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Of Mind and Body: The Exhausting Hybrid that is Chess Boxing

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Have you heard of chess boxing? Playing chess, there are times when you think you’re on the way to a victory, only for a misstep or an unexpected turn of events to hurl you into a crushing defeat. Maybe you’ve tossed a chessboard or two, grit your teeth or throw your hands in the air in disbelief. However, you’ve probably never thought of punching your opponent, because chess teaches you grace even in defeat.

But there’s a form of the classical game that actually allows you to punch and trade blows with your opponent – Chess Boxing. However, the game does not espouse violence; it actually takes sportsmanship and self-development to the next level as it challenges players both mentally and physically.

chess boxing players
Two chess boxing players, in trunks and hand wraps, during the chess half of a round.

From the Arts to the Ring

The word “Chessboxing” was first coined in a 1979 martial arts film from Hong Kong. Directed by Joseph Kuo, the film “Mystery of Chessboxing” features a student who learns a martial arts style based on Xiangqi, or the Chinese version of chess.

However, Chess Boxing as we know it today traces its origin to the 1992 French comic,  Froid Équateur, by artist Enki Bilal. The description of the fictional sport was vivid enough that a Dutch performance artist Iepe Rubingh actually hosted an event to demonstrate the sport. The main difference was that in the comic by Bilal, the opponents fight an entire boxing match before sitting on the opposite sides of the chessboard.

Finding this to be impractical, Rubingh made Chess Boxing employ alternating rounds of chess and boxing plus an additional set of rules. But in our opinion, Rubingh’s version is a lot better. Seriously, would you still be able to complete your advance if you get knocked out before the chess match even starts?

Inspiring dedicated communities across Europe, chess boxing first found its official tournament event in Berlin in 2003. The same year in the same city also saw the birth of the World Chess Boxing Organization (WCBO), which soon held the first title match in Amsterdam, The Netherlands. The WCBO was supported by both the Dutch Boxing Association and the Dutch Chess Federation – and one of the participants was Rubingh himself!

It then started spreading like wildfire, receiving recognition from the representatives of one of its “parent” sports. FIDE expressed support for the sport and its president at the time Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, took part in a demo game in Elistia in Russia.

chess boxing midround
Exhaustion from the physical engagement also creates an additional burden on the player’s ability to make quick and sound decisions in chess.

More Than Just Punching and Planning

If you’re interested in setting up your own chess boxing game, here are the basic rules to get you started.

  • A chess boxing game has 11 rounds of chess and boxing played alternatively. The first and last rounds generally being chess, making a total of six chess rounds and five boxing rounds
  • Each boxing round, in formal games, lasts for three minutes each and is separated by one-minute break times.
  • Generally, chess rounds are played under time control. If you’re familiar with or have played speed chess or fast chess then you know how it works. In Chess Boxing though, a total of nine minutes is given to each player for a certain chess round.

While it’s already apparent to fans of either sport, the victory and loss conditions for this hybrid sport includes any of the following:

  • Victory by knockout (KO) or technical knockout (TKO) in the boxing rounds. It should go without saying: you can’t throw punches during the chess rounds.
  • Victory by checkmate in chess
  • Loss by time control violations. Additionally, there are no time increments or bonuses for each completed move in chess boxing, unlike in its pure chess versions.
  • Loss by resignation, either in chess or in boxing
  • Disqualification. A referee in either chess or boxing could disqualify a player for violations against the rules. One of the most common rules observed in chess boxing is the regulation against attempts to stall time. Sure, you might not have a good move or maybe you’re still tired, but once you’re caught deliberately trying to delay the game, you’re out.

Additionally, in cases where the chess game is forced to end in a draw before the final round, another boxing round is held. If this still fails to create a definite winner, judges then check the accumulated boxing scores of each winner – giving us victories by unanimous or split decisions.

A lesser-known rule that has never yet been put in effect in the entire chess boxing history is the default victory condition for the player with the black chess pieces. If the game ends with both players tied on both chess and boxing, the one playing black wins by virtue of not having the first-move advantage in chess.

Also, formal gaming events for chess boxing are not just for everyone. On the chess side, the aspiring player must have an Elo rating of at least 1,600 and for the boxing side, at least fifty amateur fights recorded in boxing or other accepted forms of martial arts.

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