After the morning’s session, Read and a few of the other chessboxers head over to a nearby pub for drinks (just orange juice, as they’re in training). Read, 34, runs a chess shop on Baker Street; chess was his ticket in to boxing, a sport that he’d always been interested in trying but found intimidating. Read and Woolgar worked out a deal where Read taught the chess in exchange for boxing lessons. “I thought, ‘This is good, if I can master boxing, then I can have a good chance at this sport.’ And I thought I’d have a better chance at mastering boxing than the boxers would have at mastering chess,” he says. “I was absolutely wrong.”
Boxing is a lot harder and more strategic than it looks, Read said. Even boxers who have taken their fair share of hits to the head can become keen chess players; the undisputed heavyweight champ of the world, Lennox Lewis, is one. And that gets at the essential unexpectedness of chessboxing—according to the stereotype, chess is brains, boxing is brawn, and never the twain shall meet. Or, as Dan Rosen, another chessboxer, put it, “It’s still got some of the jocks and the nerds hangover from school.” That perception is what Read and Woolgar are trying to undermine.
“You don’t have to be smart to be good at chess,” argues Woolgar. “And just in the same way that you don’t have to be fierce and fit to be good at boxing. What you have to do is train you have to practice, you have to train, you have to work at it. You can become good at anything.”
It’s a message that is resonating. Rosen, 25, was one of the guys in the crowd at a chessboxing match at the Scala last autumn. He, like most of the audience at Brain vs. Pain, had come for the novelty. But the night was enough to convince him to give it a shot himself, especially since he could already play chess and he’d always wanted to try boxing. So will he get into the ring? “I want to do it when I think I’m not going to get clobbered,” he laughed. “Yeah, I’d love to do it. I think that’s half the appeal of the sport, is that there’s such a small pool of people that you can actually get yourself onto a ticket.”
That might not remain the case for long, however.
The gathering momentum behind the sport has pushed chessboxing to a point where its organizers must decide what direction it will take. That’s precipitated a break between Woolgar’s London Chessboxing and the World Chess Boxing Organization (there even seems to be disagreement over whether it’s “chess boxing” or “chessboxing”). Woolgar, this month, launched the World Chessboxing Association, and already has groups in America, Russia and Italy on board. If not exactly a rival to the WCBO, it is certainly treading some similar ground. Both organizations put together prizefights and world championships, bring together different chessboxing organizations around the world under one banner, and want to start programs to introduce children and teenagers to the keep calm and fight on philosophy of chessboxing.
But the WCBO wants to see more consistency injected in the sport, which means less of a “party” atmosphere (so no Bambi) and more players of higher standard. If they get their way, guys like Rosen will have to train a lot harder and a lot longer to make it into the ring. For example, the standard for chessboxers who want to fight in the WCBO’s World Championship Series, to kick off in January 2014, is to have 30 amateur boxing matches under their belts and a chess rating of more than 1900 (the most commonly used chess ratings scale goes from about 1200 to over 2400; 1900 is at the top end of the novice players, while 2000 and above gets you a national ranking; over 2400 is grandmaster level). Says Sebastian Nicke, director of communications for the Berlin-based WCBO, there are maybe 10 or 12 chess boxers in the world who could meet that standard. “It’s a really high barrier, but we have to do it so you have a fight with a high quality.”
Nicke says that there’s no “beef” with Woolgar, but simply a matter of divergent ideas about how to promote the sport. “Tim does more party fights, entertainment. We want to do more professional fights. We have a different, kind of, what we think chessboxing is, how to make chess boxing fights, what we’re doing and we’re planning for chessboxing,” he says. “We have different dreams and imaginations.” One of those dreams includes getting chessboxing into the 2024 Olympics.
But both Woolgar and the WCBO want to see the sport succeed and that, in part, means getting spectators past the novelty of it. “I always say it’s real sport and we’re doing it professionally,” says Nicke. “But I mostly say come to an event and come to a fight and you will see that it’s a real sport, that guys aren’t doing some fancy, freaky, party stuff.”
What Nicke means is that chessboxing is very much a real sport, not just a punch line, not just entertainment. And once you do see it, he says, “You know really quick how hard it is to do.”