Chessboxers take it on the chin | Science| In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 20.08.2012
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Chessboxers take it on the chin

Chessboxing - an oxymoron to some - could be the best way to find the smartest tough guy in the world. Contests in Berlin are a sell out. But is it bad news for the brain?

The man behind the chessboxing phenomenon is Dutch performance artist, Iepe Rubingh. He grew up playing chess and started boxing in his 20s. Then he read a graphic novel by French-Serbian author, Enki Bilal, which envisioned chessboxing. And by 2003, it was born for real.

Contestants fight 11 rounds in the boxing ring, alternating between four minute long rounds of chess, and three minute long rounds of boxing, with a one minute break in between.

The fight begins with a round of chess, but players can win with a knockout or checkmate.

If the chess game is tied, the winner is decided by points scored in the boxing rounds. Conversely, if the boxing match ends in a tie, the player who had the black pieces on the chessboard wins.

21st Century manhood

There is no doubt that chessboxing is a test of the body and the mind.

But it could be tougher on the mind than the body.

The head gets hit with fists and then has to muster up the concentration for a top-level game of chess.

Chessboxing founder Iepe Rubingh

Chessboxing founder, Iepe Rubingh, was inspired by a graphic novel which envisioned chessboxing

Some of the best boxers in the world have come away from their careers with brain damage - and they are probably not playing a lot of chess in their retirement. But Rubingh says the sport is an expression of manhood in the 21st century.

"You fight in the ring, not in a bar or in the streets. And you wage war on the chessboard, not in the Middle East," says Rubingh. "It's all about the control of aggression."

It sounds like a noble aim, but judging from the winces of some audience members - seeing two guys beat each other up right in front of you - is a little brutal.

At the recent Berlin Chessboxing championships, the first match was between 24 year old chess grandmaster, Arik Braun, who is studying physics and math, and 40 year old IT developer, Felix Bartels.

Braun started chessboxing two years ago, while Bartels began just four months ago after a friend told him about the sport.

"I really like the people because I think they are different than usual boxers," says Bartels. "On the first day, in the locker room, there were two guys exchanging book titles. You probably wouldn't see that in a normal boxing club. I like the idea of being able to fight guys without having this real hatred against each other. And the training is really good, too."

Blood on the brain

The match between Braun and Bartels goes for the full eleven rounds and really takes its toll on both players.

Braun wins on the chessboard in the final round. He looks worn out and will soon be sporting a black eye. But he is unconcerned about the effect on his brain.

"No, it should be fine," he told DW.

The German Chessboxing Champion Nils Becker

The German Chessboxing Champion Nils Becker also studies renewable energies

None of the guys seem particularly worried about the effect of punches to the head.

Doctors remain divided over whether Mohammed Ali's condition is caused by boxing or Parkinson's.

But Dr Ingo Schmehl, director of the Clinic for Neurology at the Emergency Hospital in Berlin, has seen a fair number of head injuries caused by boxing and other sports.

"The speed of a boxing punch is a minimum of 10 meters per second when it hits the eye or the head," Schmehl says, pointing to an MRI brainscan on his computer. "These dark spots show typical bleeding after a traumatic brain injury or a knockout."

It's a risk

As a sport, Chessboxing is still in its infancy. Most of the competitors at the Berlin championship were more experienced in chess than boxing. And even the referee had his doubts.

Referee Holger Prokot is a Berlin-based physiotherapist. He started boxing at the age of 10 and later became a coach and then a referee. He also trained Iepe Rubingh.

When the second two fights ended abruptly, with knockouts in the first round, Prokot said it was the risk that beginners take.

"I've never understood how grown up men can decide to take the risk of going into the ring because it's really, really dangerous," Prokot says.

"They're not 10 years old anymore, weighing just 30 kilograms. They are big men, six foot tall, weighing 80 kilograms and more. And mistakes inside the ring are punished heavily. When you grow up with boxing, you just learn it - it's just a part of you. But when you learn boxing as an adult, it's hard."

From concussion to dementia

Despite the pummeling, the guys seem to love it.

When 24 year old German champion, Nils Becker, shouts with victory, he's all adrenalin, muscle and masculinity. It's hard to imagine this is the same guy who is studying renewable energies. Becker says it is difficult switching between chess and boxing, but he thrives on the challenge.

Chessboxer Felix Bartels

IT developer, Felix Bartels, took up chessboxing just a few months ago

"It's about finding the balance between the fighting sport and the mental sport, so it doesn't matter if you're a good chess player or a good boxer, you have to combine both of them," says Becker.

Schmehl, the Berlin neurologist, warns however that blows to the head can cause many problems from concussion to dementia. They can also cause short-term memory loss, affect fine motor control, and slow down cognitive ability - which means you react slower.

Boxing is not the only sport that can do you damage. Ice hockey, rugby, soccer, American football and bungee jumping can all be dangerous. But if you really want to jump in the ring, the doctor's advice is "invest in some protective head-gear."

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