On Saturday I attended the London Chessboxing Championship, which was more or less what it said on the tin. For those unfamiliar with the emergent hybrid sport, there is chess, and there is boxing. Every bout alternates between successive rounds of speed chess and boxing until one of the contenders secures a checkmate on the board or a knockout in the ring (along with the usual victory conditions for resignation or time).
It should be no surprise that chessboxing’s promoters sell it as a perfect biathlon of mind and body. Chess has an ancient mystique of intellect about it even among those who barely know the game, and boxing is far and away the most story-rich of sports. Both activities stand as cultural paragons of some indefinite struggle of individual mastery. And the combination is hardly arbitrary: the boxing forces the chess to be played under conditions of high adrenaline and extreme physical fatigue, imposing a test of mental stamina quite unlike any other.
Not so clear is whether the chess takes a toll on the boxing. Andrea Kuszewski has argued that the most cognitively taxing part of the game is the rapid task-switching, which demands superb emotional control; indeed, chessboxing may prove to be exceptionally well suited to training one’s aggression management. In theory, a good chessboxer has to box with the ability to play chess very shortly in mind. (In practice, as we will see, this is not necessarily the case.)
The London event at the Scala was reportedly the world’s biggest night of chessboxing to date, with five bouts on the card drawing a capacity crowd of 1000. Before the first match, my own estimate was 400-500 spectators on the floor with many more in the balcony and VIP lounge, but the audience swelled as the night wore on and the official count became more plausible. One of the organizers called it the largest live audience on record for a game of chess, though I believe Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky drew similar numbers in the Piatigorsky Cup (Santa Monica, 1966), and that’s only the record in the United States.
Nevertheless, the sport shows signs of rapid expansion, filling a former cinema palace kitty-corner to King’s Cross that doubled the capacity of its previous venue in Tufnell Park. There are rumblings that talks have begun to bring chessboxing to Royal Albert Hall next year, presumably to catch some of the Olympic spillover, but I’ll believe it when I see it.