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.”

5 Game of Thrones Characters Who Need to Survive the Final Season

Helen Sloan, HBO
Helen Sloan, HBO

"When you play the Game of Thrones, you either win or you die."

These words have haunted Game of Thrones ever since Ned Stark, the assumed protagonist of the show, was killed off in the first season of HBO's fantasy epic. You either win or you die. Even if you're a main character, even if you're a likable character, even if you're a sympathetic character. Nobody is safe. With the eighth and final season on its way, the question everyone is asking is: Who will survive to see the end of the series?

While leaks, intentional and otherwise, have confirmed that Jorah Mormont will likely live, it can be safely assumed that someone as evil as Cersei Lannister will probably (hopefully) be killed off. Here are the people who will most likely tell the Many Faced God "Not today."

1. TYRION LANNISTER

Peter Dinklage in 'Game of Thrones'
HBO

Fans have literally threatened to riot if ​Tyrion Lannister dies. Undoubtedly the most popular character the show has presented, Tyrion's transformation wouldn't be complete if he were killed off. And at this point, watching him triumph against all odds and conquer his family's legacy is half the reason to watch the show. If anyone can win the Game of Thrones, he can—even if he has teased otherwise.

2. LORD VARYS

Conleth Hill as Lord Varys in 'Game of Thrones'
Helen Sloan, HBO

While even purely political players in the Game of Thrones can be killed off, Lord Varys has always kept a healthy distance between himself and anything even resembling action. He always plays on his own terms and makes sure he has an exit strategy at all times. If anything manages to kill him, it better be some huge, shocking event, because he's not going to die from just anything.

3. SAMWELL TARLY

John Bradley as Samwell Tarly in 'Game of Thrones'
Helen Sloan, HBO

​Many people have noticed how the loyal Samwell Tarly is more or less a self-insert character ​meant to represent author George R.R. Martin. While it's entirely possible Samwell might get a hero's death by sacrificing himself to save Gilly and Baby Sam, Martin still has huge sway over the show, and it's unlikely he'd let them kill "him" off.

4. JON SNOW

Kit Harington in 'Game of Thrones'
HBO

Not only has Jon Snow already died and come back from the dead, but he's been the de facto protagonist of the series since his not-daddy Ned Stark was killed off all the way back in season one. And while the series clearly has no qualms about killing off main characters, the huge reveal of his actual parentage is too big for the show to just kill him off right afterwards.

5. SANSA STARK

Sophie Turner in 'Game of Thrones'
HBO

Of the three remaining Stark siblings, Sansa seems to be the most likely to get out of the show alive. Apart from actress Sophie Turner inadvertently giving away her character's fate with a tattoo, her survival is all but guaranteed because her special skill, a political instinct she learned from Littlefinger, is perfectly suited to allow her to maneuver herself into a secure position.

Ezra Miller Reportedly Returning for Fantastic Beasts 3

Jaap Buitendijk, Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and Ratpac-Dune Entertainment LLC. All Rights Reserved.
Jaap Buitendijk, Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and Ratpac-Dune Entertainment LLC. All Rights Reserved.

While fans of Ezra Miller might been upset to hear the news his standalone Flash film for the DC Extended Universe is having production pushed back to late 2019, it's reportedly in part to make time for another major role.

As Variety reported the Flash film was getting pushed back, they seemingly also confirmed Miller's involvement in the third installment of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. The second film in the series, ​The Crimes of Grindelwald, hits theaters on November 16, and details of the third movie are unknown at this time.

"The third film in the [Fantastic Beasts] franchise begins shooting in July, which would cause scheduling headaches," Variety reported. "The standalone Flash film is now expected to commence production in late 2019. That likely means the superhero adventure won’t debut in theaters until some time in 2021."

Although Miller's character, Credence Barebone, is still a bit of a mystery, it seems he will make it through the second film and will be featured in the third. Johnny Depp, who plays Gellert Grindelwald, confirmed his involvement in the third movie to ​Collider, and it would be safe to assume the series' protagonist Newt Scamander, played by Eddie Redmayne, will be involved.

We hope to learn more about Credence and the rest of the gang (​Nagini included!) when Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald hits theaters next month.

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