In his acclaimed book "Encyclopedia of Chess Variant" (first
edition), D.B.Pritchard presented the rules of a "Cambodian
Chess" game having unknown origins and displaying elements
at the crossing of Western Chess (like Indian Chess and Thai Makruk)
and Oriental Chess like Xiangqi. The source is P.A.Hill.
On the other hand, there is a page on the Web, signed by Vuthy
Tan, a Cambodian at the time living at Portland, Oregon which describes
the Ouk Chatrang, the Chess variety
which is popular in Cambodia, with plenty of precious details. It
appears that this game is almost identical to the Makruk played
in Thailand. (This page has disapeared, fortunatelly this is the
Mirror page: Cambodian Chess Games by Vuthy Tan).
Then we are facing an enigma: if the Ouk Chatrang is genuine
Cambodian Chess, what is Hill's Chess exactly ?
Hill's "Cambodian" Chess:
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 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 given by Pritchard according to Hill's
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 are disks. The board is an 8x8 uncheckered but play is
on the intersections (9x9).
- The King is orthodox.
- The Boat moves as the orthochess Rook.
- The Horse moves as the orthochess Knight
- The Elephant moves as a King but cannot capture in the 3
- The Official is the old Queen (or Fers): moves 1 square
diagonally, but can only capture in the 2 forward directions.
- The Fish moves and captures 1 square straight forward but
when it crosses the centre line (on its second move) it is reversed
and thereafter moves as a King.
From the Makruk, one finds the King, the Horse, the full line
of Pawns in an advanced position and the uncheckered 8x8 board.
The Rook is common to all Chess game, Xianqi included, but the name
of Boat is from Makruk.
From Xiangqi, one finds the play on intersections, the first
line of 9 pieces. The Fish (=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. Were it be true,
it would be a very important stone in the history of Chess, being
a bridge between Western and Oriental games.
The following information has been given to me by Peter Michaelsen.
He forwarded me an e-mail from Philip Cohen who had a correspondance
with late John Gollon, the author of "Chess Variations: Ancient, Regional, and Modern".
D.B.Pritchard is referring to the same correspondance. John Gollon
said that he had received in 1969 from an U.S. serviceman (P.A.Hill
?), who had served as an interrogator in Saïgon, the description
of a variation of Chess which he obtained details from a Cambodian
born guerilla officier he was questioning.
In addition to the information already given above, this correspondance
gives the names of the pieces : Chhwie (King), Ta Hien (Official),
Tam Mai (Elephant), Sheh (Horse), Tuk (Boat), Trei (Fish). We
learn that the Fishes are irregular disks marked differently on
either side so pieces which have crossed the center line and have
been flipped can be distinguished.
John Gollon commented : "At the time, I boiled
over with enthusiasm about this ackward (backward? awkward?) little
game, viewing it as either a link between the Chaturanga and Chinese
Chess forms, or as a blend resulting from the meeting of the two
traditions (Thaï and Burmese Chess, say, still are more closely
linked to Chaturanga-like games, while Chinese Chess is the chess
of Vietnam)...The correspondent later expressed some concern that
he may have been mistaken in some details. I have never been able
to check with an official Cambodian source. So there could be some
errors - then again, perhaps there are none."
We want to know !
More than 30 years after, no confirmation of this peculiar game
has been disclosed So far, we ought to take it as a fake. It is
well known now that the Chess played in Cambodia is the Ouk Chatrang
which is exactly identical to the Makruk played in the neighboring
So what is it exactly ? Most probably an invention, a very cleaver
invention from someone knowing very well Chess and all its Asian
varieties. Moreover, the game seems very playable. So, what is it
? Hey, Mr Gollon wasn't it a joke you left for your followers ?
Well done !
(Of course, if you know more information about this, please drop
me a mail)
Supplement of information in 2001:
On 20/07/2001, Stewart Thomson, the eldest nephew
of late John Gollon, did mail to me. He wrote the following:
"Now, as for John's personality...insofar as I may speak
for him, I can say with fair certitude that he would not have intentionally
invented or deliberately allowed an inaccuracy to exist solely to
be found later by fact-finders. This I base on my experience
of him as a perfectionist of a high caliber (he would start nothing,
not even watch a movie, if he could not finish it) and as a scholar
with particular integrity in general. Though he was possesed
of a singular sense of humor, I doubt seriously that he would have
let that spill over into his book. We will never know, true,
but this would be my guess--very likely, the P.A. Hill (yes?) that
he received the variation from is the key to the matter. I
hope I can persuade you on this issue, simply because I just don't
think he'd consciously have done it, much like the artist who refuses
to put hidden tracks in his album. If he had invented any
chess variant, he would have wanted it to be accredited as such."
