess, also known as Makruk is now one of the better recognized Chess variants. It is a very lively game, played in Thailand and set can be easily bought through the Internet.
Makruk is also widely played in Cambodia as attested by Tim Krabbé. In a very important article, Cambodian Chess is described with details by Vuthy Tan. However, his page is becoming old (June 13, 1998) and its disappearance can be feared. Therefore, it has been decided to offer here a mirror for this precious page…….
“Il y a olifans assez en ce royaulme et si ont aussi lingaloes assez et si ont moult grant planté de grans bois et si ont fust noir que l’en appelle ybenus et dont l’en fait les eschiez noirs” or, in English…….
Chinese chess which is used today in Vietnam (Tuo-cong) did not use ebony pieces, then it is very likely that what Marco Polo actually saw was a cousin of Cambodian Chess. Thanks to Thierry Depaulis for drawing my attention to this point.
In the 1st millennium AD, the Indian culture spread into south-east Asia. Under the influence of Tamil spice traders coming from the South of India and Ceylon, especially under the Chola dynasty, several Indianised kingdoms were founded like Srivijaya in Sumatra and Java, Champa in South Vietnam, Zhenla and other Khmer states in Cambodia, etc. Magnificent temples in Borobudur (Java) or Angkor (Cambodia) are still there to remember. Indians brought Hinduism, Buddhism, Sanskrit and writing alphabets, and also Chaturanga.
The first kingdoms founded by the Khmer people, Funan, Zhenla, fell under Javan domination cerca 700. Jayavarman II, a prince educated in Java founded the Angkor Khmer kingdom in 802. Then, it can be assumed that Chess came to Cambodia from Java which in turn acquired it from South-East Indians. Thai people migrated from China in the Xth century, then founded several states. In 1431 they seized Angkor and assimilated the Khmer kingdom. They probably learned Chess from the Cambodians and this is the reason why Cambodian Chess and Thai Chess are so identical.
The great Chess historian Murray confessed: “It is not possible to discover any trace of Indian ancestry in the nomenclature of Siamese Chess”. However, “Mak” is the word used for games in Thai and “Ruk” could come from Cambodian "ruk" or "ouk" meaning Check or Chess. Then “Makruk” would simply be “The Chess game” - from a private discussion with Th. Depaulis.
This South-East Asian Chess is probably the closest to the original Chess which comes from India. It has several similarities with the Sittuyin played in Burma but the latter seems more elaborated. In Malaysia and Indonesia, Chess (Main Chator) was latter influenced by Europeans - Portuguese, Dutch and English - and therefore, has lost some original rules and characteristics (for instance, they adopted the modern move of QU and BS).
The last 4 points can also be found in Shogi, the Japanese Chess. Modern Shogi historians now believe that Shogi has been influenced by Chess played in the South-East regions. There were frequented commercial maritime routes connecting Japan to India through the Malay Straits in those times.
Promotion of Fish
Order of Individual Relative Values
Draws of Game
Another Style of Game
Rek: A Variant of Chess
Settings and Rules
Another Style of Game, Too
Glossary of Cambodian Chess Games
This page is particularly concerned with “Cambodian chess games”. “Cambodian” because they have been played by Cambodians or Khmers throughout the country. “Chess games” in the plural form because an attempt is made to cover the two different types of game on the sixty-four-square board and each has two distinctive styles of play, which are probably unique to Cambodian players. This is more a reading than an instructional work. Moreover, the readers are also assumed to be familiar with the basics of international or F.I.D.E chess.
The history of Cambodian chess games have not been studied and known as it well as it deserves. My literature research on this topic in English reveals very little information. Turning to the local sources in the Cambodian language does not help much either. However, with a bingo surprise, I found a site on the Internet that contains a brief yet amazing account of Cambodian Chess for Blind Players. This unsatisfyingly short story of Cambodian chess is probably one of the clues for its deep historical connection to the ancient Khmer Civilization of Angkor Wat. A telling picture of these ancient and beautiful Cambodian chessmen made of bronze is also available at that location. Check it out!
