Chess boxing, or chessboxing combines chess and boxing into a unified, codified sporting discipline. The participants compete in alternating rounds of chess and boxing, with the chessboard brought in and out of the ring between rounds of boxing. The chess game is played with clock-times ranging from 3 minutes to 12 minutes per player, depending on various factors, such as experience or whether the fight is for a title.
Novice chessboxers compete in shorter contests with 4 x 3 minute rounds of chess and 3 x 2 minute boxing rounds, whilst full senior chessboxing bouts consist of 6 x 4 minute rounds of chess interspersed with 5 x 3 minute rounds of boxing.
Chessboxing was invented by French comic book artist Enki Bilal and adapted by the Dutch artist Iepe Rubingh as a piece of performance art. Chessboxing has subsequently grown into a competitive sport with many chessboxers active around the world. The sport is particularly popular in the United Kingdom, Germany, India, Italy, Finland and Russia.
The term chessboxing was first coined by Joseph Kuothe director/producer of the 1979 martial arts film The Mystery of Chess Boxing. The film was released under various titles including GrandMaster Attack in Hong Kong and Ninja Checkmate elsewhere. Later The Mystery of Chess Boxing became the title for all international releases.
In the film, Jack Long plays a kung-fu teacher and “chess” master who incorporates some of the virtues of chess such as mental calm and forethought, into his martial arts training which develops into a new style of fighting known as chessboxing. It should be noted that all forms of chessboxing outside the film have involved the Western style of chess while Joseph Kuo’s film features Chinese chess or “Xiangqi”. Chinese chess and Western chess demand similar strategic and tactical skills and both incorporate the idea of making moves that cannot be retracted, all fundamental components of the association between the board game and the fighting discipline.
Chinese Boxing is a complex martial art with no clear definition. Most people agree though that Chinese Boxing either grew out of or influenced Kung Fu. Since the protagonists in the film make reference to Kung Fu, in this instance it is probably fair to say the terms were interchangeable at the time the film was made but The Mystery of Chess Boxing could easily have been The Mystery of Chess Kung Fu or even The Mystery of Xiangqi Kung Fu.
The term chess boxing was first used for this hybrid sport in 1992 by Yugoslavia-born French author Enki Bilal, in his comic book Froid Equateur. As it combines two classic physical and mental sports, the name is just a combination of the two existing words chess and boxing. The term chess boxing is often used interchangeably with chessboxing and occasionally even chess-boxing has been seen. As time has gone by however the single word chessboxing has gained prominence, finding its way into numerous dictionaries.
The first modern chessboxing event was put on by Dutch performance artist Iepe Rubingh. Rubingh’s concept originated from the 1992 comic book Froid Équateur, written by the French comic book artist Enki Bilal, which features a chessboxing world championship. In the comic book version, however, the opponents fight an entire boxing match before they face each other in a game of chess. Rubingh developed the idea further by conceptualising a contest with alternating rounds of chess and boxing.
Although in its earliest days Chessboxing was envisaged as an elitist sport demanding high levels of skill in both chess and boxing, the explosion of interest, particularly in Italy and the UK quickly led to a more egalitarian approach being adopted. As it stands, competitors are required to undergo a standard competitive boxing training regime (which typically takes three to six months) and to demonstrate an ability to play chess above a rating of 1000 Elo, a level most beginners are able to achieve within a couple of months of practice.
An even earlier version of the sport combining chess and boxing is reported to have taken place in a boxing club in London in late 1979. The Robinson brothers, James and Stewart, were both keen chess players as well as competitive boxers and began playing chess between rounds of training at their local boys club. The practice attracted the attention of local media and according to James Robinson a report into their exploits at the Samuel Montagu Boys Club was published in the Greenwich News Shopper, a local freesheet, at some point in 1979. Some historians have speculated that this newspaper story may have influenced Kuo who was known to have been in London at around this time negotiating distribution deals for what was then known as Ninja Checkmate. That the retitling of the film to The Mystery Of Chessboxing might actually be attributed to the sporting passions of the fraternally competitive Robinsons of south-London, is an intriguing possibility. It’s not possible to draw more than a speculative connection at least in part due to the failure of researchers to locate a copy of the original Greenwich News Shopper article – although tantalisingly, a photograph used to illustrate the article, depicting the brothers playing chess in boxing gloves, does exist.
