Last update: 07:00 | 10/04/2018
Upon arriving to Hanoi’s Ho Guom, or Returned Sword Lake, one cannot keep the strange feeling out of an established legendary story about a genie tortoise that helped King Le Thai To drive Chinese Ming invaders away in the 15th century and about the lake’s elegant beauty bestowed by the Creator.
The Lake has become a cultural hub for Co Tuong, or Chinese chess, a mental sport activity that attracts people from all walks of life.
The Lake has become a cultural hub for Co Tuong, or Chinese chess, a mental sport activity that attracts people from all walks of life. Each chessboard is required to have 32 pieces, with 16 red pieces and 16 black pieces. Either the red or the black side includes seven types of pieces, each of which has its own value and move.
It is said that this chess game originated from Saturanga, an Indian ancient type of chess invented between the fifth and sixth centuries. In the seventh century, Saturanga was developed into Co Tuong in the Orient and Co Vua (chess champion) in the West.
“No one ever remembers when Co Tuong appeared here,” says 68 year old Le Huu Do, a pensioner living on Phan Chu Trinh Street. “I only know that in the 1980s, every afternoon a number of people started gathering here playing chess,” Do pauses for a sip of hot tea while his eyes remain glued to the old wooden chessboard.
“Later on, the number of players increased, so the number of chessboards also increased,” continues another pensioner Pham Gia Man sitting by Do.
To my eyes, four consecutive chessboards are put in a line by the lake. Man says that normally, in the mornings or afternoons of weekends, some 25-30 chessboards can be found around the lake with a lot of people. Often, each chessboard is played by at least two people and watched by five to ten people.
“Every day, there are more than 100 players,” Man says, adding that most of the players are older people, who have more free time and a passion for chess. “They come here to enjoy the fresh air and exchange strange and interesting chess moves.”
“We also want to perfect ourselves through the moves,” says aged Le Huu Phuc, stroking his long white beard. “I am 82 years old, but need to learn more about lifestyles and knowledge from other people,” Phuc says, pointing to a young man who is engrossed in the chessboard with Do. “He is a very good player. His moves surprise us!” the old man says.
The chessboard includes two active perfect “nations” sharing a “river” that lies between. Each nation includes all social strata and a king, mandarins, an army, and soldiers that are arranged into three harmonious layers full of oriental culture.
Chess players have their own languages. For example, the King piece is called Ong nhieu rau, or bearded piece, because it has many dashes or because it reminds everyone of the image of Cao Cao in the Chinese San Guo novel. The pawn piece is called Thang tot, or the Soldier, because it is classified last in the rank of chess pieces. All of the pieces are personified.
Man, who has 40 years of experience of playing chess says that the players are required to be careful and patient. “You cannot play for form’s sake and hurriedly,” Man says, adding that the game that Le Huu Do and the young man are playing has lasted nearly two hours.
“If you want to be successful, you have to be careful first. You can teach your children to play chess as one of the most effective educational methods,” he says.
20 year old Nguyen Huu Vinh, a student with the Hanoi University of Culture says he likes chess very much because it requires players’ insightfulness. “It is one of the popular entertainment activities helping stimulate nerve-cells and maintain memory. More importantly, it can show off your character, knowledge, and vision through your moves,” Vinh explains.
Le Huu Phuc adds that chess is in the character of the Orient’s people who never want to solve all problems through violence, but rather take victory through wisdom.
In the subdued sunlight, signaling the close of a day full of hard work, in the roar of assorted traffic vehicles around the lake, boundaries between ages and social backgrounds quickly disappear. What is now the most attractive is to find out excellent players.
Phuc tells me that the chess game is divided into two categories: Co pho thong, or popular chess and Co dao, or moral chess. The former allows players to use all tricks and measures to beat the contenders, while the latter incarnates the cultural exchange between players.
“The chessboard represents our ways of life,” Phuc says. “If you carefully observe players’ gestures, moves, and their ways of holding the pieces, you can find out who they are. Whoever is narrow-minded, his moves aim at only immediate benefits. Whoever is cunning, his moves are full of tricks. Whoever is insightful and good-tempered, his moves are offensive and defensive effectively,” the experienced player says.
Dave, an American language teacher, says that he was intrigued by the chess games on his first visit to Hanoi. “I come to the lake every evening to watch the chess players. In my nation, chess also appears but is not as popular as here. I cannot imagine how much people like it!” Dave says.
Chess playing has become Hanoians elegant cultural trait. However, Man says that chess needs to receive special attention from authorized agencies because quite a few incidents have happened to families with members having become hooked on chess and deserting their working life.
“For example, chess has broken the family life of a family in Hang Dau Street. The husband, who spends his days and nights studying chess, has been asked for a divorce by his wife,” he says.
“Or sometimes, chess players also cause social disorder because they capitalise on the game to gamble money,” he says.