The Chess Variant Pages

Daw Aye Moe Myint

Dr. Peter Nicolaus

MYANMA SIT TU YIN

BURMESE TRADITIONAL CHESS

1. History:

Chess arrived in Burma in the 8th century via the kingdoms of Arakan and Mon which had the closest links with the motherland of chess, India. In the 9th century specific rules - different from Chaturanga[1]- were established and, as Pali texts confirm, Burmese chess became quite fashionable as a court game during the Pagan period (1044-1287). In the 17th century, a Dutch traveler reported about a unique variety of chess widely played in Burma. However, it would seem that the Burmese never made an attempt to harmonize the rules. Thus, diverse rules were practiced not only in the various geographical regions, but also within the different social levels of Burmese society. Even when the first official championships in traditional Burmese chess were arranged after the Second World War, the rules selected for this special event were not generally accepted. Now international chess has replaced the Burmese variety almost everywhere and only few people can remember the traditional game and its rules.

2. Pieces and Board:

When chess debuted Burma, it was perceived as a quasi-religious game symbolizing the battle between good and evil. To this extent, it reflected the Ramayana, the ancient Hindu myth of Rama and Sita, in a Buddhist guise. One of Gauthama's pre-incarnations, King Rama (or Yama as the Burmese call him), with the help of Hanuman, the King of the Monkeys, defeats Da Tha Gi Ri, the ten-headed demon[2], who abducted Yama's beautiful wife, Sita (known as Thida in the Burmese version of the legend).

Pieces from the oldest chess sets clearly display this mythical context. The black king (Min-gyi), sometimes shown with a green face, sometimes with a green robe (never completely green) is the hero Yama whilst his counterpart, the red Min-gyi, is seen as the Da Tha Gi Ri. The black pawns (Ne) are carved as monkeys symbolizing Hanuman's army and the red Ne are demons. The black general (Sit-ke) could be Hanuman as his human body bears a monkey face. The red Sit-ke is clearly a powerful demon, however no specific name is attributed to him. The horses (Myin) and the elephants (Sin) are frequently mounted with riders. The riders of the red pieces are demons whilst monkeys ride the black Myin and Sin. The chariots (Yattah) have no apparent links to the legend, and look more like European rooks than chariots.

More recent pieces no longer reflect the Yama myth and symbolize only King, General, Knight, Elephant, Rook and Pawns.

The board is the standard eight-by-eight format, but often has additional markings on it. Though most of the various symbols are merely decorative, lines marking the long diagonals, which are frequently present, are used for Ne promotion.

3. Rules:

As noted earlier no standardized rules exist for traditional Burmese chess. Therefore the rules introduced below will reflect the ones established by the Burmese Chess Federation in preparation for the first national competitions after the Second World War. Main differences with other variations are primarily concerned with the opening of the game and the Ne promotion (both of which will be mentioned in those sections dealing with the respective rules).

3.1 Aim of the game

The objective of Burmese chess, as in international chess, is to mate the opponent's king (Min-gyi). However, in contrast to international chess a move leading to stalemate (i.e. the opponent cannot make any regular move) is not allowed. Unlike many Asian variations, but similar to international chess, no "bare king rule" exists.

3.2. Movement of pieces:

The Min-gyi moves in the same way as the modern king and, like the latter may not be placed en prise or sacrificed. The only difference with international chess is that no castling rule exists.

The Sit-ke moves diagonally one square at a time. Hence it is much less powerful than the Myin or the Sin.

The Myin moves as the modern knight.

The Sin moves one square at a time either diagonally or forward. It seems that Myin and Sin are of equal value. Nevertheless Burmese players appear somewhat reluctant to exchange a Myin against a Sin.

The Yattah moves as the modern rook and is by far the most powerful piece.

The Ne moves as the modern pawn, but may not take a double step for its first move. Therefore no en passant rule exists.

3.3. Placement of pieces:

At the first glance Burmese chess seems to be quite unusual as each player may decide as to how he will arrange his pieces behind his Ne (pawn) line. However when evaluating this rule, one soon recognizes that the concept differs only slightly from international chess where usually the first moves are played following standard openings. The difference is that in international chess the opening is played move by move whilst in Burmese chess the first player (Red) arranges his pieces and the other player (Black) answers with a counter arrangement. To illustrate this concept one could imagine two persons playing international chess commencing their game after White has, for instance, arranged his pieces to the Queen's Gambit opening and Black to the Nimzowitsch-Indian Defence[3]. Following this example the move 0-0 / Pd5xPc4, which is usually the 7th, would be the first one.

