Raging bishop

Friday, 16 September 2011 — 12:26am | Adventures, Board games

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.


All of this you can already gather from the press—and for years now, there has been a lot of press. The Guardian covered chessboxing as early as 2005, when the sport was not too far removed from its inauspicious modern beginnings as a novelty act by the Berlin performance artist Iepe Rubingh, who just so happened to win his own inaugural world championship in 2003. The London club was founded in 2008 with an initial membership of seven, although it is now arguably the most prominent of the multiple international clubs that have sprung up outside of Berlin. London, too, handed its first title of British Heavyweight Chessboxing Champion to the club’s founder, Tim Woolgar.

Put this way, one might come away thinking the whole activity’s integrity was suspect—and a few observers have said as much. Justin Horton, who writes for the Streatham & Brixton Chess Blog (which, incidentally, is running an outstanding series of posts on tracking down the chess players in a 19th-century painting), has repeatedly taken journalists to task for reproducing the promotional claims around chessboxing without further corroborating research. Horton calls chessboxing a “circus” and a “swindle”, marking as his prime targets the sport’s alleged popularity and the chess competence of the predominantly unrated participants. Private Eye has similarly attacked the coverage of chessboxing as a case of media hacks being suckered by a small-time carnival-standard affair.

So one does have to be careful not to overstate chessboxing’s reach. It undeniably has a bit of a weird-news appeal that makes every event a renewable story, but this also means that in every article, quite a lot of space is wasted on gawking over the novelty of the affair (or treating it with prepared derision) instead of seeing it for what it is.

My impression was of a sport where the growth of spectator interest is far outstripping that of participation—and it shows. It is indeed impressive that Saturday’s event drew the audience it did when only three years ago, the London club boasted of attracting the highest turnout for a chess match in the United Kingdom since Kramnik/Kasparov in 2000—an estimated crowd of 150. That is a clear promotional success. But good publicity and a firm conceptual foundation aren’t enough for a game to thrive; the players and their tactics have to be interesting enough to be worth following long-term, or there’s no incentive for a one-time curiosity seeker to return. There needs to be a recognizable sense of expertise, of nuances open to appreciation—and that depends on a base of participation vast enough to propel the standard of competition skyward.

If chessboxing is like any other competitive club activity I’ve seen, be it Scrabble or parliamentary debate, doubtless there’s a great deal of involvement behind the scenes that never makes it into the ring in front of a paying audience—trainees and casual fighters who fall back to logistics when it comes to the big events. (Kat Sark’s report on the Berlin/London chessboxing summit in June, which cast an eye on gender equality, suggests this is the case.) This is normal and expected, but until there is a deeper competitive pool, I doubt we will see a true escalation of skill towards the game’s natural ceiling—which, it must be said, looks very high.

But enough of the ringside theory. Let’s have a look at the fights.

The fight card

  1. Chris Levy (white) vs. Mike Botteley (black)
  2. The opening bout on the undercard was advertised as having the strongest combined Elo rating in a chessboxing match. (Justin Horton has found this to refer not to the FIDE Elo, but the ECF equivalent; I think the term ‘Elo’ has been sufficiently genericized to include Elo-like rating systems that the implicit conversion is fair.) Despite an interesting start from the Réti Opening, Levy fell far behind on the clock, exiting round 3 of chess down by a knight with 1:13 remaining. Unable to secure a knockout in the boxing round, Levy whittled the endgame down to a dance between king and king-pawn until he ran out of time. (The endgame itself was difficult for the audience to follow, as the display board couldn’t keep up with the action.) Win for Botteley in chess round 4.

  3. Emma Richardson vs. Kath Dodson
  4. Billed as the first women’s chessboxing match, this was a bout where the boxing clearly took its toll on the chess, with plenty of material thrown away on both sides. The decisive moment came when Richardson gave up her queen in the third round of chess, after which Dodson missed a mate but quickly recovered to trap the white king. Richardson couldn’t find a way out of the impending mate and ran out the clock. Win for Dodson in chess round 3.