The first modern chessboxing competition took place in Amsterdam in 2003. Dutch middleweight fighters Iepe Rubingh and Jean Louis Veenstra faced each other in the ring. After his opponent exceeded the chess time limit, Rubingh won the fight in the eleventh round, thereby placing himself in the history books as the first-ever World Chess Boxing Champion.
Two years after the first world championship the first European Chess Boxing Championship took place in Berlin on 1 October 2005. Present-day chessboxing commentator Andreas Dilschneider was defeated by Tihomir Dovramadjiev when he resigned in the ninth round of chess. Bulgaria’s Dovramadjiev was crowned the first European Chess Boxing Champion.
This event marked the beginning of a long running love affair between Chessboxing and the media.It was covered by a number of international magazines and broadcasters including Eurosport, CNN, The Los Angeles Times, Die Welt and ChessBase. A video report by German television channel RBB presented the event in detail.
In 2006, more than 800 spectators filled the Gloria Theatre in Cologne for the world championship qualification fight between Zoran Mijatovic and Frank Stoldt. The 36-year-old Frank Stoldt, who was a former UN peacekeeper in Kosovo and Afghanistan, won when his opponent resigned in chess in the seventh round. After qualifying to fight for the title in 2006, Frank Stoldt went up against American David Depto in November 2007 in Berlin to fight for the first world championship title in the light heavyweight division. More than 800 tickets were sold for the event at the Tape Club in Berlin, making it the biggest chessboxing title fight to that date. Frank Stoldt defeated Depto in the seventh round, thereby becoming the first German world champion.
Chessboxing first received credit from the International Chess Federation FIDE, in April 2008; its president, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, took part in a chessboxing demo fight in Elista.
In 2008, chessboxing clubs were founded in the UK in London, and in the Russian city of Krasnoyarsk, in Siberia. In 2009, the Los Angeles Chessboxing Club was the first of its kind in the United States and was directly followed by the New York Chessboxing Club in 2010. The Boxer Club in Munich also opened in 2010 and offered chessboxing training for a time.
In 2011, the first international club matchup took place, with the infamous “Battle of the Cities” between London and Berlin. Although conceived as an effort to jointly support each club’s promotional efforts, events unfolded in a way which led to a lasting division between chessboxing’s pre-eminent champions and promoters Iepe Rubingh and London’s Tim Woolgar. This fracture led to the formation of the World Chessboxing Association (WCBA) which became a rival to the pre-existing World Chessboxing Organisation (WCBO) which had been founded by Iepe Rubingh and from then onwards the two international sanctioning bodies offered independent recognition to chessboxers and promoters of the sport.
In 2011, The Chess Boxing Organisation India was founded in by kickboxing official and former Indian kickboxing and karate champion, Montu Das. India affailiated with the WCBO followed soon after by chessboxing organisations from Italy, Turkey and Iran.
In 2013, a World Chessboxing Championship was held in Moscow for the first time, with three world title fights across three different weight divisions in one night. In front of more than 1,200 spectators, the Russian Leonid Chernobaev seized the light heavyweight title for Russia, beating the Indian fighter Shailesh Tripathi after a technical knockout in the eighth round. Germany’s Sven Rooch secured his title in the middleweight class division by winning against Jonatan Rodriguez Vega after the Spaniard resigned in the seventh round. Meanwhile the heavyweight Russian Nikolay Sazhin, from Krasnoyarsk, cemented his reputation as the world’s greatest chessboxer by defeating Italy’s Gianluca Sirci by checkmate. In doing so Sazhin united the WCBA and WCBO heavyweight belts and became the first chessboxer to win world titles in two weight divisions following his 2010 light-heavyweight victory over Frank Stoldt in Berlin.
The development of Chessboxing continued at quite a pace, with much success in 2013 and early 2014. There were more competitors in the second and third Indian Championships in the summer of 2013 and early 2014 than at any chessboxing events held previously, with more than 245 fighters of varying ages and weight classes, taking place in Salem and Jodhpur, respectively. Furthermore, the chessboxing community in London continued to grow.
