Friday, January 12, 2007

Visions of Fat Plastic Horses

We were in Vietnam and Thailand for the last few weeks, but that’s not the reason why I haven’t written any updates. The reason this site has been utterly barren of new content is the simple fact that if I had written anything it would have been all about chess, and I don’t want to put you through that.

Sadly I still need to exorcise this somehow, so here’s the short version: I am a very bad chess player but, as I described in an earlier post, I like the game and am interested in its history and regional variations. So what happens when we go on vacation to Vietnam? Everyone is playing Chinese chess. Well, at least many of the scruffier and more desperate-looking men were. They were at it all day long. Out on the sidewalk. In the parks. Where I come from, ancient strategic board games are not a common sidewalk pastime for taxi drivers and garbagemen, and the whole thing fascinated me.

For less than five bucks I got a shiny plastic Chinese chess set and cheap wooden board, and I happily learned the different characters for “horse”, “elephant”, “general”, etc. As our trip through Vietnam continued, I began to realize that the game was everywhere. There were crude chess boards carved in the pavement or scratched into the tops of tables. That modern art painting in the cafe in Hoi An was not, I realized, a random set of geometric lines. Everything seemed to be falling into place and everything I came across seemed to have a hidden chess-related message, like that movie where Nic Cage found that the one dollar bill is a treasure map to the secret pyramid under the Supreme Court or whatever. Best of all, I had a really good bonding experience with an elderly Vietnamese villager who invited us in for tea and proudly showed us his sets of chess pieces. He seemed very excited that I knew about the game and invited me to come over to his house and play him any time. It was great.

Anyway, that was Vietnam. Then we continued to Thailand, and a little research shows me that they play a primitive mutant version of chess, one from before the queen piece got all of her fancy moves. On our first night there I saw two tuk-tuk drivers battling it out with a special Thai set with squashed little pawns and red and white plastic pieces. I had no choice but to stalk the streets of Bangkok like a lunatic looking for a set for myself, of course, but since we were in the tourist area I had no luck. I have dreamed about that cheap Thai chess set every night since. There is something strangely compelling about that chubby red plastic horse, and the fact that the Thai version seems to be very close to the way the game must have been like around a thousand years ago. I’m bummed that I didn’t find a set, but at least now I’ll have something to look forward to whenever I get back to Thailand. All these adorable schoolkids must have gotten their sets somewhere.

Now that I own or am scheming to someday obtain all these exotic chess sets, with whom, you ask, am I going to play? Beats me. I stink at chess. I’ve been trying to get better by playing the computer, but it’s slow going. Maybe I’ll eventually work my way up to playing actual other humans. But for now the sets are more like souvenirs than anything else. I had a great time in Vietnam and I probably have a lot to say about what we saw and did there, but I had to get some of that chess obsession stuff off my chest first.


superkimbo said...

What Alex neglects to mention about the wonderful old man in Vietnam that invited him back to play chess anytime, is that this old man also found Alex extremely handsome. A fact he repeated continually throughout the day. In fact, many of the older gentlemen mentioned how handsome Alex is the whole time we were in Vietnam.

Now, Alex is certainly quite handsome, but I think we both found it a little odd that only older gentlemen seemed to think so, and that they felt quite comfortable telling him so through the translator. It was fun.

Jinna said...

Alex is that special, old Vietnamese gentlement kind of handsome.

I jest, of course. How about playing chess against yourself? I've always read about masters doing that, but honestly I don't think I could ever get into it.