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Shape up or shape out with classic game

Update: April, 05/2010 - 23:04

Shapes and sizes: Eighty-year-old Bui Trong Hoan guides his great-grandson during the game. — VNS Photo Manh Hoang
by Thu Giang

Even as internet games spread across the world and thread their way into the capital city, one traditional game, Tri Uan, is still going strong throughout the country.

The object of the game is to compile geometric figures from seven basic wooden pieces. The game helps sharpen powers of observation through the discovery of resemblance between geometric and natural forms, such as a face, a lotus, a horse, a bird and a heart, amongst others.

Fifty-five-year-old Hoang Kien Cuong says that he has played the game since he was a little boy. He would follow his grandfather to the bookstore on Hang Bong Street, which sold the Tri Uan game. It had seven pieces in various shapes, like trapezium and triangles. All were made of cardboard.

"Playing the game was more interesting than reading a book. I had no idea then that I would still be playing today," says Kien.

Kien says that the first shape he made was a map of Viet Nam. "I had to spend one day studying and shaping it. When I succeeded, I was very happy. It was great."

From 1968 to 1972, my family and many others in the city had to be evacuated because of the war. My game was lost during this time, and afterward, I couldn't find another one anywhere in the city. I thought that Tri Uan game belonged only to the past.

Then one day, more than 10 years ago, Kien says that he chanced upon Nguyen Tri Hung, and knew that he was the son of Nguyen Tri Uan, who created the geometric game. He finally found the game again, and now his daughters are very interested in playing it as well.

Guess what: Shapes that can be made during the game. — VNS Photos Thu Giang
Back to the origin

Many people know about the game, but only a few of them know about its origins. It was created by the late Tri Uan, who had devoted his whole life to the country's revolution and the game's development.

According to Nguyen Bach Ngoc, Uan's second daughter, her father had taken part in revolutionary activities since he was very young. He was arrested by French troops in May 1940 when he was 24 and exiled in northern Phu Tho Province. Thanks to help from his comrades, he fled to Ha Noi and took part in underground revolutionary activities.

At that time, the enemy was carrying out raids and spies were everywhere. Uan hid himself in a lumber room at a house at 42 Hue Street in Ha Noi. His only source of entertainment was to cut cartons into pieces and make them into shapes.

"My father told me that he was an excellent student of math at the Buoi High School, so he wanted to make something out of what he had learned. After several days, he had cut seven pieces from an 8x10cm rectangle," says Ngoc.

"From these pieces, my father could shape thousands of natural forms. At that time, my father named the game: Evereto."

Eighty-year-old Bui Trong Hoan, a resident in Ha Noi, says that he has enjoyed the game since he was a child. Many adults, rich and poor alike, played the game. The rich always played with sets made of lacquer, while the poor used sets made of normal wood or cardboard.

Hoan says that many people copied Uan's model to produce the game, as Uan failed to protect the copyright his product. "It is a game to exercise imagination and creativity. From small pieces with simple shapes, players can make very complicated forms."

"I sometimes play this game with my great-grandson. It makes me very happy, as he enjoys it very much," says Hoan.

Uan's son, Hung, says that one heart can be shaped 28 different ways. One weight can be done 88 different ways. The number of new forms created with the seven pieces is unlimited.

"The seven pieces are closely related to each other. When picking up one piece, it's always necessary to think of the others," says Hung.

A book as small as a palm stored in the National Library, published in 1959, shows a lot of the feedback from people at that time. An autograph of soldier Le Khac Thuong from Thai Nguyen Province reads: "I've played Evereto ever since I was a student in 1945. It helps me calculate things quickly and accurately. It is very good for adults and students."

Ngoc says that the game's name was changed to Tri Uan by President Ho Chi Minh. The president said that the game contained tri (intelligence) and uan (mystery); therefore, the creator's name was very well suited to the game.

After the restoration of peace in Viet Nam in 1954, President Ho and Party and Government delegations chose Tri Uan game sets as gifts for their international friends.

At the end of 1940, thanks to support from a friend who owned the Quang Hoa Printing House on Sinh Tu Street, Uan boxed the game and sold it on consignment at bookstores and small shops. After one month, he had earned 49 Indochinese piastres, enough for more than 1 tonne of rice. Three months later, he had earned 500 piastres.

"My father opened a contest in Tin Moi (Hot News) newspaper, and the game then quickly developed in the country. It became famous and appeared at big shops such as Taupin, Chaffanjon, Ideo and Lucia," says Ngoc.

At the end of 1942, the Foire-Exposition centre in Sai Gon each day sold 2,000 sets in retail and 18,000 wholesale. In one month, Uan earned 600,000 piastres.

Rich person

The 97-year-old Phi Van Bai, a revolutionary veteran, was always side by side with Uan. He says that he still remembers the day a French mathematician, Brachet, came to meet Uan. He said that he could not make some shapes with the game, and wanted to confront the game's chief architect. Uan asked a seven-year-old boy, his neighbour's son, to make such forms for the client. The mathematician admired the feat, and bought many of the games for his friends.

"Those seven little pieces not only brought up Uan's 11 children, but also helped many revolutionaries engaged in clandestine activities in the capital during the war," says Bai.

Uan and his first wife, Nguyen Kim Ton, also supplied paper for printing Cuu Quoc, Khoi Nghia and Co Giai Phong anti-French newspapers, as well as many leaflets."

Bai says that during Uan's revolutionary life, he had to face many ups and downs. As in his private life, he had not met with much luck. He earned a lot of money, but he used it all to support the revolution.

"His first and second wife both died serving the revolutionary cause," says Bai.

Uan's third wife, who had seven children with him, is now living with her son on Phung Hung Street. The wars are over, but the house still seems very much a part of the past. Everything is simple and old, except for the game, which is now made of wood, not cardboard. The set is now atop Uan's altar.

Hung says that his father died in 1995, but his sisters and brothers agreed that his intelligence would remain forever. "We don't want the game for the money; we want it because of what it means to our family. That's where its value lies."

Hung says that his family members are co-ordinating with the Kim Dong Publishing House to compile a book about his father. To celebrate the 1,000-year anniversary of the capital this year, other images, such as Mot Cot (One-Pillar) Pagoda, the famous returned-sword turtle of legend and the Ha Noi flag tower, will be made with the game's pieces.

"People still play the game even today; that is how our father's memory will stay alive," says Hung. — VNS

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