Dana Filek-Gibson explores the spectacle of martial arts combined with human chess. Photos by Vinh Dao.

Martial arts combined with human chess. Dana Filek-Gibson explores the spectacle of martial arts combined with human chess. Photos by Vinh Dao.Eyes front, hands to knees, spines straight as arrows, the 32 people seated on the scorching pavement of District 1’s Nha Van Hoa Thanh Nien might as well be statues. It’s a lively Sunday morning: beyond the courtyard, parking attendants jostle motorbikes and collect tickets. Students roam the area, talking and eating, studying and texting, a cacophony of noise left in their wake. But here, nobody moves without instruction.

“Red team!” a voice cries into the microphone, “Attack!”

Suddenly, the slender frame of Nguyen Huu Tuyen comes to life. Clad in red and black, she springs to her feet and lets out a battle cry. The red band running around Tuyen’s head signifies her allegiance as she leaps over her teammates and into the centre. Three metres away, a blue-uniformed opponent follows suit, emitting his own roar as he bounds to a standing position.

But by the time the blue team arrives, Tuyen has already formulated a plan of attack. The young man, taller than she, throws a side kick, followed by a flurry of punches. Tuyen grimaces and staggers back. When she retaliates, it’s a lot of the same. The two trade blows for another minute, drums pounding, as a crowd begins to look on. And then, it’s over in one motion: a burst of energy sends Tuyen behind her opponent, one foot landing deftly on his right thigh, another forming a chokehold at his neck. They tumble together, hitting the ground as she lets out a yell, and it is only Tuyen who gets back up. Stone-faced and triumphant, she grabs him by the collar and unceremoniously drags him off the field of play. So goes a victory in human chess martial arts.

While life-sized board games are nothing new to Vietnam – human chess has long been a pasttime in the northern and central regions – the combination of human chess and martial arts belongs to Saigon. In 1987, Ho Tuong, a master of Vietnamese martial arts, saw human chess as an opportunity to introduce Vietnamese martial arts into a game of strategy as well as a public forum. After watching the traditional version in Hanoi, Master Tuong left with an idea.

“The players sat on chairs, but when they moved, it was only from one chair to another,” Tuong recalls. “For spectators, it was boring.”

When he returned to Saigon, it took little more than a year to recruit and train a team of his own. Tuong and another martial arts master, Le Van Van, joined forces to create the city’s first human chess martial arts team. In the frenetic environment of the local community centre, their first demonstrations drew a lot of attention. Before long, Master Tuong and his team were fielding invitations to perform as near as Binh Duong and as far as Hanoi.

“Of course, people liked it more than the traditional version,” Tuong says. “[In human chess martial arts,] people can watch the players battle, and there is an emcee to explain everything, so people learn about chess and martial arts at the same time.”

On the whole, Master Tuong’s brand of human chess is not so much a game as it is a performance. Players as young as 10 don red and blue uniforms, emblazoned with the character of the Chinese chess piece they represent. Each person takes a position upon the massive game board, which is laid onto any surface and always interrupted by a rectangular space at the centre known as the ‘river’. The average human chess martial arts performance will last about an hour and feature a series of battles, culminating in a checkmate showdown between one team’s general and a soldier from the opposing team.

After her battle Tuyen, who has studied under Master Tuong for three years and five human chess martial arts performances, explains the appeal of live performance. “It can be nerve-wracking because there are lots of people, but it’s exciting to see so many spectators,” she says.

For the players, battles are pre-determined. Before a pair spars in front of an audience, they will decide who wins and who loses, how they will fight and which weapons, if any, they will use. According to Tuyen, the choreography can be tough to master but perfecting it helps to assure that no one injures their teammates. One of the group’s more experienced and aggressive fighters, Nguyen Van Trong, has performed so many times he can’t count but he, too, still occasionally gets injured. Trong, whose soft-spoken demeanour comes as a surprise after he’s seen sailing through the air, brandishing swords and spears at his opponents, points out a scar on his left hand.

“Sometimes people get hurt, but everyone tries to be careful,” he says.

For Master Tuong, the success of his program has been heartening, however things have certainly changed over the years. His students have gotten younger. People stay for less time. In such a fast-paced city, more and more students graduate from university and, thanks to their jobs, cannot continue to perform, leaving behind less experienced players.

“Students come here to learn [martial arts], but when they graduate they must go to work,” Tuong says. “Still, there are also students who really love martial arts and choose to stay.”

Invitations, too, are down, despite the fact that Master Tuong believes more people than ever know about human chess martial arts. In its heyday, Saigon’s three teams would perform up to 300 times a year. Today, given the costs of transporting and feeding nearly 40 people at an event, Master Tuong estimates that the teams only receive about 30 requests a year.

“Before, we performed a lot,” he recalls. “In the morning, we performed. When we finished we would get on the bus, eat breakfast, go to another place, perform, eat lunch on the bus, go to another place and perform again. We were performing from morning til night.”

Still, there is promise. Today, Saigon alone boasts three human chess martial arts teams. Though some students are perhaps less able to commit, the group’s performances still manage to draw a crowd. By the time the final fight begins in the courtyard, a wall of people has formed – some with smartphones and video cameras – to watch as Trong takes on two enemies at once. Though he’s swift and precise, in the end Trong’s fate is sealed when, in a sudden dynamic display of athletics, an opponent steals a sword from his possession. The game ends with Trong, like many before him, being carted off the playing field.