NONE OF US felt particularly at the top of our form on New Year’s Day, 2013. Dan was sitting at the breakfast table wrapped in a blanket, staring blankly at the wall. The rest of us were stoically drinking coffee around the kitchen table, moving our heads slowly from side to side to see if the hangover was still sloshing in them (it was), and trying to come to terms with a new morning, let alone a new year.
More out of habit than anything, Ian set up the chessboard, and more out of habit than anything, I took the black pieces. Within minutes, Zach came to Ian’s side to kibbitz, and Alistair aimed to wake the house up with some really discordant dubstep. Ian decided all this was boring and started doing pullups between moves and yelling at me when I messed up: “What are you doing, you weenie? I totally just owned your horse!”
I should add here that I’ve known this particular group of men for ages, from the days when they were college roommates. All are gentlemen and scholars and very intense outdoor athletes — Ian’s a professional kayaker, while Zach and Alistair are some of the better climbers I know. Being absurdly competitive about chess was somewhat of a tradition in their household, so I should have been forewarned. However, when I ventured the opinion that all of this was maybe a bit much for 8:30 in the morning, Alistair just said, “If you think this is intense, you should see chessboxing!” Registering my blank expression, he added, “Alternating rounds of chess and boxing. Victory either by checkmate or knockout.”
My own knowledge of chess comes primarily from a kids’ electronic chessboard that my grandmother decided to bestow on us one year for Christmas. It features an annoying German robot named Hans who beeps condescendingly at you if you do something stupid or take too long to make a move. My brother and I spent most of our time making ourselves feel better by beating Hans on one of the 16 “fun” levels and consequently never attained Bobby Fischer magnitudes of chess greatness.
My knowledge of boxing is even more minimal, limited to a handful of lessons in which I mostly got yelled at by the seven-fold Czech national women’s champion for my sloppy (essentially nonexistent) right hook. I’ve never been in a single earnest fight, for sport or otherwise. Nevertheless, the sheer extremism and brutality implied by Alistair’s words merited a google search.
This quickly led me to the world chess boxing organization’s (WCBO) website, which summarizes the endeavour succinctly as follows:
The basic idea in chessboxing is to combine the #1 thinking sport and the #1 fighting sport into a hybrid that demands the most of its competitors — both mentally and physically.
The full rules, which are too long to list here, can be found on the organization’s FAQ page, but the idea is more or less as simple as Alistair summed up: A match has 11 three-to-four-minute rounds, six of chess and five of boxing, and the aim is to either checkmate the opponent or knock him out. There are also stipulations about who can play — to enter a championship match, potential competitors must qualify with experience both in chess and boxing, for instance.
The history of chessboxing is a relatively recent one. The idea was conceived of in a 1992 comic strip by French artist Enki Bilal and realized when the Dutch artist Iepe Rubingh organized the first world championship in 2003.
You can watch the highlights of the championship finals on YouTube, which would make for a fascinating and slightly surreal coffee break. Shots of earnest blows in the middle of a crowded arena alternate with scenes where the two competitors are hunched over a chessboard in the middle of a boxing ring, wearing boxing robes and hand bandages. Though one does not think of chess as the classic spectator sport, the size of the crowd suggests that chessboxing is. The board is magnified on a large television screen, and a reporter is commentates. Though the opponents might be good chess players, the commentating isn’t particularly sophisticated: “He might go for one of his pawns. He’s got a lot of those!”
Though certainly still a marginal endeavour, chessboxing seems to be growing in popularity all over the world. The championship matches are often sold out. The first-ever chessboxing club, in Berlin, has been recently joined by several others in places including London and Los Angeles. National organizations are cropping up one after another, with new ones recently started in China, India, and Iran. A chessboxing fan blog, the aptly-named Hardcore Pawns, lists a total of 15 chessboxing clubs around the world. One of them is in Siberia, which frankly sounds like a downright horrible time to me, but clearly, not everyone shares my opinion: Far-fetched as it may sound, the sport’s founder is “looking at putting in a bid to make this an Olympic sport in 12 years’ time.”
Chessboxing’s recent rise in popularity seems natural — a pursuit that is extremely taxing both mentally and physically will logically be appealing to people seeking to face hard challenges (or to people seeking to watch other people face hard challenges.) Nevertheless, despite a strong curiosity, some aspects of the sport seem offputting to me, mainly the ever-present machismo. Matches often claim to seek the “smartest, toughest man on the planet,” to which the natural objection is that there are many ways to be both tough and smart, not all of them measurable. I personally feel little desire to prove myself as the smartest, toughest anything through this particular route.
Then again, even if I wanted to compete, I probably couldn’t: There don’t seem to be many, if any, women’s chessboxing matches going on in the world (although the WCBO’s FAQ page answers the question “Is chessboxing also for women?” with a rather dubious “Yes, and women think chessboxing is sexy.”) In any case, I myself likely have not the makings of a chessboxer. After I predictably lost that morning’s match to Ian, I went upstairs and greeted the new year with a nap.