What happens when you take the number one of sport's most physically demanding disciplines and combine it with an equally challenging mental game? Chessboxing, of course. At home in Berlin, the game is picking up fans.
The gloves come off when the chess figurines come out
A chessboxing bout, at least at the outset, looks and sounds pretty much like other boxing matches. The crowd is loud and the announcer in the ring makes himself hoarse after delivering a couple of high-decibel introductions of the fighters.
The opponents themselves come out in hooded robes, serenaded by live hip-hop music. As they go to their corners, a woman carrying a numbered sign walks a few circles inside the ring. Round one is about to begin.
"Let's get ready to rumble!" yells the announcer. But after the fighters take off their robes, the game takes a sharp detour from your average welterweight bout.
A chessboard is rolled into the middle of the ring. And instead of donning their gloves and pummeling one another, the two fighters sit down on either side of the game board, put on headphones so they can't hear the audience and start formulating blistering chess attacks on each other's kings.
The bell rings after four minutes, the chess round is over, and the men return to their corners. While the board is rolled away, the gloves come on and the fighters come back out for two minutes of serious punching.
Clash of civilizatio n s?
For Iepe Rubingh, one of the men fighting in the chessboxing match, this seeming clash of civilizations – one sport considered the domain of thuggish brutes slammed up against another widely seen as the realm of brainy wimps – is not as much of a mismatch at it might first appear to be.
These two can punch, but can they develop both knights before the queen’s bishop?
"Those are the stereotypical ideas about both sports," he said just before a chessboxing training session in a Berlin gym. "But if you look closely, they also have a lot in common. If you play chess, a real game over a couple of hours, you get really physically tired, but also mentally. With boxing, you don't just go in the ring and try to knock out your opponent; there are strategies, tactics. It can get very analytical."
Rubingh, a 31-year-old artist, enjoys finding unusual intersections and creating hybrids from ideas that most people see as contrary. He finds mixing two seemingly disparate things together can bring about interesting results. So when he came across a French comic book by Yugoslav-born author Enki Bilal that showed a guy watching a chessboxing match on TV, he was fascinated.
Almost three years ago, he decided to try out the idea for real and he organized the first chessboxing match in a club in Amsterdam. He had originally planned it as a piece of performance art.
"But then we did a real fight and I almost knocked out my opponent," he said. "Some really interesting chess was going on and it was just real; people got really excited. Nobody thought of it as an art performance, they just enjoyed the game."
Checkmate or k n ockout
The rules of the game are pretty straightforward. A bout starts with a four-minute round of chess. When the bell rings, the chessboard is rolled out and the opponents come out punching for a two-minute round of boxing. After that, the chessboard comes back in, the pieces in the same position as they were at the end of the previous chess round. This continues for eleven rounds, unless a checkmate or a knockout decides the victor along the way. If there's no clear winner after eleven rounds, the chess clock generally decides who gets to take home the trophy.
At the Franz Mett gymnasium in central Berlin on a Tuesday evening, Andreas Dielschneider, 36, is hunched over a chessboard studying the position of his pawns and rooks. Two nights a week he comes and spends about an hour with chessboxing hopefuls helping them improve his game. Tonight the topic is defense strategy.
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He was on his way to the World Championships when he was knocked out – on the chessboard – by his opponent in a bout last October. An actor by day, Dielschneider has been playing chess for 20 years, and has a pretty good ELO number, an international rating system that determines chess skill. For him, one of the hardest things about the sport is keeping you concentration up, especially after a boxing round, during which the adrenaline starts pumping. Just sitting down at the chessboard and keeping still can be a challenge.
"The goal must be to be disciplined and concentrated enough to keep everything together in the chess game," he said. "If you're not concentrated for one moment and you make a weak move, you can lose everything you've worked up to."
Garry Kasparov ponders his next move against the supercomputer Deep Junior. Maybe he should just slug it.
After about an hour of chess training, the gloves come on and punching starts up. Rubingh starts in on a lesson about footwork.
Karsten Lehmann, 38, is spending a lot of time with the punching bag, even though he says at his age, he's probably too old to be a contender. Still, he's got a strong right punch.
He compares chessboxing to the biathlon, the winter Olympic sport that combines cross-country skiing and shooting.
"Like chessboxing, that sport has a very athletic component, and then one that requires a lot of concentration ability," he said. "There's a kind of holistic aspect that makes it a more balanced sport."
Gai n i n g grou n d
Rubingh said chessboxing is picking up speed. In Germany, Berlin is its center, but Cologne has a chapter (the semi-finals of the 2006 World Championship were held there) and a group in Munich is showing some interest. Rubingh said he gets inquiries constantly from around the world about people interested in the new hybrid from across Europe and in North America, Russia and Japan.
"Sometimes if I'm daydreaming I could imagine that on the last day of the Olympics the last discipline will be the final in heavyweight chess boxing," he said. "Yeah, why not?"
Besides, he added, stranger things have happened at the Olympics. Just look at curling, a sport that looks something like shuffleboard on ice.