The best is probably to respect this evidence from someone who
did know John Gollon very well.
Supplement of information in 2007:
An article has been written in Variant Chess magazine n°55
(Sept. 2007), dealing with this strange so-called Cambodian Chess.
here. Or here.
There, John Beasley, who completed and edited David Pritchard's
"The Classified Encyclopedia of Chess Variants", apologizes
for having assessed that this version of Cambodian Chess was doubtful
because lying on a single, not confirmed, evidence. Peter Bloomers
told him that he possesses a photograph of a set and that this game
was several times reported by a Japanese collector, Okano Shin,
in various books or exhibition booklets.
The rules given by Okano Shin agree with those from Hill with
those little exceptions:
- The board bears both diagonals crossed, like in Sit-tu-yin
- The Elephant moves as a King but cannot capture in the 3
backward directions and the 2 sideways.
- The name of the pieces are: Kwon (King), Neamahn (Official),
Kwos (Elephant), Seh (Horse), Tuuk (Boat), Trai (Fish).
So, maybe this game had some true existence.
This information has been repeated in Variant Chess n°64
in August 2010.
Supplement of information in 2012:
I had the chance to be in copy of several exchanges of e-mails
between several Chess researchers in Europe (Peter Michaelsen, Peter
Bloomers, John Beasley) and in Japan. The help of Yasuji Shimizu
has been instrumental to clear out the new elements published in
2007 and 2010.
The situation has been summarized by John Beasley on his website. To avoid any loss,
this is the summary he made. I fully agree with his conclusions.
2/4 November 2012, extended on 12 November)
In the first edition
(1994) of The
Encyclopedia of Chess Variants, David Pritchard described a chess game
allegedly played in Cambodia. His authority was a copy,
now in the Pritchard archive in the Musée Suisse
du Jeu, of a letter written by the late John Gollon
to Philip Cohen, reporting information he had received
in 1969 from a U.S. serviceman serving as an interrogator
in Saigon, who in turn had received it from a Cambodian-born
guerrilla officer he was questioning. The name 'P. A.
Hill' had been added as a manuscript annotation to the
words 'U.S. serviceman'. However, this description was
challenged, and in The
Classified Encyclopedia of Chess Variants (2007) I took it upon myself
to omit the game from the main text and to mention it
only in an editorial note, with the comment that the
authority for its existence appeared to reduce to a
single informant whose statements were at variance with
all other known testimony.
There have since been
Immediately upon publication
of the Classified
I received a letter from Peter Blommers saying No, there
was indeed supporting testimony; the Japanese collector
Okano Shin possessed a set, and he himself had a photograph
of one. He subsequently sent me photocopies of pages
from several books in Japanese, by Umebayashi Isao and
Okano Shin or by Okano Shin alone, with translations
into English of the relevant items. There were minor
differences between the games described by Hill and
by Umebayashi Isao and Okano Shin as translated (the
names of some of the pieces were quite different, there
was a slight difference in the elephant's capturing
power, and the board in the photograph had diagonal
lines across it in the manner of Myanmar chess), but
these seemed to me to be no more than the differences
which might be expected in the recollections of separate
informants; if anything, they added confidence that
the testimonies of Hill and of Umebayashi Isao and Okano
Shin were independent (in particular, the presence of
the diagonal lines across the board did not seem likely
to be a detail that somebody had invented). I therefore
reported this new testimony in Variant Chess 55 (front page and page 4) and repeated
it in Variant
Chess 64 (pages
177-178), making clear that I accepted it as sound.
Further apparent confirmation subsequently came to light
in the shape of a report that Umebayashi Isao had once
visited Cambodia and had bought a book on Cambodian
Chess there, and I reported this also in Variant Chess 64 (page 234).
However, I was recently
told by Yasuji Shimizu, initially through Peter Michaelsen
and then directly, that all this appeared to have been
founded on misunderstanding. The set photographed was
in fact owned by Umebayashi Isao, and was not a survival
but a modern reconstruction based on the information
in the first edition of the Encyclopedia. Umebayashi Isao knew of no
other information about the game, and he obtained the
names of the game and of its pieces from a Cambodian
dictionary. The descriptions of the game in the various
Japanese books were again based on what appeared in
the first edition of the Encyclopedia, and it is my conjecture that
the difference in the elephant's capturing powers slipped
in as a mistranscription or mistranslation somewhere
along the way. As for the diagonal lines on the board
in the photograph, Yasuji Shimizu told me that the catalogue
of an exhibition held in 2002 included a photograph
of a board and men for Chator (Malay Chess, 'Main Chator'
in the Encyclopedia and the Classified Encyclopedia) owned by Umebayashi Isao since
1999, Chator being another game whose board features
diagonal lines, and the identical graining of the wood
showed the two boards to have been the same. This catalogue
also included some Makruk boards, without diagonal lines,
but all these had stepped rims around the outside. He
therefore conjectured that when Umebayashi Isao and
Okano Shin needed a board for the photograph in their
book, which was published in 2000, they found the Makruk
boards unsuitable because the rims came too near to
the squares for men to be placed on the square corners,
and so they used the Chator board.