The first type of Cambodian chess game is known to the Cambodians as Ouk, Chhoeu trang, Chatrang [1, p.183], Chaturang or, jointly as Ouk chatrang. The name “Ouk” was believed to come from imitating the sound made between the chessman and the chessboard while checking. As terminology and rules are concerned, the word “Ouk” means check, and it is required to say this out loud by the player who checks the enemy KI [2, p.1778]. The game is also named “Chhoeu Trang” perhaps because of the fact that most of the game equipment are made of wood which is Chhoeu in Cambodian . And ‘Trang’ is shortened from ‘Chatrang’ [4, p.285]. These two names are informal and colloquial. The name Chatrang is formal and derived from Sanskrit Chaturanga. In literature, the word “Chaturang” in pronunciation and “Chaturanga” in writing are retained [5, p.101].
The second type of Cambodian chess game is ‘Rek’, pronounced like ‘Rake’ without the K ending sound. Actually this is a totally different game from the ‘Ouk’ or ‘Chatrang’. There are no other pieces besides the KIs in this game, and all of the units, including the KIs, move like the RO. We will describe it in detail later, including its extra style of play. Whether it is of ‘Chatrang’ or ‘Rek’, the extra style of play is truly more challenging than the normal style, as we shall see. Let’s turn to Chatrang first…….
Like the international chess, Chatrang requires two people to play against each other, but in Cambodia there are always two teams of people participating in the game. This does make every game played even more exciting and entertaining. People, I mean Cambodian men, usually gather to play at a barbershop for men in their town or village. Perhaps, it is very hard to find a barbershop in Cambodia that is not associated with Chatrang. However, I have never heard of any chess tournament or competition in Cambodia. There has never been one, perhaps.
The object of Chatrang is also to checkmate the opponent’s KI. In the beginning, who should move first is simply a matter of agreement between the players. However, for the next game, the loser usually has a privilege to move first. If the first game was drawn for some reason, once again the mutual agreement decides for the matter in question.
The Cambodian chessboard resembles the international one except that the colour code is not necessary. It is a board of 8 by 8 cells. There are 32 chessmen in total and are similar to those of the international chess. In the game, each side or player starts with a force of sixteen units: eight mps and eight MPs. These eight pieces include two ROs, two KTs, two BSs, one QU and one KI. The Cambodian names for the PA, BS, KT, RO, QU and KI are Trey (Fish), Koul (General [6, p.183], also see Glossary), Ses (Horse), Tuuk (Boat), Neang (Queen) and Ang or Sdaach (King) respectively.
For ordinary-people - players, the pieces and board are sculptured and made of wood. The Fishes or mps are usually represented by the two different kinds of cowrie shells. It is not uncommon to see people use the small bottle caps. (Budwiser bottle caps and the like would resemble and work as well.) For each side, two pieces of wooden low cylinder would make the Boats or ROs. The Horses look exactly like the KTs. The KI, the Koul and the Neang have almost the same shape, a sort of pointed dome, but they are differentiated by sizes: Small for the Neang; medium for the Koul; and large for the KI, so to speak. Two different types of wood or two colours usually do the job of identifying the two sides. Note that the specimens of Cambodian chess for blind players mentioned above were coloured green versus black and sculptured with different shapes from the ordinary chessmen.
The opening setup of ‘Cambodian’ chess or ‘Chatrang’ is like that of the international one except for three features. First, the mps or Fishes are set up on the third and sixth ranks, not the first and eighth ones. Second, the KIs are placed crosswise, not opposite each other. And third, each QU is on the right-hand side of its corresponding KI. Click Picture 01 to view the chessmen and initial position? Their powers of move are not all like those of the international chess. We are turning to this matter in the following paragraphs.
The KI moves like that of the international chess except that for the first move it has an option to move a leap like the KT, usually to the left or to right. However, if it is in check by an opponent’s unit, that option is no longer valid and it has to move only one cell as usual. Also, the Horse moves like the KT; the Boat like the RO, but there is no castling move in Cambodian chess or Chatrang.
The Koul moves only one cell per turn along the diagonals or straight ahead. The Neang moves one cell per turn and only diagonally, but for the first move it has an option to move two cells straight ahead provided that that cell is not occupied by another friendly unit. It may capture the enemy unit if the latter occupies that cell. All the units may capture the enemy units situated in their legal moves. However, there are two exceptions for this rule. First, the KI cannot capture the enemy units that are under protection of others. Second, the not-yet-promoted Fishes [mps] move one cell straight ahead, but they take the enemy units diagonally ahead, just like the PAs in the international chess.
The Fishes [mps] are the only units that may be promoted upon reaching the enemy’s front row, i.e., the sixth rank. Without limit of number, the Fishes are in general promoted to become promoted Fishes, called ‘Trey Bak’, which have the same power of move to the Neang. That is to say, each party may in theory have eight promoted Fishes in the course of play.
