By: Daniel Thompson
The name really says it all. The pairing of two near opposite sports might seem so ridiculous that it’s halfway obvious. Chessboxing sounds like it could be a fantasy sport from a comic book, because it is. In 1992 the French graphic novelist Enki Bilal thought up the sport that would inspire Dutch performance artist Iepe Rubingh to form the first chessboxing league in Berlin in 2003 (and probably the 1993 Wu Tang Clan single Da Mystery of Chessboxin’, which has nothing to do with chess or boxing). Much to my surprise, the rules of the sport actually make the pairing of chess and boxing work, and the game has a legitimate following with athletes who aren’t just hobbyists. Chessboxing matches don’t consist of nerds hitting each other or boxers trying to survive the chess rounds. The World Chess Boxing Organization requires athletes have appeared in at least 50 ameteur bouts of boxing or similar sports, and they must have an Elo rating of at least 1600. That’s far from a grandmaster, but if you know someone with a 1600 rating, they’re probably the best player you know. Ravens guard John Urschel, who is famous for being an MIT math PhD candidate and aspiring professional chess player, has a 1601 rating. These athletes devote serious time on training in speed chess and boxing, often citing the quick transition from instinctual violence to deep calculated thought and back as the reason they love the game. A lot of hybrid sports are forced and stupid. Surprisingly, this is not one of them.
Every chessboxing match consists of six rounds of chess and five rounds of boxing, all of which last for three minutes until the competitors switch back to the other discipline. So each player gets nine minutes total on their chess clock until they run out. The match is won once anyone wins at chess or boxing by a knockout, technical knockout, checkmate, the opponent resigning or running out of time, or a disqualification from the official. If the chess match ends in a draw and there is no knockout, the match is determined by by the judges on boxing points. If a player appears to be stalling in chess, the official can force them to move or forfeit the game. The great part about this set up is that it means you could possibly beat Floyd Mayweather in a sport that’s 50% boxing. I can’t say I actually know anything about Mayweather’s chess skills, but his struggles at reading are well documented, so given that chess comes first, it’s pretty reasonable to think that an average Joe could beat him in the first three minutes. Without ever stepping into the ring you could brag that you beat Floyd Mayweather in chessBOXING.
Given how well the rules intertwine chess and boxing, I could actually see this becoming a popular, commercially successful sport. There are 10 breaks to switch between chess and boxing, which I’m sure would have TV network execs salivating. Plus, full games would have 33 minutes of play time, so even with commercials, they’d be way shorter than your typical American sporting event, with a pretty large portion of the broadcast being devoted to the game itself. Chessboxing also provides a way to make chess fun to watch. I’m a pretty big chess nerd, but watching live chess is awful. Forcing the players to move quickly, on top of getting punched in the head would definitely make chess less predictable. Bad chess is entertaining chess. It’s always fun to see a pro athlete screw up so badly that you know you could have done better. Having not been punched in the face for three minutes, you’ll get to think this a lot. Chessboxing events, which typically consist of a four or five fights, regularly draw crowds of about 1,000 people in cities like London, Amsterdam, and Berlin. Even the chess rounds are made entertaining as a chess expert is brought in to commentate the game for the audience. While it’s only this popular in Europe and Central Asia, most of America’s largest cities have their own chessboxing associations, and plenty of organizations exist online that will gladly help anyone become a chessboxer. I think a lot of sports are fun to just learn about, but I really do see a future in chessboxing.
Normally, I would try to give a breakdown of who the legends of the sports are and what its greatest moments are. But Chessboxing is so young that anyone could come along and write its history. The first match took place in 2003 in Berlin and it didn’t really become an organized league until 2008, when there began to be serious competitions for a title belt. Given all of the different weight classes, it wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility for an ordinary person to pick up chessboxing today and become a world champion in a few years. Plus, chessboxing is a super impressive sport to be good at. Being heavyweight chessboxing champion of the world has a Tony Stark like great at everything vibe to it.
Just remember that I said it here first when Friday Night Chessboxing debuts on ESPN The Ocho in 2034.