The boxers scan the chessboard as they contemplate their next move. Seated at the portable table in the middle of the ring, they take quick turns while the enthusiastic crowd shouts “CHESS, CHESS, CHESS!” But as soon as the bell rings and the round ends, they put on the gloves again and exchange punches. The crowd is in a frenzy: “BOX, BOX, BOX!”
I am set for a bizarre but delightful experience tonight inside this independent north London venue, where four chessboxing fights, one of which is for the new British Middleweight champion, are taking place.
"You gotta be a little bit mad"
Yes, it is a thing. Although the London Chessboxing club has been around since 2008, people still look at you incredulously when they first hear about the hybrid sport, which combines the seemingly unrelated disciplines, two extremes in the imaginary axis of the cerebral and the physical. Alternating boxing with chess rounds, you can win a match either with a knockout or checkmate. The first competition took place in Berlin in 2003, with the sport spreading globally in countries such as the US, Russia, India, China and Iran. Remarkably, it has gained popularity among some young Indian women, who see it as a source of empowerment.
What does it take to become a chessboxer? "You gotta be a little bit mad," Matt 'Crazy Arms' Read, absent tonight for health reasons, told me, when I took part in one of the club’s weekly training sessions not long ago. Intrigued by this declaration, I came to the Dome in Tufnell park to see it for myself and find out what brought some of the enthusiastic crowd of 400 mostly-but-not-only-young people to the big event.
"Unique, isn't it?"
Word-of-mouth reigns supreme. “We heard about this through a friend of a friend...and then a friend knew someone who’s doing it...”, say first-timers Steph, Nicky and Susana, who just got their drinks from the bar.
“A friend from work came along and said it was something quite different which was worth going to watch, so we thought why not? Sounds fun,” say Alex and Stuart. “Unique, isn’t it?”
“We watch lots of normal boxing on TV and we were wondering how the chess was gonna work!” say James and Gemma.
Apart from the mystified first-timers, there are those who loved it and came back. I’m meeting a group of friends that came down from Coventry, Colchester and Cambridge. “We came last year as well”, say Matt, Ed, James and Liam. What brought them back? “The spectacle of it…”
Joe wants to introduce Cora to the joys of chessboxing-watching: “I’m hoping for the same as last time: a lot of energy, a lot of people shouting ‘CHESS CHESS CHESS’, and some very sweaty men playing chess as well which is totally up my alley,” he laughs.
"I think he can play G5 here...and he HAS!"
Chessboxing has a variety of builds and physiques. But the first pair of the night is the tall and muscular chess instructor, David, against the even taller, at 6’6, Cameron.
“Make some noise for David ‘Northern Powerhouse’ Jarmanyyy!” roars the host, Gemma, as the audience, pints in hand, squeals with excitement. David makes the first flashy appearance of the night, proceeding to the ring under heavy metal music. “In the North this is what we play to babies to send them to sleep so I hope it doesn’t relax me too much,” he told me beforehand. Cameron 'Hurt Locker'' Little's entrance goes straight to the point: he shows off some punching moves on stage, before he joins in the ring.
The opponents sit at the two chairs set on each side of the chess table, with the arbiter standby, while, following the tradition of boxing matches, a ring girl walks with a placard indicating the first round. A diagram of the chessboard is projected on the stage, to help the audience follow the moves. And then, the lively description of the two commentators, who also live broadcast on Twitch, begins: “Oh god...I think he’s lost a piece! I think he can play G5 here...and he HAS!” The fighters can’t hear them though, as they have headphones on. They have to hurry, they only have six minutes each to make all their moves across all chess rounds.
After three minutes, the bell rings and the first of the eight chess rounds ends. The ring is cleared by a group of volunteers, the unsung ninjas of the game, who take care to not drop any pieces as they carry the chessboard. The boxing referee gets into the ring and the fighters listen to their boxing instructors as they put on their gloves. No commentators for those in the venue now, the audience is left on their own to enjoy the face blows, body punches, confident jabs and desperate hooks. After two minutes, the bell rings again, the first of the seven boxing rounds ends and the circle repeats.