  5. Ben Robinson vs. Richard Kavanagh
  6. As a fellow spectator next to me exclaimed, “They’re not even the same size!” Kavanagh replaced Mark Lech on the ticket at the last minute and surely set a new record for the most heavily tattooed figure to grace a board. The chess turned out to be a formality: after Robinson spent much of the first boxing round looking well out of his weight class—at one point Kavanagh picked him up off the ground with one arm before the referee waved off the hold—he landed a devastating right hook from the corner that knocked his opponent down flat, scoring an unexpected TKO. Win for Robinson in boxing round 1.

  7. Andrew McGregor vs. Hubert van Melick
  8. For the heavyweight main event, the time constraints on the chess were relaxed to 12 minutes per player from the 7:30 that was allotted to the preceding bouts, and the audience was told to expect up to 11 rounds of chess and boxing apiece. There was an audible hush as the 6’11” bearded ‘Man Mountain’ McGregor strode into the ring, draped in a scarlet cape and looking like he’d just come back from lugging Harry Potter off to school.

    The match opened into the Italian Game and a defensive pawn structure on both sides, suggesting a more measured game than the others, but this never came to fruition. The first round of boxing was by far the most ferocious of the night, and van Melick chased McGregor around the ring until McGregor’s cornerman threw in the towel. The disappointed audience erupted in boos as Tim Woolgar and the other officials took the stage to award van Melick the Bobby Fischer Belt. (Yes, there was a gaudy championship belt emblazoned with the image of Bobby Fischer. Fischer, who felt exploited by something as innocent as the title of the film Searching for Bobby Fischer, would have been furious.)

    Keith Kolb, who fought in the final match (and who, like McGregor, flew over from Los Angeles to compete), later revealed that McGregor had only met his cornerman that night and was very upset with the call. He was on the back foot and van Melick was driving him into the corner, yes, but the letdown of seeing the main event end so abruptly cast an unfortunate shadow over the whole evening.

  9. Charlie Hayter vs. Keith Kolb
  10. The final bout, which wasn’t listed in the original advertising and was no doubt added late, followed a course that paralleled the main event: once again, the chess looked to be one of the more promising and defensive games of the day, and once again, we never got to see the middlegame owing to an early knockdown by Hayter. Kolb’s cornerman threw in the towel, only this time it was clearly the appropriate call. Win for Hayter in boxing round 1.

Check, please

With three of the bouts finishing before we could see the boxing’s effect on the chess, it’s safe to say that the London Chessboxing Championship fell short of exhibiting the promise of the game. This was apparently anomalous; the summaries of the last event in March suggest that matches do tend to go longer, one of them (the middleweight fight between Svein Clouston and Alan Riley) being decided on points after the full 11 rounds.

I’m not sure what can be done to ensure more consistently entertaining bouts, but one possibility is to have the fighters wear headgear, which Andrew McGregor already requires at his club in California. Purists will say this takes away from the visceral pleasure of boxing—nobody ever imagines it with headgear—but it could have the effect of being more welcoming to new competitors as well as limiting the risk of an early exit in the boxing segment. A quick and dramatic knockout is fun to watch in boxing, but in chessboxing it trivializes the chess completely. (Then again, nobody complained when Robinson landed his hit on Kavanagh—easily the boxing highlight of the show.)

Less tractable is the problem that the sport favours boxers new to chess over chess players new to boxing. Unless you fall into an obvious opening trap, it’s much easier for a neophyte chess player to survive four minutes of chess than it is for an inexperienced boxer to make it through the first round of boxing, even when the opponents are well matched. The skill curve in chess rises astronomically at the higher levels of play, but its minimum standard of fitness isn’t nearly as stringent as that of the boxing half. Furthermore, chessboxing is by its very nature designed to produce poor play on the board, full of mishaps that are visible to the audience but not so perceptible to someone who has just shaken off the gloves. It may never be a game that is open to producing quality chess, which limits its appeal to audiences that don’t take the game seriously either. But in another way this flaw may be an asset: the liability of the players to make mistakes encourages them to wriggle out of theoretically lost positions and play their games through to the bitter end.

