It might not be a smart move, ordinarily, but thirty-year-old Nguyen Huy Lam would rather play Chinese chess than use his university degree in economics to earn a living.
Deep thought: one wrong move could cost the whole game
Lam sits alone in a cafeteria with a chessboard in front, ready for a game. When anyone shows up looking interested, he invites them for a friendly game, and after judging his opponent, puts down a wager.
The economics graduate is not done studying, though. “Every night, I study moves by famous chess masters from books, the Internet…I regularly download the latest chess games at championships in China”, says Lam who two years ago was ranked sixth in a city contest.
“You need to constantly update strategies, otherwise you can lose to an amateur,” he adds.
Lam, who also earns his income as a chess tutor, is not alone in pursuing this unusual vocation. He is part of a plethora of self-nominated chess ‘masters’ or ‘grandmasters’, predominantly males, living off their mock-battle skills in the Mieu Noi area in Binh Thanh district.
A formidable colleague is veteran Thai who has represented his district in chess competitions. Now over 60 years old, Thai plays chess as a “hobby for old age” and as a profession that puts bread on his table.
Rumor has it that for some time, Nguyen Thanh Bao of the national chess team used to live off chess game wagers as far away as China.
Hidden Dragons and Crouching Tigers
In Mieu Noi, where “hidden dragons” and “crouching tigers” are said to abound, small cafeterias host expert chess players, dubbed “tiger” or “dragon” like Thai or Lam, and aficionados, called “deer” drop in to wager small money for fun, to gain experience, to make friends or just while away the time.
Nicknamed Rubber Thai for the elasticity in his moves and agility in defense, Thai is an expert in handicap chess where he has to forfeit a strong piece and still win. Depending on the stake, he can earn anything between VND10,000 (60 cents) to hundreds of thousands of dong per game.
“They [his opponents] are mostly weak, playing only at entertainment level, so I have to offer handicaps or they would not play”, Thai explains.
Initially, he will forfeit a minor piece, for example a pawn or two, just to assess his enemy. When he wins, he will offer bigger odds including the cannon (catapult) or chariot (rook).
“Forfeiting pieces until the opponent cannot think they will lose but they eventually do is my motto”, he tells Sai Gon Guide.
A former mechanic, Thai quit his well-paid job to pursue chess - the love of his life, which for more than a decade kept him at a subsistence level.
“This job is precarious. When I earn big money, I have to share it, buying drinks for my ‘colleagues’ (people playing for money)”.
“Playing handicap chess requires the odds-giver to put his enemy into a complicated situation to create confusion and overconfidence, the more the better. A cannon in my hand must be stronger than a cannon in theirs.”
At such cafeterias, there are not only individual bets between players, but stakes are raised among onlookers on a particular game.
Blind, endgames and cheat chess
|Playing blind chess in Mieu Noi area|
In addition to handicap, the ‘masters’ have other ways to lure challengers, like blind chess, where even a novice can beat a grandmaster. Or can he?
In blind chess, all the pieces are flipped and jumbled so their characters are concealed. Only when it is moved to a square will the secret piece be turned upwards to show its true value.
Due to the element of luck involved, the blind chess game is very popular and inexperienced players can bet up to VND1 million on a game. But little do they know that in the hands of a real ‘master’, their winning chances are as low as in regular games.
“In normal chess, the only way to ‘cheat’ is to have an expert standing from afar, giving pointers with secret signals. One finger tapping on the table, a hand holding a burning incense stick can all mean something, but in blind chess, rigging the odds is much easier” Thai says.
Without the tricks, experts can easily lose, since in blind chess, talent accounts for only 70 percent, the rest depending on luck. And depending on those odds means food insecurity, he adds wryly.
According to Thai, there are three tricks: the pieces are marked underneath so when turned upside down, insiders can still know which is which; a less obvious way is to make the strong pieces about 1-2mm thinner than others; or the most professional way is to ‘mix up’ the pieces in a way that a master can know their exact locations.
Shills are often ‘invited’ to jumble the pieces.
Top masters, though, indulge in no tricks and even allow their opponents to mingle the pieces. However, such masters have to be on extreme alert and learn how to maintain a mental vision of where all the pieces go by casting eyes in different directions in quick succession.
They usually wear a hat with large visor to hide their eyes dancing around, Thai reveals.
Last, but not least, an effective method to make money off chess is by waging endgames where only a few pieces remain and where the situation is apparently weighed greatly against the wager.
But if you join, the chances are high, if not inevitable, that you lose.
A veteran explains that many such endgames are rigged into situations where the opponent has no alternative but to lose or draw the game.
Chinese chess or “co tuong” in Vietnamese - literally translated as “general/marshal chess” is probably the most popular board game in Viet Nam. It requires two players, each in possession of sixteen round wooden pieces with their names engraved in Chinese ideograms.
Distinctive features of “co tuong” include the unique movement of the "cannon" piece or “phao”, a rule prohibiting the two generals (similar to kings in Western chess) from facing each other directly. The purpose is to capture or checkmate the “general” or “tuong”.
Legend has it that originally the “tuong” were known as emperors but when a Chinese emperor heard about the game, he executed two players for "killing" the emperor piece. Future players called them “generals” instead.
Co tuong, called Xiangqi in China has a long history. Though its precise origins have not yet been definitely confirmed, the earliest indications reveal the game may have been played as early as the 4th century BC, by Tian Wen, the Lord of Mengchang for the state of Qi during the Warring States Period in China.
According to hypothesis, it stems from a new strategy board game patterned after the array of troops to prepare for an upcoming battle in this period.