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Courtesy of Chess Boxing Global/Yves Sucksdorff
Courtesy of Chess Boxing Global/Yves Sucksdorff

By Pawn or by Brawn: Inside the Chessboxing Movement

Courtesy of Chess Boxing Global/Yves Sucksdorff
Courtesy of Chess Boxing Global/Yves Sucksdorff

In April 2017, an anesthetist from Poland named Michal Adamski climbed into a ring in Berlin clad only in boxing shorts and sat down in front of a chess board. His opponent was Stephen Kring, a 50-year-old teacher from Sweden.

Adamski and Kring—wearing earphones to muffle the crowd noise—sat in front of the board for three minutes, and quickly moved the game pieces around. When the time was up, they had one minute to don boxing gloves and mouthpieces before mounting a frenzied physical attack on one another. Then it was back to the board. After every exhausting boxing round, the men drew in large breaths and attempted to focus on a cerebral pursuit with adrenaline, fatigue, and trickling blood compromising their every decision.

The opponents were scheduled to alternate chess with boxing for 11 rounds total, but Adamski—who is two decades Kring’s junior—was able to avoid any mistakes on the board and overwhelm Kring in the ring, forcing Kring’s corner to throw in the towel during the sixth round. Later in the evening, an Italian physicist named Luigi Sbailò won his bout by checkmate with only seconds left to spare.

The fights made up the program of Intellectual Fight Club VII, part of a series of events that hosts amateurs of varying experience levels in chessboxing, a staple of weird news headlines since its inception in 2003. It’s less a combination of boxing and chess than it is a test of how focused contestants can remain while concussive blows blur their board strategy.

“Chess is all about making decisions,” George Krasnopolskiy, the founder of USA Chessboxing, tells Mental Floss. “How are you going to make those decisions after you’ve been punched in the face and you’re tired?”

With fewer than 2000 participants worldwide—600 of them in India alone—it doesn’t appear that many people want to answer that question for themselves. Yet chessboxing perseveres in all corners of the world, inviting a very particular breed of man and woman who want to take the war metaphor inherent in chess to its literal conclusion. To succeed in the States, it will have to gather structure, solicit regulation, and find a way to reconcile the very docile act of a table game with the looming threat of a broken jaw.

“Very few chess players are looking to learn how to box,” Krasnopolskiy says. Even fewer want to bleed.

 
 

For all its intricacies, chess has proven to be one of the more adaptable board games in recent history. There’s speed chess, which places compressed time limits on a player's turn; blindfolded chess, which forces players to try and keep track of pieces in their heads; and team chess, which groups players into squads.

While temper tantrums have been on display during the occasional high-stakes game of professional chess between rivals—troubled grandmaster Bobby Fischer was prone to emotional outbursts that could delay games—it appears few have ever thought to purposely incite violence during matches. That changed in 2003, when Dutch performance artist and painter Iepe Rubingh came across a 1992 French comic book titled Froid Équateur. In it, Yugoslavian artist Enki Bilal depicted an alternative future in which chess was played on a giant, human-sized board, where the players bludgeoned one another.

A chess board awaits two boxers between rounds
Chess Boxing Global/Yves Sucksdorff

Rubingh, with his interest piqued by Bilal's panels, founded the World Chess Boxing Organization (WCBO), a sanctioning body that consisted solely of Rubingh. After training in boxing for nine months, he won the inaugural world championship in Amsterdam in 2003 after his opponent exceeded his allotted time to make a move during the chess portion.

“Looking around at the 1000 or so people at the [first] show, I had the feeling it could become a real sport,” Rubingh tells Mental Floss. “I had done cross-country skiing [and] table tennis, but this was the most difficult and most rewarding sport.”

What Rubingh saw was more than the wry social commentary of the comic book. His chessboxing would involve three-minute rounds that alternated between chess and fighting, with the idea that one would be transformed by the addition of the other. If you’re behind on the board, then it’s possible you’re more likely to go for a knockout during the pugilism phase. Get rattled there and you’ll have trouble remembering which of Fischer’s gambits worked for you in the past.

Shortly afterward, clubs began popping up in Russia, India, Turkey, Iran, and China, with participants encouraged by Rubingh’s Chess Boxing Global arm and intrigued by the exclusivity of chessboxing. Not only was it a fight club, it was one most people didn't know existed. “Say you’re a chessboxer at a party and some really interesting conversation will emerge,” Rubingh says.

The media was captivated. The Los Angeles Times, ESPN, and other outlets traveled to shows to cock their collective heads at the juxtaposition between the cerebral and primal. (The joke, if there was one, was that boxing has always been a contest in which it pays to be several moves ahead.) For a time, it seemed like chessboxing would morph into the next great pursuit of weekend warriors who had tired of mud marathons.

