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A chessboard awaits the next round just outside the ring during a chessboxing match in Berlin in 2012 (AP Images)

TKO By Checkmate: Inside the World of Chessboxing

Demanding a combination of brains and brawn, this new sport has competitors floating like butterflies and stinging like kings

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There’s a boxing ring planted in the middle of a London nightclub.

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So far, nothing too out of the ordinary. But there’s also a folding table in the center of the ring, and on it, a chessboard. And rather than gloving up to start sparring, the two boxers, hands wrapped, sit down to square off over the board. Because this isn’t regular boxing—it’s chessboxing.

Chessboxing is a hybrid sport that is exactly what it sounds like: Chess plus boxing, or, more specifically, a round of chess followed by a round of boxing, repeated until someone comes out the victor. As Tim Woolgar, founder of London Chessboxing, says, “If you know how to play chess and you know how to box, you know how to chessbox.”

Easy enough. But why? “They’re two sports where you have a duel and all you’ve got to help you is what you’ve brought to the table at that time. It’s your talent, your preparation,” explains Woolgar. “And what it comes down to, in the end, is a battle of wills.” A battle of wills, he says, both intellectual and physical.

Chess is a game with a long and hallowed history, and in the roughly 1,500 years since it first popped up in northwest India and Central Asia, it has earned a reputation as the most intellectual of pursuits. Boxing has been around for longer—pitting two men against one another in a contest of physical combat has been Saturday night entertainment since time immemorial. But combining chess and boxing didn’t occur until 1992, and even then, it was only in the art of a Bosnian-born French filmmaker and comic book artist named Enki Bilal, whose science fiction graphic novel Froid Équateur featured a dystopia where a former soldier becomes a chessboxer. (Bilal may have – may have – been inspired by the 1979 kung fu film, Mystery of Chessboxing, also released as Ninja Checkmate, in which a young boy wants to avenge his father’s death by learning kung fu and takes lessons from a master of xiangqi, or Chinese chess.)

Eleven years later, on November 14, 2003, Dutch performance artist Iepe “The Joker” Rubingh organized the first live chessboxing match at a club in Amsterdam between himself and “Luis the Lawyer”; the event sold out. Rubingh must have known it was going to be popular—just before the fight, he founded the World Chess Boxing Organization, which calls itself the governing body of the sport and has members organizations around the world.

Since then, chessboxing has grown to a global phenomenon. There are around 380 active members of the World Chess Boxing Organization, with affiliate groups across Europe, Asia and America. The Berlin Chessboxing Club alone has 450 members, 80 of whom are in training almost every day. In January, the first Indian national chessboxing championships took place in Kolkata, featuring more than 180 fighters from 10 states. There’s a chessboxing club in Los Angeles that holds chessboxing matches for charity, and another in China, asking “Who’s the smartest, toughest guy in China?” In the last three months, a chessboxing club even formed in Iran.

Chessboxing came to London five years ago, after Woolgar happened to hear about the sport at a party. Immediately intrigued, he did some research and liked what he saw: a challenge. “You want to know what it will feel like to do it to have to get in the ring and fight and maintain your cool and maintain your ability to think strategically in an extreme environment,” Woolgar explains. “It’s a big test of your mental stamina, physical stamina, but also your emotional stamina as well.”

Finding no club in London, he decided to start his own with a creative name, London Chessboxing. That was back in April 2008; at the time, Woolgar was working with an independent television production shop. Chessboxing, however, proved so instantly popular that Woolgar quit his job to concentrate on developing the sport full time. Last year, London Chessboxing held five events, including one in the basement of Royal Albert Hall to a sell-out crowd of 500.

So this particular Saturday night, March 23, was London Chessboxing’s Grand Prix season opener—“Brain vs. Pain,” as it was dubbed. The event, held at the Scala, a nightclub near London’s Kings Cross station, sold out; the 800 people packed into the club were mostly men, mostly in their 20s or 30s, and mostly drinking. Woolgar, when asked whether it was chess fans, boxing fans or both who come to the matches, answered, “It’s neither. It’s fans of entertainment.”

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