In 2006 Hollywood released a film called Snakes on a Plane. This otherwise unremarkable movie is notable for a marketing campaign based almost entirely on the juxtaposition of two so crashingly discordant nouns. Snakes? On a Plane? This I have to see! The title was what attracted A-lister Samuel L Jackson to star in this decidedly B-movie; when executives attempted to change Snakes on a Plane into something a little less, well, trashy, Jackson insisted on retaining the original title and even based the film’s catchphrase on it. Box office returns did not match the hype but as an internet phenomenon the film carved out its small slice of history. All because of the name.
And this is why when I first heard of chessboxing I couldn’t help but think of a serpent-clutching Samuel L Jackson. Because to hear ‘chessboxing’ is to fuel the curiousity and ignite the imagination. You can’t not want to know more. And as with the film the title says it all. It’s chess. And boxing! Together!
If you are unfamiliar with Chessboxing then the World Chessboxing Association website tells you more than one ever need to know on the sport. Essentially participants alternate between 11 three minute rounds of chess and boxing (starting and finishing with chess), with the winner decided by knockout, checkmate, or the chess clock.
I recently attended a taster chessboxing session in Brighton, run by the head of the London Chessboxing Club and former heavyweight chessboxing champion, Tim Woolgar. (Two titles which place you in a pretty exclusive club.) After the hour-long session – which mainly consisted of alternation between punch-bags and a row of chessboards – I couldn’t resist doing a little research on this most bizarre of sports.
The origins of chessboxing are somewhat shrouded in mystery. The earliest known proponents are two teenage brothers, James and Stewart Robinson, who pioneered a version of the sport in the late 1970s. Demonstrations at their Kidbrooke boxing club attracted local press coverage but never progressed beyond ‘colourful’ novelty. Instead the first appearance of chessboxing in wider culture comes in the form of a 1979 Hong Kong martial arts film entitled ‘Mystery of Chessboxing’ (or, even more gloriously, ‘Ninja Checkmate’). Now the astute amongst you will have noted the lineal proximity between the Robinson brothers and Mystery of Chessboxing, along with the vast geographical distance. This begs the obvious question: how in those pre-internet days could one have possibly been aware of the other? Especially as the Robinsons hadn’t seen the highly obscure film, and the filmmakers couldn’t possibly be aware of a fleeting craze in an even more obscure Kidbrooke club. This leaves the staggering but inescapable possibility that a pair of East London teenagers and a group of Japanese scriptwriters invented this most anomalous of sports at almost exactly the same time! Save your surprise. It gets weirder.
14 years after its release Mystery of Chessboxing partially inspired the 1993 Wu-Tang Clan album ‘36 Chambers’ and its central track ‘Da Mystery of Chessboxin'. Wu-Tang Clan member Ghostface Killah also took his moniker from the film's villain: a luxuriously bearded, prodigiously eye-browed kung fu master named Ghost Faced Killer. But again (and equally coincidentally) chessboxing arrived in twos: a year earlier French cartoonist Enki Bilal published the 1992 graphic novel ‘Froid Équateur’ (‘Cold Equator’) in which chessboxing featured extensively. The work is the final part of the celebrated ‘Nikopol Trilogy’ set in a 2023 Paris that has endured not one but two nuclear wars, and naturally involves boxers fighting on giant chessboards. Froid Équateur inspired Dutch artist Iepe Rubingh to hold — and compete in — the first official chessboxing bout in Amsterdam in 2003. Finally, after its strange, meandering journey across Japan, New York, and futuristic France, through film, hip-hop, and comic books, chessboxing returned home in 2008 with the foundation of the London Chessboxing club – barely seven miles and 30 years from the Robinson brothers’ first brainwave.