It didn’t quite happen. “The federation in the U.S. hasn’t been very active,” Rubingh says. “The ‘why not’ is a good question.”

Krasnopolskiy formed the USA faction in 2011, having learned chess from his grandfather beginning at age 4 after his family had fled communist Russia. He says that one of the main determining factors is regulation. Fights of any sort are usually under the jurisdiction of state athletic commissions, who license athletes and provide services like health screenings and medical attention for events. Regular boxing or mixed martial arts require little exposition, but chessboxing, with its wayward rules, is an anomaly. The events that have been held in Los Angeles and a handful of other cities come off more as theater than sport, slipping under the radar of commissions. Because of the fractured nature of some clubs, rounds can be longer or shorter; headgear can come and go.

“It’s easier in Europe,” Krasnopolskiy says. “Here, it’s more a matter of securing enough money to have lawyers work on the problem.”

Krasnopolskiy is a bit like a king with no kingdom. USA Chessboxing has no formal gym or office space, just a handful of interested parties spread throughout the country. “The idea would be to find people places to get boxing training, then train them in chess online,” he says. To prepare for the dual mental and physical strains, he says, beginners often alternate chess rounds with running so combatants can begin to learn how to plan strategy under stress.

Rarely will Krasnopolskiy try to turn a highly rated chess player into a pugilist. Most chessboxers are boxers with some amateur experience who want to improve their chess game, either to continue to one of the European competitions or to sharpen themselves for more conventional prizefighting. Max Baumert, a professional kickboxer, has trained in chessboxing for the mental acuity.

“In chessboxing you need to stay focused all the time and you really need to stick to the strategy,” he says. “So the mental part is perhaps even more important than in every other combat sport. That's something that helps me in kickboxing and boxing.”

A chessboxing match, Baumert says, is not simply fighting interrupted by chess. “The pace is much higher because of the longer breaks. There are one-minute breaks between the rounds in [regular] boxing, but in chessboxing there are five minutes of intermission due to the chess rounds so we can fully recover physically. The fighter who’s going to lose in chess has to risk everything in the boxing rounds.”

Krasnopolskiy remembers his first bout being similarly frenetic. “I was up against the ropes in the third round taking a beating. With 10 seconds left, I threw one uppercut. We went into the chess round with him half-dazed, and I won the chess game.”

 
 

With the WCBO championships held every year—the Intellectual Fight Club is more of a minor-league event, the sport's version of Toughman amateur night—Krasnopolskiy hopes to be able to send American representatives soon. “There are a few people I’d like to bring to Europe, and we’re trying to find sponsors [for travel costs] now,” he says.

But chessboxing’s future stateside may reside in other arenas. Krasnopolskiy also operates CheckMates USA, a program that utilizes chess as part of an afterschool curriculum for disadvantaged students. Eventually, he’d like to incorporate chessboxing into the rotation. “I’m teaching boxing to some kids on the south side of Chicago, and hopefully those are kids we can also get into chessboxing,” he says.

A chessboxer wonders what to do next
Chess Boxing Global/Yves Sucksdorff

In Germany, Rubingh sees people at his gym who have been to prison and are looking for a way to handle their lingering aggressions. “A lot of them have heavy backgrounds,” he says. “It’s a way to learn the ability to control [anger], then shift to a mental state.”

Ultimately, part of chessboxing’s growth may hinge on whether spectators decide it’s a sport that promotes personal growth or is slightly absurdist performance art. For Rubingh, it began as a way to explore artistic theory. Since then, he sees no reason it can’t be both.

“As part of the generation of artists I belong to, it’s important to bring something out of the gallery and touch society,” he says. “Doing chessboxing is more interesting than a painting about chessboxing hanging in the Louvre.”

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Comics
10 Things You Might Not Know About Hägar the Horrible
King Features Syndicate
King Features Syndicate

For 45 years, the anachronistic adventures of a Scandinavian Viking named Hägar have populated the funny papers. Created by cartoonist Dik Browne, Hagar the Horrible is less about raiding and pillaging and more about Hägar’s domestic squabbles with wife Helga. If you’re a fan of this red-bearded savage with a surprisingly gentle demeanor, check out some facts about the strip’s history, Hägar’s status as a soda pitchman, and his stint as a college football mascot.

1. HÄGAR IS NAMED AFTER HIS CREATOR.

Richard Arthur “Dik” Browne got his start drawing courtroom sketches for New York newspapers; he debuted a military strip, Ginny Jeep, for servicemen after entering the Army in 1942. Following an advertising stint where he created the Chiquita Banana logo, he was asked to tackle art duties on the 1954 Beetle Bailey spinoff strip Hi and Lois. When he felt an urge to create his own strip in 1973, Browne thought back to how his children called him “Hägar the Horrible” when he would playfully chase them around the house. “Immediately, I thought Viking,” he told People in 1978. Hägar was soon the fastest-growing strip in history, appearing over 1000 papers.