A few rules have to be followed in placing the pieces. The red Ne must be placed on A-3, B-3, C-3, D-3, E-4, F-4, G-4 and H-4 whilst the black Ne have to occupy A-5, B-5, C-5, D-5, E-6, F-6, G-6 and H-6. The first rank of each player is exclusively reserved for his two Yattah. Therefore the red Yattah must be placed on the first line (A-1 to H-1) whilst the black Yattah have to be set on the last line (A-8 to H-8). None of the two black Yattah can be arranged in a way that it is directly opposite the red Min-gyi, i.e. a black Yattah cannot be put on the same column as the red Min-gyi, if there is not at least one red piece, other than a red Ne, in-between them. All other pieces can be placed wherever the respective player wants to position them. In other words, the red pieces, other than Ne and Yattah, may occupy any square on the lines A2 To H2 and E3 to H3, whilst Black can arrange his pieces from A7 to H7 and from A6 to D6.

Players of traditional Burmese chess have over the centuries developed a number of standard beginning constellations (openings) and adequate responses to them. Among the most common one has to mention: Myin Set Pyin Kwet (Myin protects Myin)[4], Min Gyi Pone (Hidden King)[5],Myin Chate (Connected Myin), Myin Shin (Parallel Myin)[6], Myin Khwa (Astride Myin), Myin Htut (Stacked Myin), Sin Shin Myin Khwa (Parallel Sin and Astride Myin), Atwin Sit-ke Pauk (Staggered Sit-ke), Salin Kwet Pyaung (Salin's Change of Position)[7].

It would seem that Burmese players did not pay too much attention to possible variations of one beginning constellation. At least they did not follow the example of their colleagues playing international chess who found particular names for even the slightest modification of an opening. Thus, in Burmese chess any variation bears the name of the original beginning constellation whenever the main characteristics of the latter are given. For instance, the peculiarity of the Myin Set Pyin Kwet opening is that the two Myin cover each other. It is not of major importance where the two Myin are exactly located and how the other pieces are arranged (see diagram below, where both, Red and Black organized their forces to the Myin Set Pyin Kwet openings).

8         Ya Ya    
7     Mi Si My      
6   Si My Sk Ne Ne Ne Ne
5 Ne Ne Ne Ne        
4         Ne Ne Ne Ne
3 Ne Ne Ne Ne Sk Si My  
2     Si   My Mi    
1   Ya   Ya        
  a b c d e f g h

John Gollon describes another form of opening: "After the pawns are placed on the board, the players alternatively place one piece at a time. A player must place his piece behind his pawn line or on it. If he Chooses to place a piece on a square already occupied by one of his pawns, he replaces the pawn with the piece and places the pawn within his territory on another turn. When all the pieces are on the board, a player may change his arrangement by removing a piece on one turn and placing it elsewhere on another. When one player finally makes a move, the other must cease altering his own arrangement, place the last of his men on the board (one per turn as before), and begin moving normally."[8]

The most common form of beginning a Burmese chess game is reported by Burmese who witnessed it in their youth. According to these sources, the two players arranged their pieces clandestinely behind a curtain which divided the chess board straight in the middle. After the players had finished arranging their pieces the curtain was removed and the game commenced. This variation is interesting in that a certain element of chance is added to an otherwise entirely strategic game.

3.4. Promotion of Ne:

On reaching any square on either diagonal line of the board, a Ne may be promoted to a Sit-ke, if the player has no Sit-ke on the board. If a Ne is already on a diagonal, and if the player has no Sit-ke on the board, he may promote the Ne instead of moving with such a promotion counting as a turn.

Because the Sit-ke is, by definition, not much more powerful than a Ne itself, the possibility of Ne promotion seems to be of minor importance. Thus players are reluctant to promote a Ne at the cost of wasting a move or losing tempo.[9] Furthermore Ne advancing towards the diagonals are not perceived as an imminent danger, at least not as long as the Sit-ke of the same colour is still in the game. Hence it is apparent that the movements of Ne, even during the end-game, cannot be considered as important as those of the pawns in international chess. It seems that the further Ne advance, the less dangerous they become, since they are doomed to inactivity when they reach the last rank (the only exception being the four corner squares, where they can still be promoted).

John Gollon narrates a different version concerning Ne promotion for which, however, Burmese sources could not provide any confirmation. According to him the Sit-ke replacing the Ne "may be placed either on the promotion square (the square in which the pawn reached the long diagonal) or on any square adjacent to it."[10] Similarly unconfirmed is the rule described by Edward Falkener[11], namely that "the Ne are promoted to Yattah, regardless of the number of Yattah a player already has." Though both variations are questionable, it would appear that the game certainly moves faster when these rules (in particular the latter one) are used.