Going by what I saw on Saturday, there is a lot of minor tidying that can be done with the production. Aside from the problem of the computer display of the board, which was not ideal for tracking endgame patterns at blazing speeds, the audio for the chess commentary was not very clear. As such, the chess was difficult to follow. It didn’t help, either, that much of the commentary was aimed at an elementary crowd. The commentator was International Master Malcolm Pein, chess columnist for The Telegraph and the voice of Fritz, who indisputably had the knowledge and experience for the job; but from the moment he announced 1. e4 as “Bobby Fischer’s move! That’s Bobby Fischer’s move!” it was clear I wasn’t the target audience—and I’m someone who hasn’t held down a tournament rating since junior.

I’m not saying that the commentary should dive into book jargon without much in the way of explanation, but I would have liked more insight into the positions and their strategic shapes. Commentary has the power to add exceptional spectator value for audiences with only a passing idea of tactics and strategy without talking down to their level. Witness this video of a blitz game from 1994 between Vassily Ivanchuk and the current World Chess Champion, Viswanathan Anand.

This is perhaps a bit hopeful. Bundled with an awkward breakdancing pre-show, Frankensteinian mimes, and a frustrated hula dancer whose music kept cutting off, chessboxing was first and foremost packaged as a grand night out in London. And yes, while entertainment is where all spectator sports begin, I do feel as though the tackiness of the packaging underserves the game itself. For one thing, it sets the audience apart from the competitors like visitors from animals at the zoo: one is there for the detached amusement of the other. It’s worth remembering that for all the titanic reputation of Muhammad Ali or Lennox Lewis, boxing has always made for great stories because it creates such identifiable struggles. It’s the everyman’s sport, the same sweet science that gave us Terry Malloy.

As someone whose favourite spectator sport happens to be StarCraft II, and who recently joined thirty others to watch a professional tournament broadcast in a 19th-century pub (along with a hundred thousand others worldwide, hundreds of them in bars), the concept of chessboxing wasn’t outlandish to me at all; besides, I’d been aware of it for years. I’m certainly not one to judge a sport that, past its novelty, has the genuine potential to be great. What was alienating was everything surrounding it, this mysterious metropolitan ‘nightlife’ I’d heard of only in the urban legendarium. But when Iepe Rubingh brought chessboxing to the fore eight years ago, the game picked its target audience and committed to its peculiar cultural veneer. I’d say the strategy is working out pretty well, but I’m not so sure it’s ideal for inviting new contenders into the ring.

(The photographs in this post come from galleries of the event by James Bartosik and Ray Morris-Hill.)


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5 rejoinders to “Raging bishop”

  1. I admittedly follow neither chess nor boxing, but my instinctual reaction to learning of this sport’s existence is to be a little disgusted. Isn’t there something a little sick or exploitative about watching two competitors trade blows to the head and then attempt to engage in an intellectual challenge? Something just seems…. wrong there. Maybe I’m just not understanding the concept well.

    Thursday, 29 September 2011 at 4:45pm

  2. I think your problems with chessboxing are a subset of the problems with boxing generally. The sport has a certain aura of nobility about it thanks to its reputation as a hotbed of storytelling, but ultimately there’s no hiding that it’s a celebration of gladiatorial savagery for the visceral pleasure of the spectators outside the ring. Whatever wrongness the chess throws on top is marginal in proportion, I find. As a test of how mental stamina holds up under physical fatigue, I’m not sure it’s morally distinct from having people play chess after running a few laps (which is what chessboxing clubs do for training).

    But you’re right: if the intellectual element is really just there to take something base and primal and dress it up with a pretence of class… how different is it from, I don’t know, librarian porn?

    Thursday, 29 September 2011 at 10:42pm

  3. But isn’t there a fundamental difference between running laps and sustaining repeated blows to the head? Something about the idea of spectating an intellectual challenge made purposely more difficult by head trauma feels a bit like feeding beer to your dog and then laughing when it bumps into the walls.

    But I suppose all that’s really happening is that the chess highlights the fundamental savagery of boxing itself.

    Friday, 30 September 2011 at 12:09am

  4. I think the term ‘Elo’ has been sufficiently genericized to include Elo-like rating systems that the implicit conversion is fair

    Not really. Nobody who plays chess in England would refer to an ECF rating as an Elo rating. A minor point, of course, but not atypical: any mountain of rubbish is made up of small bits of the same stuff, and this is one of them.

    Saturday, 22 September 2012 at 9:48am

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