And it was entertaining. Chessboxing at the Scala was a strange mix of spectacle and sport; the evening started with Bambi, a young woman clad in a silver spangly bustier and torn fishnet stockings who pranced around the ring to Rihanna’s “Only Girl In The World,” put a lit cigarette out on her tongue, and hammered a nail up her nose. But the crowd response to Bambi was tepid. They were here for the chessboxing, although they weren’t entirely sure what that meant—for many, this was their first time.
A match goes like this: Competitors are matched by weight class and chess ability. The first round is chess, played at a folding table placed in the center of the ring. The competitors wear headphones, blasting music at a high decibel, so they can’t hear the chess commentator explaining the play, or hear anyone in the crowd shouting out moves. The board is electronic, allowing moves to be tracked on a projection of the board visible to the audience. The chess play lasts four minutes, but—and this is a bit confusing—each competitor has 12 total minutes of chess playing time, counted down on a clock when they make a move. This means that it’s very possible for a competitor to lose the entire bout because he or she ran out of time on their clock (it happened twice out of four bouts at Brain vs. Pain).
After four minutes of chess play, the bell rings, the board is stowed, headphones are removed and the competitors get to pummeling each other with a real and surprising ferocity. Then, the chess pieces are returned to the table and the game resumes. This is repeated for 11 rounds or until someone checkmates, runs out of time on the chess clock, gets knocked out, or throws in the towel. (Notably, no one who fought that night at the Scala was paid to fight, although Woolgar says that larger bouts will sometimes have prizes.)
The whole thing is somewhat surreal: There’s Ray Keene, the first British chess grandmaster, a bow-tie wearing, bespectacled gentleman who would look more at home at an Oxford lecture hall than a London nightclub, explaining chess moves to the crowd. Keene served as commentator for the first bout, a pretty uneven exhibition match between Woolgar and Andy “The Rock” Costello, a very fit veteran heavyweight. Matt “Crazy Arms” Read entered the ring to “One Night in Bangkok”, from the musical Chess. And then there are the spectators shouting “Bash his bishop!” or “Punish his pawn!” during the chess, and “Fight, fight, fight!” or “Kill him, Crazy Arms!” during the boxing.
One week before “Brain vs. Pain,” “Crazy Arms” Read, Woolgar and several other chessboxers were in training at the Islington Boxing Club in North London. This is the kind of well-worn place where serious boxers train, a place where pictures of former and current students of all ages, local champs and boxing greats, are plastered on the walls, looking fierce and grave. There are two training rings, swinging punching bags, speed bags, and mirrors all around so you can check your technique. It smells like old sweat and dirty hand wraps: it smells like a boxing gym.
So the only thing that seemed out of place was the bright yellow and black magnetic instruction chessboard, leaning against a wall covered with pictures of junior boxers, and the four chessboards displayed on two folding tables. Training alternates between boxing and chess. Anthony Wright, a former professional boxer, shouts instruction, criticism and encouragement at the sweaty trainees as they bob, weave and punch their way around the room. “I want punch punch punch, and I want movement!”
When the bell rings, it’s back to the chessboard. Just as at the match, training alternates between boxing— shadow boxing, sprints, working out with the bag— and chess.
This week, there were seven trainees, including a 12-year-old girl, the daughter of one of the chessboxers. They paired off over the chessboards, their wrapped hands moving the pieces around the board as Read murmured instruction: “Knights move in an L-shape, it’s like a hook— you don’t see them coming.”
The challenge for the chessboxer isn’t just in mastering either chess or boxing, but being able to effectively transition between the two, going from a heart-pounding adrenaline rush to calm, collected strategy in less than the minute it takes to set the board in the ring. “Adrenaline is a very useful thing in boxing, but it’s not particularly useful in chess,” explains Read.
The boxing is very real, which makes the chess that much harder. “Everything rattles about, your focus goes, your concentration goes. You have to physically regroup, mentally regroup, get a bit of traction back in the legs so you can at least stand up and stand straight, look straight, try and convince your opponent that you’re not about to fall over. Because it’s psychological warfare, just as much in the boxing as it is in chess, you can’t let your opponent know that you’re tired,” says Read. “When it comes to the chess, you’ve got to clear your head of everything that’s gone on in the boxing. The fact that in three minutes time or four minutes time he can be hurting you again, if you start thinking about that, then you’re not going to be thinking about your chess.”