The Mystery of Chess Boxing

If David Haye and Derek Chisora's recent antics have left you looking for a more civilized form of boxing, then you're in luck. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to chess boxing.
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If David Haye and Derek Chisora's recent antics have left you looking for a more civilized form of boxing, then you're in luck. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to chess boxing.

The Scala, in King’s Cross, London, hosted a curious battle of brains and brawn last week with a night of International Chessboxing. The sport has slowly grown in popularity since its invention by a Dutch artist named Iepe Rubingh in 1992. RZA and the Klitschko brothers are both fans. The event at The Scala was the biggest so far in the UK. The sport consists of eleven alternating rounds, six of speed chess and five of boxing. Bouts can be won either by knockout or checkmate. Given the format, the contenders need to excel in both disciplines. Those long hours in the gym need to be augmented with some hardcore chin-stroking chess action in order to become the perfect chessboxing machine. Imagine Mike Tyson’s queen sweeping up pawns across the board, or imagine if Deep Blue had a sweet left hook.

I’m rubbish at chess and rubbish at fighting. I’d be better suited to alternating rounds of Connect Four and Paper-Scissor-Rock. But I do like watching boxing and going to stuff, so I expected an intriguing and entertaining night, which, thankfully, it turned out to be.

Imagine Mike Tyson’s queen sweeping up pawns across the board, or imagine if Deep Blue had a sweet left hook.

The crowd is half students and half what you might expect from a regular night of boxing. The set-up had an endearingly low-budget feel, which encourages me to look further into my Connect Four idea. The ring announcer kept confusing the fighter’s names during the first bout. For the rounds of chess, big screens are set-up with what looks like chess programme from Windows 98 used to show the moves to the audience. The fighters sit with their regular chess board in the ring and, due to the time limit, move pieces so quickly the screen graphic has problems keeping up. Chess has never really been a spectator sport. Thankfully there’s an orange man in a tuxedo commentating on the moves. I was impressed how he managed to tell us what was going on and be entertaining while he did it. The bloke clearly knew his chess, telling dilettantes like me about the Hungarian Defence whilst sprinkling a few decent one-liners in there as well. The earmuffs worn by the fighters blocked out his analysis as he told the audience what a terrible idea it was to move that rook.

Whilst I needed the announcer to help me along with the chess, I could judge the boxing for myself. The quality wasn’t brilliant. The first two contests were more along the lines of your average Friday night scuffle, though it did gradually improve. As the bouts went on, even though I was enjoying myself, the sport’s fundamental flaws began to make themselves clear to me: the better chess player is going to win the vast majority of the time and the boxing element is very much the lesser aspect.

The fighters were a motley bunch, some were former cage-fighters, one was a seismologist.

The speed at which the chess game is played means a checkmate will likely occur well within the time limit. The pace at which the contest veers toward conclusion is only compounded by the number of mistakes the players make, which is understandable when you’re getting bashed in the head. The better chess player just needs to be circumspect on the board, waiting for his opponent to make fatal mistakes whilst keeping his guard up when boxing. During the main event, the defending heavyweight champion, a porky Siberian named Nikolay Sazhin, barely threw a punch, soaking up the challenger’s hits. He then made fast, risk-free chess moves that resulted in his opponent, Britain’s Andy ‘The Rock’ Costello, who came to the ring dressed as Sherlock Holmes, running out of time.

The speed with which the chess moves in comparison to the boxing leads to some desperation when the gloves are on. The first bout saw one competitor facing checkmate in the next round. So came out swinging and managed to score a serious knockout. I do get the feeling KOs are pretty rare, though.

Overall, the fighters were a motley bunch, some were former cage-fighters, one was a seismologist. And despite its problems, chessboxing throws up an intriguing battle which must attract all sorts to give it a go. It is, after all, people contesting one another at chess and boxing, at the same time. Who wouldn’t be interested in that? It doesn’t take itself too seriously, it is fun and it also, as a spectator, makes you think. It’s an enjoyable spectacle. With a few tweaks, such as allowing longer time to make chess moves, it could also become a more balanced sport. Next time it’s in town I recommend giving it a chance.

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