Le Quang Liem cannot remember all the countries he's been to, but he can play chess with his eyes closed. For this, he says, you need to have an excellent memory – an ability to keep the position of all the pieces in your head.
This year the 19-year-old resident of Ho Chi Minh City – with a shy voice and big glasses – became the first person from Southeast Asia to win the Aeroflot Open in Moscow, widely regarded as the world's most difficult open chess competition.
Mr. Liem left Moscow with a $28,280 prize and a ticket to compete in an elite, invitation-only tournament in Dortmund, Germany, later this month, where he will play against a former world chess champion, among others. Another player from Vietnam tied for third place in the tournament, while the best American player landed in 20th place.
"What a shock to Russian chess fans to see dozens of their heroes surpassed by two Vietnamese teenagers!" exclaimed a Los Angeles Times writer in a story titled "Vietnamese Surprise in Moscow," while The New York Times named its article about the chess tournament, "Big Surprises in Europe."
But Liem's success is not an isolated victory for Vietnam. In December, the Vietnamese women's chess team won Asia's championship, while the men's team placed second, and in 2008, 7-year-old Tran Minh Thang became the world chess champion for children under 8.
So what is Vietnam doing right when it comes to chess?
As it turns out, the country's socialist government adopted the chess system of the former Soviet Union, which produced five undefeated world champions between 1948 and 1972.
"Sports clubs are spread throughout the political structure of provinces and cities," says Casto Abundo, deputy president of the Asian Chess Federation. "Each club has its own budget at its disposal and they concentrate on the development of the youth. They are now harvesting the fruit of their labor."
The coach of Vietnam's national chess team, Mikhail Vasyliev, is originally from Odessa, Ukraine, which he describes as the "world capital of chess." The elderly Ukrainian, who does not speak Vietnamese, explained that the Vietnamese government's approach to chess works because efforts are directed at the most promising players from a young age, rather than at those children whose parents have the most money to pay for classes. Many of Vietnam's best players, such as Nguyen Ngoc Truong Son, 20, who tied for third place in Moscow, are from poor families, Mr. Vasyliev says.
In Vietnam, children as young as 4 who do well in tournaments receive monthly salaries, free chess instruction, and monetary prizes for winning competitions. The Vietnamese government spends $3 million a year to promote the game, which includes covering players' travel expenses to domestic and international chess events.
"They get around $300 per month plus room and board and three or four times a year they can go abroad," Vasyliev says, "[and that's in a country where] $100 per month is considered a good salary."
Between 500 and 700 young players study chess around the country. The 10 to 12 players on the national team study the game for the whole year with only a two-week break. They live in the sports center and receive salaries and incentives of $11 per day for pocket money when they travel.
Liem, for instance, started making money from chess when he was only 10 years old and won Ho Chi Minh City's children's competition. In April, he took home $4,000 for winning Vietnam's national chess tournament for the second time. He would not reveal how much he made last year from playing his favorite game, but he did say that he now makes more money than all his peers.
My "most important goal is to play and improve," he says. "Because I think if I can live by playing chess I can do what I like most and earn money from that."
Huang Xuan Thanh Khiet, 25, who also competed in Vietnam's national chess tournament, says chess was her first job, and now the board game pays off with an extra $70 every month. Thanks to the game, she also got a chance to see the world – the Vietnamese government flew her to Russia, Spain, Malaysia, and the Philippines.
"The [chess] federation pays for everything," Ms. Khiet says. "In my life, I never traveled on my own."
Mr. Thang says Vietnamese chess players improved after the government increased chess salaries and prizes. The stipends were raised from less than $100 to $300 per month over the past two years, while prizes for winning competitions were introduced five years ago and increased three times since, he says. Now, even children under 12 can take home as much as $500 for winning, he says. And in April, the top four male and female winners of Vietnam's national chess tournament took home a total of $13,500 in prizes, ranging from $250 to $4,000.
"We had good players before, but our economy was not developed," Thang said. "So before, talented children could not be sent to world tournaments."
While the financial side of things clearly makes a difference, some players suggest that chess might be becoming more popular in Vietnam at the expense of another board game. Chinese chess, a game that a visitor to Vietnam will see old men playing on sidewalks, is becoming less popular among youth.
Liem says this is because of the Internet. You can play international chess online with people all over the world, he says, while Chinese chess is known only in Asia. Also, you cannot play Chinese chess with a computer, says Liem, who spends much of his time practicing with electronic partners. "There are a few programs, but they are not strong, not professional," he says.
In fact, several members of Vietnam's national team, including Liem himself, represent a first generation of chess players: Their parents do not know how to play the game.
"We're civil engineers, not chess players," says Liem's mother, Than Thi My Le. (Liem learned chess from his older brother, who learned it from a book.)
So what's in store for Vietnamese chess players?
Liem, who likes traditional Vietnamese music and reading "Harry Potter" (in Vietnamese), plans to start his university studies in September.He says he hopes to become the world chess champion.
And chances are there will be more chess players from Vietnam to follow in his footsteps.
"Nowhere in the world are there children who get these stipends. In other countries, the parents must pay," Thang said in Russian. But in Vietnam, "if the child is talented, all the conditions [for his improvement] are created. That's how we make good players."