The conventional value system of Cambodian individual chessmen is as follows: The Boat is more valuable than the KT than the Koul than the Neang than the Fish. The Neang is as valuable as the promoted Fish. The KI is not placed in the value system. It is the all-important and weakest unit. This conventional value system may not be without controversy and subjectivity. Some players have no problem at all to trade the Boat with the KT or the KT with the Koul. The phases of the game and the mobility characteristics of the units all seem to be important in their values. This is not to even mention the talents and skills of the players.
The game is drawn when there is neither winner nor loser. In practice, for Cambodian players, every game played always ends up having a win-lose result or drawn game. No scores are given and recorded for each player in the latter situation. The draw can take place under four possible ways: (1) mutual agreement of the players; (2) apparent insufficiency of material to checkmate the opponent; (3) stalemate under which the alone KI does not have a legal move and is not in check either; (4) application of predetermined rules of move counting (explained in the following paragraphs). The repetition of move is not considered; usually one party is determined to play for a win!
When a player has only the KI left and all the Fishes [mps] currently available on the board were promoted, s/he can claim the game drawn after the applicable rule or condition of move counting is met. The rule of move counting is determined according to the presence of the most valuable unit left on the board regardless of the other units available. If there are two most valuable units left, then a separate rule is determined. However, there is some inconsistency in all this matter. I will point it out later.
The rule of 8 moves is applied if the player who is chasing to capture, i.e., doing the KI hunt, has two Boats or ROs; the rule of 16 moves if there is one Boat; the rule of 22 for two Koul or BSs; the rule of 44 for one Koul; the rule of 32 for two KTs and of 64 for one KT; also the rule of 64 for three or more “side-by-side” promoted Fishes (trey bak tim) or in combination with the Neang. By side-by-side promoted Fishes means that two of them must occupy any two adjacent cells either in the rank or file, but not the diagonal. Otherwise, all of them are simply like a Fish which is not capable of capturing the solitary enemy KI, even with the latter’s cooperation. In addition, applying in conjunction with all the rules of move counting, the running player may start to count the move from the number of all the units available on the board plus 1 to the number prescribed by the relevant rule.
For example, suppose that the chasing party has one Koul, one KT and two promoted Fishes to capture the other party’s KI. According to the conventional rule of move counting, for the advantage of the running party, the rule of 44 moves is applicable. (Not the rule of 64 although the KT is more valuable than the Koul in the above mentioned conventional value system. An inconsistency!) And the running party can start to count from 7 to 44, not from 1, because there are 6 units in total available on the board.
Bear in mind that the running party can start to count the move only after he has the KI alone left and all the available Fishes or mps have been promoted. However, some Cambodian players practice a start to count the move before the last regular Fish becomes promoted and count to 64 regardless of the available most valuable unit(s) left on board. This is simply one of the cases of rule variation.
Another style of chess play is ‘Kar Ouk’ (Check Prevention) game. In this style, the object of the game is to simply check the opponents KI. The game is over when one KI is in check. If you can check your enemy KI first, you win the game. The game is even more challenging since prevention of a check is surely more difficult than that of a checkmate. The checkmate is not the point here. This style of play has all the same rules and settings as those of regular ‘Ouk’ except for the end game and drawn cases, perhaps. More information is needed to completely describe this style of Cambodian chess. A French man by the name of Muora, in his work ‘Royaume du Cambodge’ quoted in [7, p.118], who visited Cambodia, probably over a century ago, wrote about this style of play in Cambodia. He did not seem to write anything about the regular Ouk Chatrang though. This is probably because the Kar Ouk game was the most popular game back then. Today, people tend to rather like playing the regular Ouk instead.
As having briefly introduced earlier, the ‘Rek’ is also a game played by two people on the board of 8 x 8 cells. The Cambodian transitive verb “Rek” means ‘carry on one’s shoulder a pole at each end of which is a container, bundle or object’ . It was pointed out that the game was popular among military troops [9, p.1067]. Today, it is also played by Cambodian women. The object of the game is to “capture” instead of checkmate the opponent’s KI. There is no stalemate. As long as the KI has no legal move, it is captured the next move and the game ends there without actual capture. All units may be captured in two ways: (1) when they are tightly surrounded or trapped by the enemy units and thus have no legal move; (2) when they are “Rek” by an enemy unit in the analogy that they are the containers carried away by that enemy unit. Click this Picture 02 to view the ways of capture in the Rek game. This later way of capture actually bears the name of the game.
