When Sim Yip first saw Jianki as a little boy, he looked as if he had been mesmerized, as the grandmasters were confused by the ancient Chinese game.
The 38-year-old Malaysian is now a recreational SEA Games silver medalist, which, according to regional competition players, is growing in popularity.
Also known as Chinese Chess, Jiangki is a two-player board game from thousands of years ago but it is making its debut in Vietnam’s SEA Games.
Sim, a resident of Kuching in the eastern Malaysian state of Sarawak, said he saw the masters fight with each other at the age of seven.
“All the best players came from Kuching and the Sarawak champions came and played in my dad’s coffee shop,” he told AFP at the SEA Games, where players are silently staring at pieces of thick cloth from the board.
“When I saw them, I made them idols. I saw the international grandmasters and I thought ‘wow, I want to be like them one day.’
Its fans say Jiangki is more complex than his Western counterpart.
When playing chess on an eight-by-eight grid, Jiangki’s board is nine lines wide and 10 long, pieces are moved to 90 possible intersections of the line.
It uses terrain with a valley in the middle where certain units cannot cross, and a safe zone where a common, important part of a party, cannot be left.
Games last from 10-15 minutes to five hours in a “blitz” version.
Xiangqi’s four-medal event was probably the quietest in the regional games, with some volunteers watching as well as almost no visitors to the mountain resort, a three-hour drive outside of Hanoi.
Despite a muted physical presence, Sim said the matches were watched online and deeply in Malaysia, where there are “thousands” of enthusiasts.
Originally confined to some parts of East Asia, Jiangki enjoys a growing global prestige today, says those at the Games.
It has been playing a biennial world championship since 1991 and made its debut at the 2010 Asian Games in China.
In Vietnam, the host of the SEA Games, the country’s shared borders with China and its long history have greatly enriched the game here, said game arbiter Koch Fuong Min.
“Every province, every city (Vietnam) has events for children,” the 34-year-old, who started playing at just six years old, told AFP.
As the game returns to the SEA Games in Cambodia next year, Min predicts more pick-ups “in just a few years.”
“It’s not just for the elderly,” he added.
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