2014 also saw the founding of the Finnish Chessboxing Club in Helsinki with just five members and the official foundation of the Moscow Chess Boxing Club. 2015 saw several events promoted by London Chessboxing under the auspices of the WCBA. The first of which saw the former British, European, and IBF light-welterweight world champion Terry Marsh fight step into the ring, securing the light-heavyweight World Championship by beating the reigning champion Dymer Agasaryan from Lithuania. Terry Marsh, a former London schools chess champion at the under-13 age level, remains the only world title-winning professional boxer to compete in chessboxing. In the process he extended his spotless unbeaten record in all forms of the boxing including over 180 amateur, 27 professional and three chessboxing bouts.
Since 2015 there have been many tournaments including multiple Indian Chessboxing events, the formation and first event of the Paris Chessboxing Club, and a WCBO World Chessboxing tournament staged by the Turkish Chessboxing Federation.
London Chessboxing continued with its factory line of events making the British capital the global epicentre of Chessboxing at least in terms of frequency with typically three to four events being staged every year up until the outbreak of the global pandemic.
London Chessboxing end of year shows have been particular favourites as they are generally staged to coincide with the prestigious London Chess Classic tournament – attracting interest from many super-Grandmasters including the World Chess Champion Magnus Carslen. Many GMs have expressed interest in taking part in a Chessboxing contest, with reportedly, Hikaru Nakamura and Simon “GingerGM” Williams being the most notable.
Such a contest would mark the next exciting step forward in the evolution of the sport which has blurred the lines between fact and fiction and continues to excite and enchant in ways which its founder Iepe Rubingh could hardly have imagined possible when he conceived his performance art project back in 2003.
Last year brought extraordinary challenges for the entire world but Chessboxing was hard hit in more ways than one. In May 2020 it was announced that Iepe Rubingh had died suddenly and unexpectedly in his Berlin apartment. It was a shock that touched every fan and practitioner of chessboxing around the world.
Chessboxing may have been dealt a blow by the pandemic and loss of its founder but it is most certainly not out fro the count. The sport is moving into a new phase of with promoters and competitors alike determined to honour the legacy of Iepe Rubingh and to bring the Chessboxing to the forefront of the public’s consciousness in 2021.
Amongst the first events in the calendar for 2021 will be the inaugural Finnish Chessboxing tournament in Helsinki – likely to take place in October. London Chessboxing will return in December and in Russia, both Moscow and Krasnoyarsk Chessboxing clubs are making plans to stage events at the earliest opportunity. Beyond this Chessboxing has made a tentative launch in Melbourne, Australia, and a new vibrant Chessboxing scene is springing up in Brazil under the leadership of GM Andre Diamant.
WAYS TO WIN
The essential idea of chessboxing is to combine the two disciplines of chess and boxing in a bid to find new ways to challenge the human spirit. A chessboxing bout is usually decided in one of three ways;
- by stoppage (one of the boxers is physically overwhelmed by his or her opponent),
- by checkmate,
- by time penalty (one competitor has used up all the time on his chess clock).
Less common ways for a bout to end are;
- retirement for physical reasons
- chess resignation when a competitor seeks to avoid an imminent checkmate.
While resignation is commonplace in all levels of chess competition, where playing to a checkmate on the board can be perceived as either embarrassing or disrespectful, over time they have come to be discouraged in chessboxing. This is because the act of resignation may deprive members of the audience of a satisfying conclusion to a bout.
A Chessboxing bout is concluded by knockout (KO), technical knockout (TKO), disqualification, checkmate, loss on time (chess), or submission. The term technical knockout incorporates various circumstances when a fighter is deemed unable to defend himself properly. Disqualification can result from a single serious, or multiple less serious, infringements of the rules. The threat of disqualification is most commonly evident during contests when one competitor attempts to stall for time on the chessboard. A loss on time occurs when a player expends all his clock time, which occurs in approximately 30% of all bouts. Submission is a term used in Chessboxing to refer to what chess players would call resignation. A competitor may forfeit the contest at any time by toppling his King – however this practise is frowned upon by spectators who prefer to see the contest played to a final conclusion.