It also has two different forces of 32 units in total. Each side starts with a force of 16 units: One KI and 15 Men [mps]. All the Men have the same value and physical shape, and they all, including the KIs, move like the Boat or RO. The chessmen have no particular shapes and names: any two different looking sets of 16 each would work. The two KIs have to somehow appear different from each other and from their Men though, for identification purpose. The game has a slightly different initial arrangement from that of the Ouk. The two KIs have to be placed crosswise in the second and seventh ranks, whether to the left or to the right of the players. Click this Picture 3 to see its opening setup [ISP].
The Rek also has its own special style of play. It is named “Min Rek Chanh” (Not Rek Lose). The object of the game is still the same, capturing the opponent’s KI. But, there is only one legal way to capture the enemy units, including the KI: “Rek” them two at a time. The KIs may not move at all, not even a cell. They are “palace KIs”! Other setting features and opening setup are the same as those of the regular Rek. The unique characteristic of this style of play is that a player’s order of Rek to the other must be honoured, otherwise the latter loses and the game is over. So, strategic and deliberate sacrifices are the mind set behind winning the game.
Usually the game is over when one player orders a “right” series of the opponent’s consecutive moves to ‘Rek’ his units, which ultimately will lead to the capture or Rek of the opponent’s KI in return. BUT, if he orders the wrong series of the opponent’s moves, he ends up losing his force without any desirable consequence. Thus the game demands a long-term and coherent strategic planning to get the right orders of move. In this kind of play, you are in a more dangerous situation for preserving too many of your own units, but if you do not have enough of them to design your scheme of making a right series of the opponent’s moves, it is not good either. Personally I find this the most challenging of all the Cambodian chess games.
For the end game or KI hunt, especially by one Horse or Koul and a promoted Fishes or by a combination of three side-by-side promoted Fishes, a situation in which the running KI cannot be checkmated at a trapped corner because the promoted Fish is not in the right diagonal to the corner square; l.m. ‘wrong corner’; c.f. ‘Trouv Chrung’.
A name of Chatrang’s piece taken to represent military generals, but the word “Koul” is closer to represent boundary pillar or mark in meaning; there are four of them and two for each player; usually analogous to the BSs.
A check on the enemy KI while at the same time other enemy unit(s), esp. the more valuable such as the Boat and Horse, could also be taken although “not free”; c.f. ‘Ruk Baek’; l.m. ‘check and split’.
A checking situation in which a player removes his unit away from the legal move of his Boat that checks the enemy KI as a result. This is the purpose of ‘Daak Ang’ and done in the situation of ‘Cheup Ang’; see ‘Si Paay’; l.m. ‘gallop’.
One part of the most popular tale in Cambodia, especially among children, that is associated with ‘Ouk Chatrang’ is ‘Thmenh Chey’s Horse’. Once upon a time, there was a boy named Thmenh Chey and born to an ordinary family. He was a very brilliant boy and later on known to the KI. This fame did not make the KI restful because the famous and believing norm was that only the KI was the most brilliant and entitled to that fame of intelligence!
The KI thus set forth to challenge Thmenh Chey’s lofty IQ popularity. At one point, the KI declared to the population that he would go for a sightseeing deep into the large forest tomorrow and forbid any sale, rent or loan of a horse to Thmenh Chey who was in the KIs order to go, too, with a horse! However, like the previous cases of challenge, Thmenh Chey could always get over the KIs power and attack: He took the Chatrang’s Horse with him. The children who listen to the story proudly laugh to share their hero’s victory again!
After going on with a life of continual challenges and serving the country by solving the enigmas of the Chinese smartest men, his life came to a fulfilling end. Before he died, he got the KI to kneel down by him so that the latter could hear this whisper:
Let me share with you (if you don’t know already) some interesting information I found while trying to find the genuine name of Cambodian chess. I found this very interesting site: Cambodian Chess Games. Vuthy Tan describes 2 games: ‘Ouk Chatrang’ and ‘Rek’. Rek is an interesting (with a variant also) game with only mps and KIs. Ouk Chatrang is apparently the traditional Cambodian game. I was surprised to see that it is almost Makruk (Thai chess).
Then, it is different from the intriguing Cambodian Chess given by Pritchard. I’ve already written to Vuthy to see if he has an explanation. Another site, underlining the link with Makruk is entitled “Chess in Cambodia”.