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.”

The 8 Best Horror Movies to Stream on Hulu Right Now

Paramount Pictures
Paramount Pictures

Looking for a good scare this Halloween season? If you’re a Hulu subscriber, you’ll be able to get your fill of creepy content. Check out eight of the best horror movies currently streaming on the service.

1. Hellraiser (1987)

Horror author Clive Barker made the move to feature directing with this tale of a man (Sean Chapman) who makes the grievous error of opening a portal to hell and proceeds to make his brother’s family targets of the sadistic Cenobites, led by Pinhead (Doug Bradley). Don’t bother with the endless sequels; the original is the best (and goriest) of the lot.

2. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

Paranoia runs deep in this remake of the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). In the ‘70s iteration, Donald Sutherland plays a health inspector who can’t shake the feeling that people around him seem a little off. He soon grows wise to the reality that aliens are walking among us as virtual human replicas. Naturally, they’re not keen on being discovered.

3. A Quiet Place (2018)

John Krasinski and Emily Blunt star as a couple living in a world terrorized by creatures that hunt by sound. Their largely-silent existence means every stray creak, cry, or noise threatens to expose them to the monsters—a danger that's only compounded when Blunt discovers she’s pregnant.

4. The Orphanage (2007)

A sense of dread looms over The Orphanage, a Spanish-language thriller with Belén Rueda as Laura, who returns to the child care facility that raised her so she can make a difference for a new generation of children. Strange things begin as soon as she arrives, with her son going missing and hints of unwelcome guests unraveling her nerves. It’s a film best not watched alone.

5. Event Horizon (1997)

If 1979’s Alien stirred your interest in space scares, Event Horizon might make for a worthwhile watch. After a spaceship presumed lost suddenly reappears, a crew of investigators (Sam Neill, Laurence Fishburne) board to find answers.

6. Children of the Corn (1984)

A couple (Peter Horton, Linda Hamilton) passing through a small rural town find a lack of adult supervision curious—until the kids reveal themselves to be homicidal cult members. Based on a Stephen King short story.

7. Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn (1987)

Bruce Campbell and Sam Raimi perfected “splatstick” horror in this cult classic about hapless boob Ash (Campbell) who escapes to a remote cabin retreat with girlfriend Linda (Denise Bixler) and unwittingly unleashes a cascade of evil. Though it’s more amusing than scary, Raimi’s inventive imagery is morbidly fascinating.

8. Child’s Play (1988)

Good mom Catherine Hicks buys a Good Guys doll for her son, Andy. Unfortunately, the doll—dubbed Chucky—has been possessed by the spirit of a serial killer (Brad Dourif) and proceeds to make young Andy’s life miserable, particularly after he discovers the kitchen cutlery.

El Camino, the Breaking Bad Movie, Almost Had a Much Darker Ending

Netflix
Netflix

Warning: There are major spoilers ahead for El Camino, the Breaking Bad follow-up movie that premiered on Netflix October 11.

After years of speculation, one secret New Mexico production (filmed under the title Greenbrier), and actors sworn to confidentiality, El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie landed on Netflix last Friday. In the two-hour film, viewers learned the ultimate fate of Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), the meth-cooking sidekick to chemistry teacher-turned-drug-kingpin Walter White (Bryan Cranston). Fleeing from captivity imposed by white supremacists forcing him to make illicit substances, Pinkman gathers enough funds to trade in blue ice for stark white Alaskan territory, driving toward a presumably happier future.

It was an ending in line with what Paul had envisioned for the character, even mentioning Alaska as a possible endpoint in a Reddit AMA back in 2016. But Breaking Bad creator and El Camino writer/director Vince Gillian originally intended on putting the screws to the beleaguered Pinkman one last time.

Speaking with Vulture, Gilligan said that his vision for Pinkman involved a scenario where he would be forced to sacrifice his freedom in order to save someone else. “Once I had set about coming up with this movie, for the longest time I had it in my mind that the thing we wanted most to see was for Jesse to escape [his old life],” he said. “And the thing he wanted most was to escape. So I was trying to concoct a plot in which, hero that he is, he saves somebody else—somebody I would have introduced as a new character into the movie. Because he’s such an innately heroic character in my mind, he saves someone at the end of the movie and he willfully gets himself caught knowing that it’ll save this other person. At the end of the movie, he’d be locked in a jail cell somewhere in Montana or someplace. And he would be at peace with it.”

Labeling his notion as “emo-type” interior storytelling intended to subvert expectations, Gilligan said he received mostly negative responses when discussing the idea with confidantes, including Better Call Saul showrunner Peter Gould. The consensus was that Pinkman deserved some kind of optimistic closure. Given that he has witnessed several homicides, committed a few murders of his own, lost his girlfriend to a drug overdose, saw his new girlfriend’s son poisoned, and was eventually locked in a hole in the ground, it might have made little sense to bring the character back from a six-year hiatus just to torture him some more.

Gilligan relented, and Pinkman now seems to have more of a fighting chance moving forward. “Sometimes,” the writer said, “you just got to give folks what they want.”

[h/t Vulture]

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