Tea and pints
“You might play very defensive chess so that you can last out the round and then try to win on the boxing, or you can play very aggressively at chess and try to defend on the boxing,” David had said to me. Ultimately, it is important to be decent in both and then you can specialise in one of the two. It might be better to be a good chess player than a boxer, because it’s easier to win by checkmate than by knockout.
Or win by having your opponent running out of time, which is what happens when Cameron’s timer counts down to zero in the seventh chess round. Among loud cheers, David is declared the winner. The two opponents, worn out but cheerful, embrace each other.
The London Chessboxing club has the habit of having tea and brunch at a local cafe after training, as I can testify for from my own experience. Tonight however, David can only think of the alcohol he missed while preparing for the match. “I feel like a pint!” is the first thing he says after the fight.
While the audience is topping up at the bar during the short break, the Twitch commentators introduce a special guest; I spoke to this guest earlier, without realising how famous he was until I looked him up online. Terry Marsh, former world boxing champion — and by the way, former world chessboxing champion after he picked up the sport at 56 — talked to me about the variety of strategies in place, depending on your background as a boxer or as a chess player: “For example, if a boxer makes the chess player get fatigued in boxing, then the chess player will start making mistakes on the chessboard.”
The next three pairs do not let us down, not least as far as sensational entrances are concerned. Irishman Gerard "Ripper" Reilly, wearing green and a Leprechaun hat, dances to Rocky Road to Dublin, while Jon "The Brick" Wood, a former bricklayer, throws bricks to the audience to the sound of Another Brick in the Wall.
The song, which is about teachers, is intended to taunt Gerard who is a Geography teacher. “He’s got me a double whammy!” as Gerard put it to me. "No Slack" Mak elevates the show to a new level of bizarreness with a good saxophone riff.
Gerrard checkmates Jon in the third chess round and wins in triumph, while Brian, cornered and battered quite a few times by Dan "The Tax Man" Mayfield (“I used to be a tax accountant and it stayed with me, it was too late to change it”), survives the boxing rounds until Dan runs out of time in the seventh chess round.
"This eye will be very blue tomorrow and that's fine"
The night’s most flamboyant entrance performance is reserved for the last and most important match of the night, the fight for the UK middleweight title. Surrounded by three professional dancers in a harem-style set up, Shayan "Shah" Zarein Dolab shows off his Persian king persona. The well-rehearsed choreography is met with a stream of cheers and boos by the intoxicated crowd. “On the second round of chess, I want him to FEAR going back into the ring!” the 29-year-old professional landlord told me earlier when I asked him about his plan.
But Roger "Cannonball" Baxter, the 23-year-old Irishman, is not fazed. After enduring a storm of blows, he wins the champion belt in the ninth (this time it was 10 in total) chess round, after Shayan runs out of time. “I’ve made it far too hard for myself...but it doesn't matter, cause I’ve got to win! This eye will be very blue tomorrow and that’s fine,” he says after the match.
Where are the women chessboxers?
After the lights go out for the fun to continue at a pub nearby, I recall what Matt 'Crazy Arms' Read told me after training a few weeks ago: “Boxing and chess are male dominated worlds but there is no reason why they should be.” The people I met at the London Chessboxing club were very friendly, so I hope that more women that are thinking of giving it a go do so. As Matt put it: “We are very, very welcoming and we will help you become a better version of yourself. That’s what chessboxing is all about."
- A match consists of eight chess and seven boxing rounds (10 and nine for the title match)
- The chess rounds last three minutes each (four for the title match) and the boxing two minutes (three for the title match)
- Each player has a total of six minutes (nine for the title match) to make all their chess moves
- Victory can come either in boxing or chess
Images by Ioanna Toufexi