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Vietnam university math lecturer finds 'escape' in Chinese chess commentary

Wednesday, June 03, 2020, 11:29 GMT+7
Vietnam university math lecturer finds 'escape' in Chinese chess commentary
Phan Thanh Viet, who runs the ‘Vit U Co Tuong’ Chinese chess commentary YouTube channel, analyzes the epochal 1982 chess match between Zhao Guo Rong and Hu Rong Hua in this supplied photo.

From the first few seconds of audio, avid patrons of the online Chinese chess community in Vietnam can immediately recognize the thick south-central coast accent spelling a dry sense of humor to be the voice of ‘Vit U Co Tuong’ — a niche YouTuber providing insightful commentaries on high-profile chess matchups.

Chinese chess has long been a prevalent hobby for Vietnamese.

One can easily spot small gatherings in local parks, with Vietnamese people of all ages being equally engrossed in figuring out tactical moves on a little square chess board.

As the country moves forward and establishes a place in the digital realm, Vietnam’s Chinese chess community is also making its shift to the virtual plane.

In the newly established scene, ‘Vit U Co Tuong’ stands out as a household name.

Over the course of a few hundred uploaded videos, ‘Vit U Co Tuong’ managed to foster his channel to the impressive 250,000-subscriber mark using only his voice, keeping all personal information — including his face — undisclosed.

Ironically, the enigmatic real-life identity that he strived to protect was unveiled in Tuoi Tre Cuoi Tuan, a weekly magazine published by Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper, in a May issue from a slip by his own brother.

In an interview with Tuoi Tre Cuoi Tuan after receiving the prestigious European Mathematical Society (EMS) award, mathematician Pham Thanh Nam pointed to his brother in a family picture and referred to him as a fellow mathematician and also the owner of a flourishing YouTube channel on Chinese chess.

The brother was later revealed to be Phan Thanh Viet, a young lecturer working in the mathematics and statistics faculty of Ton Duc Thang University in Ho Chi Minh City. 

Viet possesses an academic profile similar to his brother Nam, despite his claim of “an inferior passion for math” compared to his brother. 

Right off his graduation from the University of Science in Ho Chi Minh City as a bachelor of mathematical and computer science, Viet received an academic scholarship from France.

He completed his PhD residency at Institut National Sciences Appliquees de Rennes (INSA Rennes), but then chose to return to Vietnam rather than being a professor at a top European Union academic institution like his brother did. 

The choice was predicated partly on his relationship with his family.

The other part, according to Viet, was a mixture of things peculiar to Vietnam that he cannot find in the European way of life, and Chinese chess is one of them.

“Considering research purposes only, staying in Europe would be a better bet as they already formed a community of math enthusiasts to exchange and collaborate,” Viet said.

“But I am kind of a hedonist, and I saw life in France rather resembled one of a monk. I left for school, took math problems home and solved them, then rinsed and repeated it, just like that every day.”

It was out of this context that ‘Vit U Co Tuong’ was born, simply as a means of 'escape' from the grind of academia life.

At the time, Viet was a pioneer in educational videos and commentary on Chinese chess content on Vietnamese YouTube. 

“My skill is actually sub-par, so I mainly made videos on start-game strategy for beginners,” Viet confessed.

Those videos unexpectedly blew up, which motivated him to branch out into wildcard strategy and high-profile matchup commentary videos. 

With a content niche in mind, his channel gradually developed a solid fanbase. 

Viet is mulling over various plans to expand his channel even further in the future.

Mathematics and wuxia 

Beside the strategy game, Viet is also held spellbound by Chinese martial art novels, known as ‘wuxia.’ 

He knows by heart all the signature martial art moves, lexicon, and speech patterns from the works of Jin Yong, the genre-defining author.

The style eventually carried on to his commentary work on YouTube and it left his fans charmed. 

Viet’s affinity for literature stems from his childhood memories with his dad, who had a career in journalism.

Later in life, he was motivated to follow the mathematics path out of admiration for his brother Nam. 

He faced his share of obstacles on his academia journey, the most prominent of which was financial pressure. 

Thus, Viet feels fortunate to find certain stability from his researcher and lecturer income at the moment.

“It’s hard being a researcher in Vietnam since there are many high-paying jobs tempting you. This is why pursuing fundamental science is not for everyone,” he said.

Though he finds both delight and income from chess, Viet claims to stick to mathematics as his main career in the foreseeable future. 

Looking back at his math journey, Viet analyzes the milestones with wuxia imagery. 

“I find the way of teaching math in public schools pretty boring. It incentivizes solving the most challenging problems. Just like in wuxia novels, learning only the moves but having no chakra.”

He got caught in that superficial mindset until Duong Minh Duc, an esteemed calculus professor came by him in college to debunk the myth and point him to a righteous path in mathematics.

“It’s almost like Ling Ho Chong when he started out learning the Nine Swords of Dugu, am I right?” Viet said, alluding to another wuxia tale while smiling.

Viet humbled himself when asked about his prowess in Chinese chess; in his words, he plays “just for fun.” 

“I usually practice at a chess club in District 3, many gurus play there as well,” Viet said.

His job as a commentator requires as much dedication as professional chess players do. Viet has spent years reading documents on the most bizarre stories of Chinese chess in order to fuel his commentary.

“The Chinese chess world is as extensive as the wuxia universe in Jin Yong’s novels,” the virtuoso said. 

Knowing this, he holds himself to a high standard when commentating on chess matches.

“I have to grasp the playstyle of each player, their life stories, and their aliases in order to narrate the matches well.” 

Viet gave the impression that he can spend all day talking about larger-than-life stories of Hu Rong Hua and Yang Guan Lin, his favorite Chinese chess gurus.

“Yang Guan Lin made a name for himself from betting money on his own chess games. He established a chess tower and challenged other players for money, and once went on an 800-match streak without losing,” Viet said.

“Hu Rong Hua came from a later generation and incorporated the two schools of playstyle, I feel like he has the flair of Zhang Sanfeng,” Viet said, inserting a quick reference to a wuxia mythical hero. 

The quirkiness and informative demeanor of ‘Vit U Co Tuong’ has found a whopping success with a younger, more tech-savvy generation of chess lovers in Vietnam.

After hearing the way Viet incorporates old literature fantasies into his commentary, one may never think of Chinese chess as an austere hobby ever again.

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Xuan Tung - Huy Dang / Tuoi Tre News

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