People play Sittuyin at the Myanmar Chess Federation in Yangon. New carved sets cost around $300 — far beyond the reach of ordinary people in the still impoverished Myanmar. Image Credit: AFP

Yangon: Gripping a monkey-faced chess piece, Thein Zaw swipes his hand across the chequerboard and topples an advancing demon, demonstrating an ancient form of the game that Myanmar traditionalists are battling to revive.

Sittuyin, as Myanmar’s unique chess is called, is similar to the modern game but has distinctive pieces and moves that echo a time when warriors used it to fine-tune real fighting strategies.

Elephants rampage across the squares, a military general marches in place of the queen and players have creative freedom to arrange many of the pieces as they wish, behind front-line pawns that start almost spear-to-chest.

“The game can feel like you are fighting a war,” said Zaw, a five-time Myanmar chess champion, during a recent Sittuyin contest in downtown Yangon.

His match is combative from the outset, with slain pieces quickly piling up on either side of the board.

But soon both armies become entrenched and the games reaches long into the sweltering tropical afternoon, punctuated only by exclamations, the strategic rearrangement of longyi sarongs and pensive twirling of spectacles.

The scene is a rare one in a nation where Sittuyin has retreated into the sporting wilderness.

A scarcity of traditional chess sets and dearth of available knowledge about the rules have whittled down interest, so that just under one hundred players actively attend tournaments.

“This is an ancient game and we would like to bring it back to life,” Zaw said.

Zaw’s hand-carved chess set of monkeys and ogres evokes the earliest incarnations of the game in neighbouring India, playing out the mythical good-versus-evil battle of Rama and the diety Hanuman against the demon king Ravana.

Experts say this suggests the Myanmar version could be over a thousand years old.

Jean-Louis Cazaux, who has written extensively on the history of chess, said Sittuyin has similarities to traditional games in Thailand and Cambodia and is an important addition to a global pantheon of chess varieties.

“Diversity is wealth. If these games can be preserved they must be preserved,” he said.

Sittuyin retains some of the full-blooded flamboyance from the days when kings used it to plot real battles in which elephants were a fearsome weapon - “Sitt” in Burmese means “war”.

“Myanmar kings fought in the front lines of every war. Similarly, the result of the game depends on the king being active,” said Win Aung, vice-chairman of the Myanmar Chess Federation.

Traditional games were peppered by the combative crack of the pieces against the wooden board.

“When my father and grandfather played it was like this,” said Aung, slamming a pawn down onto the table. “We were scared!”

Those pieces are now a cherished heirloom, their handsome red and black elephants, castles and galloping horses smoothed by more than a century of table-top warfare.

Old sets are scarce in Myanmar, where five decades of brutal military rule brought both a cultural malaise and poverty that turned intricately carved wooden traditional chess sets into luxury items.

They were sold off piece by piece.

“Visitors from other countries love to buy ancient chess pieces when they come here. Myanmar sold the pieces as examples of ancient artistic creation to tourists. Now they are nearly all gone,” Aung said.

With new carved sets costing around $300 (Dh1,101) - far beyond the reach of ordinary people in the still impoverished nation - chess groups are modernising to chase mass appeal.

Cheap plastic pieces and a rule book, in both Burmese and English, are now on the market, and the tech-loving younger generation can play the ancient game on mobile phones - now widely available as the country opens after decades of restrictions.

Web application firm Total Game Play launched a mobile version in late 2013 and says it has since been downloaded up to 200,000 times.

The firm’s 25-year-old marketing manager Sai Pyae Phyo Han said local gamers like Sittuyin’s colourful characters and the ability to switch between a “formal army, Thai army and an ogre army”.

“I want to produce more mobile games that are uniquely Myanmar and make culture entertaining,” he said.