2. HE COULD HAVE BEEN BULBAR THE BARBARIAN.

A Hägar the Horrible comic strip
King Features Syndicate

Working on Hi and Lois with cartoonist Mort Walker (Beetle Bailey) gave Browne an opportunity to solicit advice on Hägar from his more experienced colleague. As Walker recalled, he thought “Hägar” would be too hard for people to pronounce or spell and suggested Browne go with “Bulbar the Barbarian” instead. Browne brushed off the suggestion, preferring his own alliterative title.

3. A HEART ATTACK COULD HAVE CHANGED HÄGAR’S FATE.

When Browne came up with Hägar, he sent it along to a syndicate editor he knew from his work on Hi and Lois. According to Chris Browne, Dik’s son and the eventual artist for Hägar after his father passed away in 1989, the man originally promised to look at it after he got back from his vacation. He changed his mind at the last minute, reviewing and accepting the strip before leaving. Just days later, while on his ski vacation, the editor had a heart attack and died. If he hadn’t approved the strip prior to his passing, Browne said, Hägar may never have seen print.

4. THE STRIP HELPED BROWNE AVOID VANDALS.

A Hägar the Horrible comic strip
King Features Syndicate

Chris Browne recalled that Halloween in his Connecticut neighborhood was a time for kids to show their appreciation for his father’s work. While trick-or-treaters were busy covering nearby houses in toilet paper or spray paint, they spared the Browne residence. The only evidence of their vandalism was a spray-painted sign that read, “Mr. Browne, We Love Hägar.”

5. BROWNE’S DAUGHTER TALKED HIM OUT OF KIDNAPPING PLOTS.

Vikings were not known for being advocates for human rights. Hägar, despite his relatively genteel persona, still exhibited some barbaric traits, such as running off with “maidens” after a plundering session. Speaking with the Associated Press in 1983, Browne admitted he toned down the more lecherous side of Hägar after getting complaints from his daughter. “Running off with a maiden isn’t funny,” she told him. “It’s a crime.”

6. HÄGAR ENDORSED SODA.

A soda can featuring Hägar the Horrible
Amazon

Despite his preference for alcohol, Hägar apparently had a bit of a sweet tooth as well. In the 1970s, King Features licensed out a line of soda cans featuring some of their most popular comic strip characters, including Popeye, Blondie, and Hägar. The Viking also shilled for Mug Root Beer in the 1990s.

7. HE WAS A COLLEGE MASCOT.

In 1965, Cleveland State University students voted in the name “Vikings” for their collegiate basketball team. After using a mascot dubbed Viktorious Vike, the school adopted Hägar in the 1980s. Both Hägar and wife Helga appeared at several of the school’s sporting events before being replaced by an original character named Vike.

8. HE EVENTUALLY SOBERED UP.

A Hägar the Horrible comic strip
King Features Syndicate

When Dik Browne was working on Hägar, the Viking was prone to bouts of excessive drinking. When Chris Browne took over the strip, he made a deliberate decision to minimize Hägar’s imbibing. "When my father was doing the strip, he did an awful lot of gags about Hägar falling down drunk and coming home in a wheelbarrow, and as times go on that doesn't strike me as that funny anymore,” Brown told the Chicago Tribune in 1993. “Just about everybody I know has had somebody hurt by alcoholism or substance abuse.”

9. HE HAD HIS OWN HANNA-BARBERA CARTOON.

It took some time, but Hägar was finally honored with the animated special treatment in 1989. Cartoon powerhouse Hanna-Barbera created the 30-minute special, Hägar the Horrible: Hägar Knows Best, and cast the Viking as being out of his element after returning home for the first time in years. The voice of Optimus Prime, Peter Cullen, performed the title character. It was later released on DVD as part of a comic strip cartoon collection.

10. HE SAILED INTO THE WIZARD OF ID.

A Wizard of Id comic strip
King Features Syndicate

In 2014, Hägar made an appearance in the late Johnny Hart’s Wizard of Id comic strip, with the two characters looking confused at the idea they’ve run into one another at sea. Hägar also made a cameo in Blondie to celebrate that character’s 75th birthday in 2005.

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13 Great Jack Nicholson Quotes
Kevin Winter/Getty Images for AFI
Kevin Winter/Getty Images for AFI

Jack Nicholson turns 81 today. Let's celebrate with some of the actor's wit and wisdom.