At the Brighton session I spoke to an aspiring female chessboxer still awaiting her first bout. She refused to reveal her real name but tells me her fighting moniker was ‘Zena the Technician’. (You aren’t anyone in chessboxing without a cool nickname. A quick scan down the London Chessboxing website throws up ‘Demon’, ‘The General’, ‘Crazy Arms’, ‘The Bedfordshire Bull’, ‘Singapore Slinger’ and ‘CSI’.) Zena’s nickname was a clever one – not only does ‘technician’ evoke skill and fighting nous but ‘Zena’ also worked as a technician. (This also probably explains the otherwise peculiar ‘CSI’.)
When discussing chessboxing I found that the initiated frequently transferred the conventional demands of one discipline onto the other. The motto of the World Chess Boxing Federation is “fighting is done in the ring and wars are waged on the board” but speaking to people at the Brighton event the reverse seemed just as applicable. You can be outthought in a boxing ring and beaten up on a chessboard.
I asked an experienced chessboxer at the session what attracted people to the sport. His answer was illuminating. “If you’re a boxer it’s a chance to prove you’re smart, and if you’re a chess player it’s a chance to show you’re tough.”
The words carried a simple truth. Much of sport lies in self-validation, especially amateur sport. There is no financial reward. Although football, rugby, cricket, even tennis or squash are primarily communal pastimes both chess and boxing are intensely individual. Anyone serious about either is driven by more than exercise or enjoyment. Dedication to chess/boxing is not particularly ‘fun’, at least not in the general sense; hours spent punching bags or studying ancient openings will better your craft but offer little outside of that. Generally speaking the diligent chess player shares with his boxing counterpart strong self-motivation and intense competitiveness. Without wishing to descend too far into amateur psychology both disciplines involve mastery of a single opponent within a confined space. There is nowhere to hide. Both chess player and fighter struggle not only with this opponent but also their own limitations. They practice in order to widen these limitations. But in amateur sport there comes a point where these limitations are insurmountable. No amount of dedication will transform a decent slugger into Ali or a competent chess player into Bobby Fischer. A ceiling is reached. And the thought must occur: now what?
By combining these ideologically similar sports chessboxing not only vastly raises the ceiling of limitation but also greatly broadens the skills developed. The means to master an opponent double. The ways to better oneself extend. Rather than struggle upward the chessboxer can also branch outward. And the novelty of this strange hybrid actually results in a far more relaxed atmosphere than you might find in its singular components. The chess player and the boxer might take themselves overly seriously - but the chessboxer? Behave.
(A brief, pointless note on racquet sports, which involve a similar contest of individuals. Despite certain similarities, amateur racquet sports still offer a healthy workout in a generally social atmosphere; as opposed to the immobile silence/violence experienced by our amateur chess players and boxers. Therefore the psychology of the keen amateur squash player is likely to be less driven than his cousins in chess and boxing.)
Tim Woolgar, the former heavyweight chessboxing champion, had a nice line when explaining the appeal of chessboxing: “You get on with people who do chessboxing because they possess a refreshingly different outlook on life.”
Hard to disagree with that one. Any sport that can be invented by a kung fu film and East London teenagers simultaneously is clearly utterly bonkers, and I mean that in the best kind of way. You need a refreshingly different outlook on life simply to appreciate its existence, let alone participate in the thing. Considering the slightly manic obsessiveness of good chess players and the boxer’s wild disregard for personal safety it’s a miracle anyone exists within the chessboxing Venn diagram. Endure a barrage of blows to the head, let off a few shots of your own, then stagger back to the corner, don earphones and consider that pesky bishop menacing your Queen’s flank – what nutter could possibly be attracted to such an idiosyncratic pursuit?
Well, me, actually and I hope you too. Even if you won’t follow chessboxing I hope you rejoice that we live in a world where such a thing can exist; and people like Tim Woolgar and Zena the Technician are dedicating so much of their lives to it. I hope you might watch Mystery of Chessboxing or read Froid Équateur or at the very least listen to some Wu-Tang Clan and marvel at the wonderful strangeness of sport and life. And hopefully broaden your outlook on both – warm in the knowledge that somewhere in the world a chessboxer is frowning down at unwinnable board, and deciding that the only legitimate route to victory is to knock the other bastard out.