4. Sample games:

The following three sample games are taken from a collection of games the famous champion U Thein Zaw[12] played in several contests.[13]

Burmese Championship 1983

RED                    BLACK
Tun Aung               Thein Zaw 

Myin Set Pyin Kwet     Myin Shin    
Myin protects Myin     Parallel Myin

Min-gyi (Mi): F2 / C7; Sit-ke (Sk): E3 / D6; Sin (Si): C2, F3 / C3, F7; Myin (My): E2, G3 / D2, E2; Yattah (Ya): B1, D1 / E8, G8; Ne: A3, B3, C3, D3, E4, F4, G4, H4 / A5, B5, C5, D5, E6, F6, G6 H6

8 Ya Ya
7 Mi My My Si
6 Si Sk Ne Ne Ne Ne
5 Ne Ne Ne Ne
4 Ne Ne Ne Ne
3 Ne Ne Ne Ne Sk Si My
2 Si My Mi
1 Ya Ya
  a b c d e f g h
 1. (Ne) H4-H5           (Ne) G6-G5
 2. (Ne) F4-F5           (My) D7-E5
 3. (Ne) D3-D4           (My) E5XF3 (Si)
 4. (Ne) F5XE6 (Ne)      (Si) F7XE6 (Ne)
 5. (Mg) F2XF3 (My)      (Ne) D5XE4 (Ne) +
 6. (My) G3XE4 (Ne)      (Si) C6-D5 +
 7. (My) E4-G3           (Ne) F6-F5
 8. (Ne) G4XF5 (Ne)      (Si) E6XF5 (Ne)
 9. (Ne) D4XC5 (Ne)      (Sk) D6XC5 (Ne)
10. (Si) C2-D3           (Ya) G8-F8
11. (Mg) F3-G2           (Si) F5-G4 
12. (Ya) D1-F1           (My) E7-F5
13. (My) G3XF5 (My)      (Si) G4XF5 (My)
14. (Sk) E3-D2           (Si) D5-E4
15. (Si) D3XE4 (Si)      (Ya) E8XE4 (Si)
16. (My) E2-G3           (Ya) E4-G4
17. (Ya) F1XF5 (Si)      

This is certainly a bad move but Red has no real alternative. Even if he plays very well the best he can reach is a draw.

                         (Ya) F8XF5 (Ya)

Red resigns

Burmese Championship 1986

RED                    BLACK
Thein Zaw              Maung Maung Latt

Salin Kwet Pyaung      Myin Set Pyin Kwet

Salin's Change
of                     Myin covers Myin  
Squares

Min-gyi (Mi): F2 / C7; Sit-ke (Sk): E3 / D6; Sin (Si): D2, F3 / C6, E7; Myin (My): C2, G3 / B6, D7; Yattah (Ya): B1, D1 / D8 F8; Ne: A3, B3, C3, D3, E4, F4, G4, H4 / A5, B5, C5, D5, E6, F6, G6 H6

8 Ya Ya
7 Mi My Si
6 My Si Sk Ne Ne Ne Ne
5 Ne Ne Ne Ne
4 Ne Ne Ne Ne
3 Ne Ne Ne Ne Sk Si My
2 My Si Mi
1 Ya Ya
a b c d e f g h
 1. (Ne) H4-H5         (Ne) G6-G5
 2. (Ne) F4-F5         (Ne) A5-A4
 3. (Ne) B3-B4         (Ne) C5-C4
 4. (Ne) F5XE6 (Ne)    (Si) E7XE6 (Ne)
 5. (My) C2-D4         (Ya) D8-E8
 6. (Ne) D3XC4 (Ne)    (My) B6XC4 (Ne)
 7. (Si) D2-D3         (My) C4-E5
 8. (My) D4XE6 (Si) +  (Ya) E8XE6 (My)
 9. (Sk) E3-D4         (My) E5XD3 (Si) +
10. (Ya) D1XD3 (My)    (Sk) D6-E5
11. (Ya) B1-E1         (My) D7-B6
12. (My) G3-F5         (My) B6-C4
13. (Sk) D4-C5         (Ne) D5XE4 (Ne)
14. (Si) F3XE4 (Ne)    (Ya) E6-E8
15. (My) F5XH6 (Ne)    (Sk) E5-F4
16. (My) H6-F5         (Sk) F4-E3 +
17. (Ya) E1XE3 (Sk)    (My) C4XE3 (Ya)
18. (Sk) C5-D6 +       (Mg) C7-B6
19. (Mg) F2XE3 (My)    (Ya) E8-D8
20. (Ne) C3-C4         (Ne) B5XC4 (Ne)
21. (Ya) D3-C3         (Ya) F8-E8
22. (Ya) C3XC4 (Ne)    (Ya) D8-D7
23. (Mg) E3-D4         (Ya) E8-E6
24. (Si) E4-D5         (Mg) B6-B5
25. (Si) D5XE6 (Ya)    Black resigns

