Ouk Chatrang: Cambodian Chess
Play Setting and Object of Game
Chessboard and Forces
Initial Position or Arrangement
Power of Move
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 histories of Cambodian chess games have not been studied and known as it deserves. My literature research on this topic in English reveals very little information. Turning to the local sources in 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 rule are concerned, the word "Ouk" means check, and it is required to say out loud by the player who checks the enemy King [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 K ending sound. Actually this is a totally different game from the Ouk or Chatrang. There are no other pieces besides the Kings in this game, and all of the units, including the Kings, moves like the Rook. 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 King. 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 color code is not necessary. It is a board of eight by eight squares. 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 pawns and eight pieces. These eight pieces include two Rooks, two Knights, two Bishops, one Queen and one King. The Cambodian names for the Pawn, Bishop, Knight, Rook, Queen and King 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 scultured and made of wood. The Fishes or Pawns 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 Rooks. The Horses look exactly like the Knights. The King, 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; midium for the Koul; and large for the King, so to speak. Two different types of wood or two colors usually do the job of identifying the two sides. Note that the specimens of Cambodian chess for blind players mentioned above were colored green vs. black and scultured 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 Pawns or Fishes are set up on the third and sixth ranks, not the first and eighth ones. Second, the Kings are placed crosswise, not opposite each other. And third, each Queen is on the right-hand side of its corresponding King. Click Picture 1 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 King moves like that of the international chess except that for the first move it has an option to move a leap like the Knight, usually to the left or to right. However, if it is in check by the opponent's unit, that option is no longer valid and it has to move only one square as usual. Also, the Horse moves like the Knight; the Boat like the Rook, but there is no castling move in Cambodian chess or Chatrang.
The Koul moves only one square per turn along the diagonals or straight ahead. The Neang moves one square per turn and only diagonally, but for the first move it has an option to move two squares straight ahead provided that that square is not occupied by other friendly unit. It may capture the enemy unit if the latter occupies that square. All the units may capture the enemy units situated in their legal moves. However, there are two exceptions for this rule. First, the King cannot capture the enemy units that are under protection of others. Second, the not-yet-promoted Fishes move one square straight ahead, but they take the enemy units diagonally ahead, just like the Pawns in the international chess.
The Fishes 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 Knight than the Koul than the Neang than the Fish. The Neang is as valuable as the promoted Fish. The King 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 player have no problem at all to trade the Boat with the Knight or the Knight 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 King 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 King left and all the Fishes currently available on the board were promoted, 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 King hunt, has two Boats or Rooks; the rule of 16 moves if there is one Boat; the rule of 22 for two Koul or Bishops; the rule of 44 for one Koul; the rule of 32 for two Knights and of 64 for one Knight; 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 squares 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 King, 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 Knight and two promoted Fishes to capture the other party's King. 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 Knight 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 King alone left and all the available Fishes or Pawns 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 opponent King. The game is over
when one King is in check. If you can check your enemy King 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 are 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
As having briefly introduced earlier, the Rek is also a game played by two people on the board of 8X8 squares. 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 King. There is no stalemate. As long as the King 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 2 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 King and 15 Men. All the Men have the same value and physical shape, and they all, including the Kings, move like the Boat or Rook. The chessmen have no particular shapes and names: Any two different looking sets of 16 each would work. The two Kings 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 Kings 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.
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 King. But, there is only one legal way to capture the enemy units, including the King: "Rek" them two at a time. The Kings may not move at all, not even a square. They are "palace kings"! 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 honored, 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 King 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 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.
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 King. This fame did not make the King restful because the famous and believing norm was that only the King was the most brilliant and entitled to that fame of intelligence!
The King thus set forth to challenge Thmenh Chey's lofty IQ popularity. At one point, the King 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 King' order to go, too, with a horse! However, like the previous cases of challenge, Thmenh Chey could always get over the King's 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 King to kneel down by him so that the latter could hear this whisper:
boeu soay trey pruol kom choal sraka; boeu soay trey pra kom choal srakey; and boeu sla mchu kbal trey kom choal mchu sandan.