1. ON ADVICE

"I hate advice unless I'm giving it. I hate giving advice, because people won't take it."

From Esquire's "What I Learned"

2. ON REGRETS

"Not that I can think of. I’m sure there are some, but my mind doesn’t go there. When you look at life retrospectively you rarely regret anything that you did, but you might regret things that you didn’t do."

From an interview with The Talks

3. ON DEATH

"I'm Irish. I think about death all the time. Back in the days when I thought of myself as a serious academic writer, I used to think that the only real theme was a fear of death, and that all the other themes were just that same fear, translated into fear of closeness, fear of loneliness, fear of dissolving values. Then I heard old John Huston talking about death. Somebody was quizzing him about the subject, you know, and here he is with the open-heart surgery a few years ago, and the emphysema, but he's bounced back fit as a fiddle, and he's talking about theories of death, and the other fella says, 'Well, great, John, that's great ... but how am I supposed to feel about it when you pass on?' And John says, 'Just treat it as your own.' As for me, I like that line I wrote that, we used in The Border, where I said, 'I just want to do something good before I die.' Isn't that what we all want?"

From an interview with Roger Ebert

4. ON NERVES

''There's a period of time just before you start a movie when you start thinking, I don't know what in the world I'm going to do. It's free-floating anxiety. In my case, though, this is over by lunch the first day of shooting.''

From an interview with The New York Times

5. ON ACTING

"Almost anyone can give a good representative performance when you're unknown. It's just easier. The real pro game of acting is after you're known—to 'un-Jack' that character, in my case, and get the audience to reinvest in a new and specific, fictional person."

From an interview with The Age

6. ON MARRIAGE

"I never had a policy about marriage. I got married very young in life and I always think in all relationships, I've always thought that it's counterproductive to have a theory on that. It's hard enough to get to know yourself and as most of you have probably found, once you get to know two people in tandem it's even more difficult. If it's going to be successful, it's going to have to be very specific and real and immediate so the more ideas you have about it before you start, it seems to me the less likely you are to be successful."

From an interview with About.com

7. ON LYING

“You only lie to two people in your life: your girlfriend and the police. Everybody else you tell the truth to.”

From a 1994 interview with Vanity Fair

8. ON HIS SUNGLASSES

"They're prescription. That's why I wear them. A long time ago, the Middle American in me may have thought it was a bit affected maybe. But the light is very strong in southern California. And once you've experienced negative territory in public life, you begin to accept the notion of shields. I am a person who is trained to look other people in the eye. But I can't look into the eyes of everyone who wants to look into mine; I can't emotionally cope with that kind of volume. Sunglasses are part of my armor."

From Esquire's "What I Learned"

9. ON MISCONCEPTIONS

"I think people think I'm more physical than I am, I suppose. I'm not really confrontational. Of course, I have a temper, but that's sort of blown out of proportion."

From an interview with ESPN

10. ON DIRECTING

"I'm a different person when suddenly it's my responsibility. I'm not very inhibited in that way. I would show up [on the set of The Two Jakes] one day, and we'd scouted an orange grove and it had been cut down. You're out in the middle of nowhere and they forget to cast an actor. These are the sort of things I kind of like about directing. Of course, at the time you blow your stack a little bit. ... I'm a Roger Corman baby. Just keep rolling, baby. You've got to get something on there. Maybe it's right. Maybe it's wrong. Maybe you can fix it later. Maybe you can't. You can't imagine the things that come up when you're making a movie where you've got to adjust on the spot."

From an interview with MTV

11. ON ROGER CORMAN

"There's nobody in there, that he didn't, in the most important way support. He was my life blood to whatever I thought I was going to be as a person. And I hope he knows that this is not all hot air. I'm going to cry now."

From the documentary Corman's World

12. ON PLAYING THE JOKER

"This would be the character, whose core—while totally determinate of the part—was the least limiting of any I would ever encounter. This is a more literary way of approaching than I might have had as a kid reading the comics, but you have to get specific. ... He's not wired up the same way. This guy has survived nuclear waste immersion here. Even in my own life, people have said, 'There's nothing sacred to you in the area of humor, Jack. Sometimes, Jack, relax with the humor.' This does not apply to the Joker, in fact, just the opposite. Things even the wildest comics might be afraid to find funny: burning somebody's face into oblivion, destroying a masterpiece in a museum—a subject as an art person even made me a little scared. Not this character. And I love that."

From The Making of Batman

13. ON BASKETBALL

"I've always thought basketball was the best sport, although it wasn't the sport I was best at. It was just the most fun to watch. ... Even as a kid it appealed to me. The basketball players were out at night. They had great overcoats. There was this certain nighttime juvenile-delinquent thing about it that got your blood going."

From Esquire's "What I Learned"

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