Yangon Division Championship 1986

RED                    BLACK
Thein Zaw              Chit Sein

Min Gyi Pone           Myin Set Pyin Kwet
Hidden King            Myin protects Myin

Min-gyi (Mi): C2 / C7; Sit-ke (Sk): E3 / D6; Sin (Si): B2, D2 / C6, F7; Myin (My): E2, F3 / B6, D7; Yattah (Ya): F1, G1 / E8, F8; Ne: A3, B3, C3, D3, E4, F4, G4, H4 / A5, B5, C5, D5, E6, F6, G6 H6

8 Ya Ya
7 Mi My Si
6 My Si Sk Ne Ne Ne Ne
5 Ne Ne Ne Ne
4 Ne Ne Ne Ne
3 Ne Ne Ne Ne Sk Si My
2 Si Mi Si My
1 Ya Ya
a b c d e f g h
 1. (Ne) G4-G5         (Ne) H6XG5 (Ne)
 2. (Ne) H4XG5 (Ne)    (Ne) E6-E5
 3. (Ne) G5XF6 (Ne)    (Ne) D5XE4 (Ne)
 4. (Ne) D3XE4 (Ne)    (Ne) E5XF4 (Ne)
 5. (Sk) E3XF4 (Ne)    (Ya) E8XE4 (Ne)
 6. (Si) D2-E3         (Ya) E4-E8
 7. (Si) B2-C1         (My) D7XF6 (Ne)
 8. (Si) C1-D2         (Si) C6-D5
 9. (My) F3-G5         (Si) D5-E6
10. (Si) D2-D3         (Si) E6-F5
11. (Mg) C2-D2         (My) B6-D5
12. (Ne) B3-B4         (My) D5XE3 (Si)
13. (Sk) F4XE3 (Si)    (My) F6-D5
14. (Ne) B4XC5 (Ne)    (My) D5XE3 (Sk)
15. (Ne) C5XD6 (Sk) +  (Mg) C7-D7
16. (Ya) F1-B1         (Si) F7-F6
17. (My) G5-H7         (Ya) F8-F7
18. (My) H7XF6 (Si) +  (Ya) F7XF6 (My)
19. (Ya) B1XB5 (Ne)    (Ya) F6XD6 (Ne)
20. (My) E2-D4         (My) E3-D5
21. (Ya) B5-B7 +       (My) D5-C7
22. (My) D4XF5 (Si)    Black resigns

Bibliography:

Edward Falkener, Games Ancient and Oriental and How to Play Them, New York 1962.

John Gollon, Chess Variations, Vermont 1974.

Maung Maung Aye, Myanmar Traditional Chess, Yangon Oct. 1989 (in Myanmar language)


[1]The oldest known version of chess, apparently still played in the Panjab.

[2]In the Ramayana he is Ravana, the king of the giant.

[3]1) Pd2-d4 Hg8-f6, 2) Pc2-c4 Pe7-e6, 3) Hb1-c3 Bf8-b4, 4) Pe2-e3, Pc7-c5 5) Bf1-d3 Pd7-d5, 6) Hg1-f3 0-0.

[4]See sample game number 1.

[5]See sample game number 3.

[6]See sample game number 1.

[7]See sample game number 2.

[8]Chess Variations, 194.

[9]See sample game No. 3.

[10]Ibid

[11]Games Ancient and Oriental and How to Play Them (quoted in John Gollon, Chess Variations, 194)

[12]Born 1954 in Kon Chan Gone he graduated in 1977 and holds a B.Sc. in Geology. He works as teacher and has been playing international chess since 1968. He started playing Burmese chess in 1973 and won the national championship in the years 1980, 1981, 1982, 1983 and 1987.

[13]published by Maung Maung Aye (Myanmar Traditional Chess, Yangon Oct. 1989).


Written by Dr. Peter Nicolaus.
WWW page created: July 27, 2002.