Brawn Meets Pawn at the Chessboxing Championship of the World

Fightland Blog

By Charlie Gilmour

Photos by Magnus Andersen

The world of boxing has always been a sucker for a dichotomy. Nothing catches a fight fan’s imagination more than a match in which it is not just the fighters that are knocking the crap out of each other, but the great questions of the day that are being hammered out too. Black liberation came up against white racism in Jack Johnson’s legendary title defense against James ‘The Great White Hope’ Jeffries in 1910; the American Dream trashed the Nazi nightmare in Joe Louis’ bouts against Max "Adolph’s Angel" Schmeling in the 1930’s; USA vs. USSR in Rocky IV; Man vs. Beast in every single one of Mike Tyson’s fights. So it is perhaps no surprise that chessboxinga new sport that, like no other before it, gets to the heart of that old brains vs. brawn conundrumhas taken off like wildfire.

Chessboxing, for those who haven’t already guessed, combines the two ancient sports of boxing and chess—a combination which at first seems as confusing as a combination of the two ancient occupations of prostitution and soldiering—into something new and exciting. In this "sport of Kings" (and Queens, and Pawns) opponents attempt to defeat each other by "hook or by rook" as they alternate between rounds of chess and boxing until victory comes by way of checkmate or knockout.

If it sounds like a fictional sport that’s because it is. Chessboxing was lifted straight off the pages of Enki Bilal’s 1992 graphic novel Froid Équateurin which fighters of the post-apocalypse are pitted against each other in an effort to find the smartest, strongest human beingby Dutch performance artist Iepe "The Joker" Rubingh. The very first match was staged, and won, by Rubingh in Amsterdam in 2003 in front of a small audience of "art lovers".

Sergio Leveque, European Heavyweight Champ

It all sounds hopelessly twee, but recently chessboxing has become impossible to ignore. Enthusiasts have opened up clubs across the world. From the boulevards of LA to the frozen wastelands of Siberia, the sun never sets on the sixty-four squared ring and not one but two global bodies have sprung up, each claiming the right to bring the sport under its exclusive control. No surprises there—chessboxing is fast becoming big money.  A series of chessboxing paintings and prints by Enki Bilal recently sold at auction for a total of over $1.5 million and a proposed documentary about the sport by Canadian director David Bitton reached its $35,000 goal on Kickstarter in what must have been record time.

Reinaldo Dominguez, former amateur champion of Cuba

Chessboxing, for better or for worse, has arrived. But who chessboxes? And why? Are they just a bunch of nerds who finally learned how to hit back? Or bullies who got smart?

If there were any doubts as to the ascendancy of the sport, the several hundred over-excited fans chanting "CHESS! CHESS! CHESS!" at London Chessboxing’s sold out event soon put them to bed.

A chessboxing event has all the trappings of a normal boxing promotion: entrance music, showgirls, a motley assortment of current and former champions watching from the wings. The fighters emerge warm and sweaty, beating their chests and roaring at the crowd, pumped for the fight—but after vaulting the ropes and beating their chests a little more the lights dim, the crowd hushes and they sit down for a civilized game of chess.

"When you walk out into that ring," says Tim Woolgar, founder of the London Chessboxing Club and current British Heavyweight Champion, "win or lose, you get that feeling of becoming a hero for the night. You will be getting stood drinks at the bar and everyone wants to be your friend… It’s an incredible buzz and it stays with you forever."

The chessboxers on display tonight, though, are not just lonely nerds clowning around for a few scraps of love and attention—they are real fighters, deadly serious about their sport. That much is clear from the moment the first competitors drop the pawns and don the gloves. Veteran boxer Chris Powell looks the part but it is young East End talent Karl Marsh who scores the serious blows, luring the older fighter in and then using his superior reaction times to punish him with crippling straight rights. They are both highly skilled but, as is so often the case, youth quickly has age on the run.

Leveque vs Darius Rolkis

The unique Boethian drama of chessboxing, however, rests on the way in which the fates of the fighters are constantly flipped as boxing gives way to chess. "Mutability is our tragedy," the great philosopher wrote, "but it’s also our hope." What was true in Ancient Rome is just as true in the ringMarsh may have swept the floor with Powell during the boxing, but on the board he is the one who finds himself cornered, his King forced to stagger from one square to the next to escape repeated attack.

"It’s all over now," grins his father, Terry Marsh, himself a retired boxer—undefeated light welterweight champion of the world in fact. "He’s got to go for a knockout."

The knockout never comes. It’s a pattern that gets repeated throughout the night. Good boxers, with the exception perhaps of Vitali Klitchko, who once lasted an impressive thirty moves against Chess Grandmaster Gary Kasparov, rarely seem to make good chess players. In chessboxing that is a fatal weakness. While the extra recovery time afforded by the rounds of chess that break up the boxing make for excitingly energetic bouts, they also make a knockout that much harder to achieve. Chessboxing favors the fighter who can ride the punches and duck the blows, then clean up on the board.

Sergio and his coach

That’s not to say that successful chessboxers are not true warriors. Backstage, after having won the European Heavyweight Champion belt by way of checkmate and endured some incredibly vicious and dirty boxing in the process, Italian fighter Sergio Leveque carefully unwraps his left hand to reveal a bloodstained bandage beneath. "The hand is broken," he smiles indifferently. "I had to fight that whole thing without my left hand. I did it in training last week, threw an overhand that landed on the top of my sparring partner’s skull and broke the scafoide, the… I don’t know how you say in English… But good hand, bad hand, no hands—there was no way that I was not coming here to take that belt!"

See more of Magus' photography on his website.

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