Inside the World of Chessboxing
Great athletes have brains and brawn. That is what makes chessboxing the ultimate sport.
The combination of boxing and chess might seem strange, but this tough, intellectual sport is catching on around the world.
Here’s everything you need to know.
Chessboxing, as the name suggests, is a hybrid sport combining chess and boxing. Each match has a table with a chessboard set up inside a boxing ring, and competitors wear headphones during chess to avoid distraction from the crowd.
Each match consists of 11 alternating rounds of chess and boxing. Six rounds of speed chess add up to 18 minutes, with nine minutes of clock allocated to each player. Each of the five boxing rounds last three minutes apiece.
A participant can win a chessboxing match by one of four ways: knockout, checkmate, judge’s decision or if one player exceeds the chess time limit.
According to Chessboxing Global, the sport was introduced by Iepe Rubingh, a Dutch artist, in 2003. Rubingh who was inspired by "Froid Equateur," a 1992 graphic novel by Enki Bilal that features chessboxing.
Rubingh participated in the first chessboxing bout against Jean Louis Veenstra in 2003. Rubingh was victorious by time running out on the chess clock in a match attended by about 1,000 people in Amsterdam. It was the first of Rubingh’s three career chessboxing victories.
Those origins have been challenged by the upstart World Chessboxing Association (WCBA). The WCBA claims the sport was first started in 1978 in London and was the subject of a 1979 martial arts film called "Mystery of Chessboxing." That movie was the inspiration for "Da Mystery of Chessboxin'," a song on the Wu-Tang Clan's 1993 debut hip-hop album titled "Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)."
Rubingh ran chessboxing out of Berlin, and clubs began opening up across Europe. News outlets like Time and ESPN took notice as the sport gained a niche following.
But it took almost six years for the sport to reach the United States. Andrew McGregor opened the Los Angeles Chessboxing club on Jan. 11, 2010, then hosted the first fight Feb. 27, 2010 ,when he faced off against David Pfeifer.
McGregor won by checkmate in the fifth round, and soon clubs opened in New York and Munich and spread further across the globe.
In true boxing spirit, the sport’s following has splintered with two separate organizations — Rubingh’s World Chess Boxing Organization (WCBO) and the World Chessboxing Association (WCBA) — claiming to rule the sport’s professional ranks.
British heavyweight fighter Tim Woolgar pulled away from the WCBO in 2008 to found London Chessboxing, then started the competing WCBA in 2013 in an effort to accelerate the sport’s growth.
The WCBA is based in London and has three affiliates in Spain, Russia and Italy.
Chessboxers are broken into weight classes: heavyweight, light heavyweight, middleweight and lightweight. Then, they are divided further by skill and experience.
According to the WCBO, heavyweights are 90 kilograms (198.4 pounds) and heavier. Light heavyweights are 80-90 kilograms (176-198 pounds). Middleweights range from 70-80 kilograms (154-176 pounds), and lightweights weigh less than 154 pounds.
Amateur competitions also exist and allow people to hone their chessboxing craft. The WCBO had its first amateur world championship in 2017, which Jeet Patel of India won.
Attendance at chessboxing bouts ranges from 700 to 1,000 fans, who seem to be attracted to the brute violence and the unique spectacle taking place in the ring.
The sport doesn’t have a robust following, but social media has helped the cause. Hardcore chessboxing fans can meet and interact on Reddit, Twitter and Facebook. Each individual club also has its own Facebook and Twitter pages, and Rubingh posts videos of bouts and events on his own Facebook page.
Ever the publicity artist, Rubingh has sought funding by putting his own self on the line. He has offered a 1 percent stake in his company to anyone who could beat him in the ring. But if Rubingh were victorious, the loser would have to invest in the sport.
The sport also has developed creative ways of making money. Aside from ticket sales at their competitions, Bilal auctioned off a drawing for 174,000 euros, or nearly $200,000, and donated the proceeds to the sport.
WCBA events in London regularly sell out, and the London Chessboxing club is a major boon for that endeavor.
The sport may have started in Europe, and grown across the U.S., but it is extremely popular in India.
Pacific Standard reported that the country has 1,200 registered competitors. Thirty-five percent are women, and young girls there are using the sport to push their way out of poverty.
Women’s participation began as ring-card girls during Rubingh’s first matches, but that has changed over the years.
India may be fertile ground for the sport to grow with women, but it isn’t the only place where females participate. Woolgar organized the first women’s championship bouts in 2011, and his website proudly proclaims the sport is for men and women of all ages.
Madhavi Gonbare, a 22-year-old from Mumbai, put women further on the map when she won the gold medal in the world amateur chessboxing competition in 2018.
Aside from Rubingh, Woolgar and Gonbare, there are a slew of other high-level competitors, mostly from Russia or other Soviet provinces .
Nikolay "The Chairman" Sazhin currently holds the WCBA heavyweight and light-heavyweight championships, but he also held the WCBO light-heavyweight title from July 5, 2008, to Nov. 28, 2009. He was trained as a chess player in Russia, still fights as a heavyweight and has fought more than 100 bouts.
Sven Rooch of Moscow is a top middleweight, according to WCBO. He is a Berlin firefighter and trains in Berlin.
Armenian-born Dymer Agasaryan is the world middleweight and lightweight champion, but he's also a powerlifter, actor and model based in London.
Where You Can Play It
The biggest club in the United States is in Los Angeles, and there are major clubs in Houston, Chicago and New York. Aspiring chessboxers can train their bodies and minds at these clubs.
India has more than 10 clubs where athletes can practice chessboxing, and there are many other chessboxing clubs across Asia, including Iran.
Rubingh is still pushing for funding that will boost chessboxing's profile. He also is aiming to get the attention of the International Olympic Committee to get it commissioned for the 2024 Summer Games in Paris.
"Our aim is to create a professional league financed by investors and partners," he told The Nation in March 2018.
Part of that vision includes a $1 million fight in New York, but he also is aiming for a man-versus-machine duel, where he fights a computer, in the spirit of the famous Garry Kasparov-computer chess matches of the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Part of the sport's growth goal also should be enhancing the sport’s online presence. Many of the social media accounts and websites are outdated or obsolete.
With a little increased exposure, chessboxing could become much more popular.