I reported all this
in a posting on 2 November, updated on 4 November, acknowledging
that what I had written in issues 55 and 64 of Variant Chess appeared to have been wholly
misguided, and that we were back to where we were when
I was working on the Classified
the game currently played in Cambodia was Makruk (Thai
Chess) with one or two minor variations, the authority
for the game described to P. A. Hill in 1969 appeared
once more to reduce to a single informant whose statements
were at variance with all other known testimony, and
what had appeared to be independent confirmation of
the existence of this game had in fact all been taken
directly or indirectly from what appeared in the first
edition of the Encyclopedia. Be it noted that Umebayashi
Isao and Okano Shin were in no way to blame for the
misunderstanding; a caption under the relevant photograph
said 'Re-creation', and had I been able to read Japanese
I would have realised this.
It then occurred to
me to ask a question which might have been asked earlier:
do the 'Hill' rules as given by Gollon produce a playable
game? These rules can be found in the Encyclopedia and the Classified
and also in issue 55 of Variant
via 'BESN and VC' alongside), but for present purposes
the following summary is sufficient: the board is 9x9,
the men are King, Rook, and Knight with their ordinary
chess moves, Elephant and Official, whose moves are
subsets of the king's move, and Fish, which moves and
captures one step forward until it reaches the sixth
rank, when it gains additional powers, and the initial
array is RNEOKOENR (shades of Xiangqi!) with 9xF on
the fourth rank. There is a diagram showing the initial
setup on the front page of Variant
I quickly found that
these rules do not produce a playable game, in
that Black has a very simple strategy which gives White
the choice of accepting a draw by repetition or sacrificing
material. All he has to do is to mirror White's moves;
for example, if White starts 1 Nc3, Black replies 1...Nc7,
and so on. In ordinary chess, White can defeat this
by giving check or by capturing the mirror-image man
(for example, 1 e4 e5 2 Qh5 Qh4 3 QxQ). Here, no such
maneouvre appears to be possible until it is too late.
Initially, none of White's pieces can cross his fish
line (apart from the knight, which will be immediately
captured if it does), so to make progress White must
sooner or later advance a fish, and Black's facing fish
will simply take it. This will leave White a fish down
without apparent compensation, which cannot be good,
and Black's men (apart from his extra fish) will still
mirror White's so he can continue with the mirroring
strategy if he wants to. True, once White has advanced
a fish he will be able to bring a piece to the square
it has vacated, but this square is now commanded by
Black's extra fish, so how will this help him? Suppose
1 Na3 Na7 2 Ke2 Ke8 3 Fc5 Fxc5 4 Nc4, intending to meet
4...Nc6 with 5 Nxd6+ giving check and preventing Black
from continuing the mirror play; yes, but why should
Black play the mirror move 4...Nc6? He can play 4...Fxc4
instead, and his fish ahead has become a knight ahead.
Had the game ever been
played at all seriously, this simple non-losing defensive
strategy would have come to light. I conclude that not
only does the authority for the game reduce to a single
informant whose statements are at variance with all
other known testimony, but that something must have
gone wrong somewhere along the line and in fact no such
game existed. Whether the error lay with Hill's Cambodian-born
informant, who had perhaps seen makruk played in childhood
but had never played it himself and had misremembered
the details, or whether Hill himself did not properly
understand what he was being told, or whether Hill and
Gollon got their lines crossed, we can only guess. I
don't know how the U.S. military obtained its Vietnamese-speaking
interrogators, but I suspect that it took the best linguists
among its draftees, sent them on a crash course in Vietnamese,
and set them to work, and that their knowledge of the
language was often little more than was needed for the
purposes of military interrogation. But unless Hill
or his informant reads this and comes forward, we shall
My thanks to Jean-Louis
Cazaux for trying out this strategy against the Zillions
implementation of the game, and verifying that the computer
(which won't have thrown a fish away unless it could
see compensation within its look-ahead horizon) did
indeed give up and concede the draw.
Discover the genuine Cambodian Chess : Ouk Chatrang
Retrouvez les règles et la fabuleuse
histoire de ces mystérieux échecs cambodgiens dans
L'Odyssée des jeux d'échecs