Chess boxing: a sport of two extremes

Win a match with either a knockout in the ring or a checkmate on the board.

Contestants wear headphones to prevent the crowd from calling out tips. — Photo: Pitchhigh

By: Ahmed Ali, Peak Associate

Imagine, if you will, a sport that simultaneously pushed its athletes to their physical and intellectual limits — a sport that requires an extreme amount of focus, restraint, and raw power. Well, imagine no longer, as the odd, but nevertheless impressive, new sport known as chess boxing has burst onto the scene.

Chess boxing is a sport in which two athletes alternate between six rounds of chess and five rounds of boxing, lasting three minutes each. In chess boxing, the winner is whoever gets a checkmate or a knockout first. Athletes can also be disqualified for trying to stall for time and, in the event of a draw, the winner is determined by points scored in the boxing ring. If the two athletes are still tied after their five boxing rounds have been assessed by the judges, the athlete playing the black side in chess is determined to be the winner.

This sport of two extremes was created by Dutch performance artist Iepe Rubingh in the early 2000’s. Rubingh’s idea was to create performance art to make people think by ushering in a new sport that was based on the 1992 comic Froid Équateur. In the comic, there is a chess boxing championship in which two athletes spend an entire day in a boxing match (with a ring painted like a giant chessboard) and the next day in a round of chess. Rubingh likely found this set up to be unwieldy, so he refined the rules to make a match of chess boxing more manageable in terms of time. In 2003, Rubingh started the first official chess boxing competition and, somewhat unsurprisingly, became the first champion.

What was surprising was that this new sport ended up becoming wildly popular. Since then, in collaboration with the Dutch Boxing Association and the Dutch Chess Federation, the World Chess Boxing Organization was formed with the goal of legitimizing chess boxing worldwide. Rubingh himself has set aside his career as an artist to focus on promoting and expanding the sport, which is particularly popular in Germany, the UK, India, and Russia.

One of the most difficult aspects of the sport is the mental fortitude it requires. It can be extremely taxing to amp yourself up for a fight, only to have to quickly calm down for a tough mental exercise, and then have to repeat the process up to six times. The official Chess Boxing Global website describes this unique challenge, noting that “chess boxing is a rare blend of contrasting skills” that requires athletes to combine “a powerful body with a sharp mind.” While there are many quirky elements to the sport, it’s this transition between physical and intellectual extremes that creators and proponents of the sport describe as its most intriguing feature. As the official website notes, “In the ring, the fighter is fueled by testosterone, adrenaline, and skill. Three minutes later, he [or she] changes battlegrounds. The contender has only seconds to restrain his fighting instinct and move into the silent logic of his mind. It is the only sport in which the heart, mind and body perform in total harmony.” 

Personally, I think one of the coolest things about this sport is the fact that it’s entirely possible that someone with no boxing experience could beat Floyd Mayweather in what is technically, at least partially, a boxing match. All this could be done without having to actually fight him, as long as the checkmate was secured in the first round of chess. If not, well, that might be the last game of chess one ever played.