Makruk, Thailand’s take on chess

When it comes to board games few, if any, fascinate more than chess.

There are various reasons for the fascination, including how the game has endured.

Computers now can challenge the best in the game, yet there remain avid players from beginner to Grand Master, many aspiring to be World Champion.

Another factor is the diversity under the envelope of what we recognize as chess games.

Recently the Japanese version of chess’ Shogi was covered with a series of articles in this space.

While Shogi is perhaps the best known of what I term ‘international variants’, there are a number of others which are worth taking a closer look.

One of those is Makruk.

“Makruk, or Thai chess, is a board game descended from the 6th-century Indian game of chaturanga or a close relative thereof, and therefore related to chess,” details Wikipedia. “It is regarded as the most similar living game to this common ancestor of all chess variants.”

Sets are rather unique looking, especially the knights which are generally the largest pieces, looking a tad like a donkey.

You can find sets on ebay.com regularly, and while they are typically lighter plastic, they are typical of Makruk sets, and they are very low cost. For anyone interested in the game the sets are ideal.

Oh yes, and the knights move as we are familiar within international chess.

The same is true of rooks.

That is where the similarities end.

“The pawn (called bia, a cowry shell, formerly used for money) moves and captures like a pawn in international chess, but cannot move two steps on the first move and, therefore, cannot be captured en passant. A pawn that reaches the sixth rank is always promoted to a queen (med),” details Wikipedia.

The pieces look much like checkers, and when flipped, (to mark promotion), they look a bit strange, but that is part of the charm of Makruk too.

The queen, by contrast to international chess, is the weakest piece. It moves only one step in any diagonal direction, like the fers in shatranj, or a cat sword in dai shogi, a larger version of the aforementioned shogi.

Interesting, bishops basically mimic the queen in Makruk, with one additional move option. They move one step in any diagonal direction or one step forward, like the silver general in shogi.

“The king (called khun, meaning either a feudal lord or a title-holder of the lowest ranks in the ancient Thai nobility) moves like a king in international chess - one step in any direction,” details Wikipedia.

As is typical in chess, the game ends when the king is checkmated.

In terms of game play Wikipedia also details that “according to former world chess champion Vladimir Kramnik, ‘Makruk Thai is more strategic than international chess. You have to plan your operations with total care since Makruk Thai can be compared to an anticipated endgame of International Chess.’”

Further, “Kramnik is a Russian chess Grandmaster. He was the Classical World Chess Champion from 2000 to 2006, and the undisputed World Chess Champion from 2006 to 2007. He has won three team gold medals and three individual medals at Chess Olympiads.”

Since pieces move less dramatically in Makruk, the game is slower to develop.

For the same reason, the game needs a bit more caution in terms if approach. Retreat may not be an option should trouble arise.

It should also be noted, “the variety of chess played in Cambodia, called “Ok” (Khmer: or “Ouk Chatrang” is virtually identical to Makruk, with a couple of minor differences,” again from Wikipedia. “On the king’s first move, a player has the option of moving the king like a knight, but only if not in check and only if no pieces have been captured. On the queen’s first move, the player has the option of moving the queen two squares straight ahead—again, only if no pieces have been captured. There is evidence that Ouk Chatrang has been played in Cambodia since the twelfth century, as it is depicted in several reliefs in the Angkor temples.”

But that is the stuff for a future review perhaps. Until then seek out a Makruk set, and enjoy.

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