Update In Bangkok Thailand

Jim Coady - the Founder of Chessblocks - Universal Modern Chess SystemSaturday Oct 6th 2012 First Chessblocks blog in The Big Mango, The City of Angels, The Land of Smiles, otherwise known as Bangkok Thailand, hunting down games of chess. But this is not ordinary chess; this is Thai chess or Makruk. The rules are different but surprisingly compelling and it’s not hard to find a player and spring the Chessblocks on the unsuspecting bystanders.

To find a game I only have to saunter to the nearest motorcycle taxi stand. They’re literally every 500 meters or on the corner of any street or soi. Here the drivers gather to sit and wait for the next customer that dares to risk their lives on one of the most dangerous forms of transportation the world has to offer.

As so often happens immediately after a motorcycle accident, people come out of the woodwork to gawk and comment. The idea that a farang (western man) has taken the time to learn Thai chess is a novel concept. The Thais are fun loving and take great pride in finding new ways to waste time in the sweltering heat and chess and Connect 4 are popular distractions. Thai chess is played by approximation 2 million in this country, while World Chess a mere handful of 5000.

Although I don’t speak Thai, I do speak a universal language of games and after studying the rules (some of which seem ancient and culturally based) and perhaps closer to the original rules of chess, I sit down to play. And just to add a tad more novelty I produce a digital chess clock, which is about as rare as an obese soi dog in this city.

The Thais like to play chess fast, there is no time to waste, the pace of the city is blurring and their chess play reflects.

The most challenging part of playing chess here is dodging the traffic and a thousand other obstacles on the way.  They also like to slam down the pieces similar to the Chinese when they play Majong, and the Chessblocks are built to take a pounding with the best of sets.

Thai Chess

The Thai pieces are rather ornate and delicate in comparison and the only piece that even resembles anything close to Staunton Style or world chess is the Knight. They use an oversized horse that towers over the rest of the kingdom but isn’t valued as much as the Bishop. Without explaining all the differences in the shapes which would be similar to explaining geometry to someone that was born without eyes, suffice to say, they have no particular theme other than looking Thai.

ThaiChessPieces for chessblocks blog


Within minutes a small crowd is standing around kibitzing and laughing, and I hear the frequent F-word, farang being spoken. From some of the looks on their faces I assume they are trying to figure out what’s the scam, what’s this farang trying to accomplish, is this my way of gaining an advantage? But then I sense a positive reaction to the shape of the pieces, and they see that my Blocks are a perfect representation of Thai chess and the geometry of the game. Our mother tongues are no longer important; we have a common language of symbolism to share.

The first challenger is not interested in playing with a chess clock and dismisses it with a wave of his hand. Okay, it’s too soon, I will submit for the sake of harmony. He takes a few moments to familiarize himself with the alien tokens and then rapidly makes his first opening move. I follow and keep pace with his tempo. The leader of the gang shows his approval with a chuckle and the relaxing of crossed arms. I’m starting to win the crowd over. The game goes rather well for me until the endgame where I’m confused as the movements of the promoted pawns and I end up dropping a Rook, which is clearly the strongest piece by far. Without dragging it out, I resign. It was a good start. My intention is not so much as to win for myself or a massaging of my ego as it is to just introduce The Universal Chess System to a strange exotic land and note their reactions.

Thais are famous for not being impressed by much. They love to gossip and scrutinize farangs, but they would never dare show that they are in awe of anything we do. But in this one small moment in time, for the first time, I sense their respect. We start another game and this time, it goes bad from the start. Now he is paying attention because no Thai would want to lose to a farang at their own game. It would be the same as losing to a child. He is taking his time and also is getting instruction from the mob. In Canada I would assertively scold the kibitzers to keep their mouth shut, but here in Bangkok, I actually quite enjoy it. Even losing is a win.

At this point, the crowd is deepening, and people are touching the Chessblocks and examining them like they have stumbled upon a new species. People are fidgeting and want to play with the new set. I stand and take a break and gesture that they have a turn with the blocks while I watch and have a smoke and chat with my new friends. A Thai man in his forties dressed in slacks and shined shoes and impeccably pressed dress shirt produces his cell phone and snaps a photo of the pieces in the opening configuration. He is amused and attempts some conversation in English. “How much these? Where you get?”

I pull out a brochure from my backback and give him a business card and explain that they cost 2000 baht ($ 60 CDN) on my website but that this is my only set that I brought on my vacation so it isn’t for sale. He seems stunned, he can’t wrap his head around the fact that I’m not just some guy showing off some chess pieces, but I’m the same person that created the pieces.

And he turns and explains this to the rest of the crowd while pointing to the brochure and talking in rapid Thai, I can only guess he is praising me from their body language. This is a whole new level of respect and recognition and prestige that I have never experienced before. Status and the concept of face is paramount in this country. While many farangs are seen as sex tourists or scoundrels only in Thailand to exploit, I’m now getting looks akin to the respect a monk gets.

People are bowing and waing (placing their hands together and bowing at the waist) and for a moment it is a little overpowering for a guy in a $3 T-shirt, cheap shorts and sandals to comprehend. However, I’m relishing it, I have to admit, I haven’t had my ego stroked like this for a long time. And I’m not ashamed to say, I plan to get me some more of this good stuff.  More to come.

Jim Coady

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