The title highlights a contradiction, pairing an intellectual activity in which the combatants never touch and a combat sport in which opponents aim fists at each other’s chins. There is chess. There is boxing. And then there is Chessboxing.
“When I started this, I thought it was goofy, risky and ultimately wonderful,” McGregor said.
The sport will be showcased Saturday in Brooklyn as members of the Los Angeles Chessboxing Club make their New York debut at Gleason’s Gym on amateur night. Opponents will alternate rounds between chess and boxing, between a cerebral pursuit and a savage one. They will win by checkmate or knockout, or the judges’ scorecards.
They will also inevitably inspire questionable puns: brawn meets pawn, rook versus hook, and all the rest. Mostly, the athletes hope to accumulate more fans, participants and credibility for this hybrid of smarts and fighting.
“When I started this, I thought it was goofy, risky and ultimately wonderful,” said Andrew McGregor, founder of the Los Angeles club. “Thank God for George Foreman.”
McGregor competes under the nickname the Fightin’ Philanthropist, and he arrived for an interview in California clad in a suit, blue suede sneakers and a crown. He studied philosophy at Connecticut College and the University of Southern California, attended scriptwriting school, wrote a novel, and worked for magazines or took photographs in the Czech Republic, Argentina, Serbia, China, Japan and Croatia.
He learned chess in his youth, as a way to relieve stress after his parents divorced, and in Budapest he spied a poster for a sport he had never encountered. He typed “chessboxing” into Google. He was hooked.
McGregor knew little about boxing, so he sent an e-mail to Foreman, who actually responded. Foreman wrote that the best boxer was the best-conditioned one and that the left jab was the best punch. He detailed a training regimen. He signed off, “If I did, you can for sure; Thanks, George Foreman.”
So McGregor started the club in Los Angeles. He set up a makeshift gym at his residence in Santa Monica. He played chess on his computer and learned to box as he followed Foreman’s instructions. Boxing reminded him of taking pictures in Congo, where “there’s all this chaos around you, and you have to get the exposure correct and come up with a usable picture.”
Playing chess, with all its intricacies, after being punched in the face, heart rate elevated, struck McGregor as close to “doing math at the end of a gun.” His club has grown to about 20 members. Members include a chemist, a middle school teacher and an architect, along with professional boxers and mixed martial artists. They stage an event every three months or so, often to raise money for charity.
They represent one part of a growing international scene, which is the source for an in-progress documentary film. David Bitton came across an article about chessboxing in 2009, with a photograph of two men inside a boxing ring, shirts off, at a chess board. As a filmmaker, he was always drawn to absurd worlds. This fit. He came up with a title: “Chessboxing: The King’s Discipline.”
Bitton learned of the sport’s founder, Iepe Rubingh, a Dutch performance artist known as the Joker, who lifted chessboxing from a French comic book. Rubingh created the World Chess Boxing Organization, based in Berlin, and while he acknowledged that the sport sounded like a paradox, to him it represented controlled aggression.
Filming took Bitton all over the world. He met chessboxers who doubled as social workers and authors and research biologists. He heard about clubs that were started in Kolkata, India; in Shanghai; in Iran; and all through Europe.
As he dug deeper, he found seriousness in the chessboxing scene. “That’s what separates it from checkers or dodge ball,” Bitton said. “Both chess and boxing are universally well known. Putting them together puts a rift in people’s brains. Their initial reaction is to laugh. But there’s so much more to it than that.”
Chessboxers take the sport more seriously in Europe than in the United States. McGregor chooses to raise awareness through his events, where competitors often donate their purses to various charities, including the Tiziano Project, which teaches citizen journalism in war-torn regions.
In Europe, some estimates place the number of groups affiliated with the world organization at nearly 400. The Berlin Chessboxing Club has 450 members. Organizers hope to one day get chessboxing in the Olympics.
The Wu-Tang Clan wrote a song titled “Da Mystery of Chessboxin’ ” — but it is a mystery no longer.
The sport even had its first rift. Tim Woolgar, founder of London Chessboxing, has formed his own sanctioning body, the World Chessboxing Association. In an interview last summer, he said about 300 people had tried chessboxing there and about 50 practiced regularly.
“We’ve got quite a few people who work in banking,” he said. “It seems to attract bankers.”
Being punched in the face, Woolgar said inside a local pub, took some getting used to. There was the sharpness of the sound, the blurred vision, the way his legs suddenly felt unsteady. He watched chessboxers commit what they call chess suicide — losing on purpose to avoid another round inside the ring.
Woolgar said chessboxing matches could eventually be staged in front of larger crowds, in 5,000-seat or 10,000-seat arenas. He believed the sport would eventually be shown on television, although McGregor wondered how well the chess portion would translate to an audience.
Then there are the potential therapeutic benefits. McGregor wants to introduce chessboxing to soldiers returning home from combat. If chessboxers can learn to harness their aggression, to slow their heart rate after intense physical activity and think clearly after trading punches, perhaps doctors could teach others how to do the same. Perhaps chessboxing could serve as a form of anger management, or post-traumatic stress therapy.
Regardless, the sport will push forward. Bitton will introduce a Kickstarter campaign for the documentary next week. McGregor will compete in Brooklyn this weekend. The boxer Lennox Lewis has said he is a fan of the sport.
Not that organizers could necessarily find Lewis an opponent. Maybe McGregor should send another e-mail to George Foreman.
Source: Greg Bishop, NYTimes