It is Friday night, and doubtless there are better things to do than to pack into a refurbished theater of blue movies and focus the eyes on a couple of anonymous Europeans crouching over a chessboard. They marshal tiny pieces against one another in a battle of quiet strategy. Sound and movement are of the faintest quality. It is as though you have barged into a stranger’s parlor. There may yet be time to sneak away.
But then a bell rings and the hall fills with loud music. There are hoots and yells from the darkened sections of seats, along with other signals of unshackled enthusiasm. When the bell rings once more and the eyes refocus, you notice the chess players have begun to punch each other in the nose and in the ribs. There is blood. This is a fight, and it’s not bad at that, the theater having transformed into an arena of genuine athletic pursuit. This is no parlor game after all. It is chess and it is boxing, and doubt has begun to fade into curiosity. This may be strange, but it is strangely worth a look.
"Sport" inspired by a comic book
The rules of chessboxing are such:
Two competitors face each other in 11 alternating rounds, six of chess, five of boxing. A bout begins with chess, which is played on a board placed directly in the middle of the ring. Each round of chess lasts four minutes. After each chess round, the bell sounds, and workmen remove the chessboard for a two-minute round of boxing, the gloves go back on, the punching recommences. Participants win by way of knockout, checkmate, referee’s decision, or if his opponent exceeds the allotted total of 12 minutes for an entire match on the chessboard. Those are the basics, but they do little to answer the overriding question: Why?
To begin to answer this, you must confront an unlikely figure, a Dutch artist who often goes by the name of the Joker. Iepe Rubingh stands at this moment in a Cologne boxing gym. It’s a few days before fight night, and Rubingh oversees a couple of chessboxers as they sweat out their final frustrations.
Zoran Mijatovic bends through the ring ropes and takes a seat at a nearby chessboard, where he battles Rubingh for a few minutes before stepping back into the ring for further sparring. Mijatovic, 28, a Croatian, spends his days welding ships along the Adriatic Sea. He is dark-haired and burly, and he expounds freely on whatever comes to mind. "No drinking, no women," he gasps, reflecting on the difficulties of his monastic training as he takes a quick gulp of water. "It’s very, very difficult. When I finish, I will be very happy. I need some beautiful experience."
This certainly sounds like boxing. And unfortunately for Mijatovic, it looks just like it, too, as the gym is packed at the moment with nothing very pretty. There are mostly sweat-through kickboxers here, keeping to themselves in a far corner, near a poster of vintage-period Mike Tyson wearing a championship belt and a flesh-grinding scowl. There are also abundant photos and magazine clippings of Muhammad Ali. And there is a movie poster for "Das Comeback," the German-dubbed version of "Cinderella Man," a theme that may figure most prominently in this scenario. Mijatovic hasn’t boxed seriously in a dozen years, and his trainer has been with him here in Cologne for a grand total of two days. "He has a powerful punch," says the trainer, a compact, muscled man named Et Arslan, who is doing his best to be supportive. "And that’s it." By the shape of him, Mijatovic is not afraid of a beer. Nor does he exhibit any panic when talk turns to his upcoming opponent, Frank Stoldt, a Berlin riot police commander. "I am so strong in all of my punches," Mijatovic says. "I, myself, am scared of my right hand. I am more afraid of the ring girls than Frank."
The two will fight for the European championship of chessboxing. It is a flimsy designation because the sport has only a few handfuls of genuine participants. But you gotta start somewhere. Iepe (pronounced ee-pay) Rubingh, chessboxing’s Don King, has big plans, and they stem from his belief in the duality of man — the cerebral and the physically courageous. "Chessboxing makes you fit for life," Rubingh says, running a hand over his red-tinted buzz cut. "It polishes you."
This is an odd piece of sincerity from Rubingh, 32, who has concentrated his efforts over the years on toying with public perceptions as a painter, photographer and performance artist. One of his outdoor art installations, called the Berlin Miracle, involves a tree that suddenly and unpredictably sprinkles rain. Another of his stunts took place in Tokyo, where he and a dozen helpers ran crime scene tape across a busy evening intersection, clogging car and foot traffic until the police stepped in. Rubingh wore a court jester’s outfit for the prank, and he continued to wear it for another week in a Japanese jail. Just now, on his laptop, Rubingh shows a video of the incident, wherein several cops are escorting him into seclusion. He bears the smirk of the insolent.
Soon enough, the chessboxing group leaves the gym and retires to Grunfeld, a chess-themed watering hole in Cologne’s central district. Vaguely erotic charcoal sketches of rooks and queens hug the walls. Here on the checked tables the chess training continues. Rubingh’s chessboxers spar at the gym, while many of them also have chess coaches.
Rubingh cracks a copy of a hardcover Serbian comic book. He runs a finger along a few panels picturing a man with a leg that has been shorn off at the knee, gushing blood. This is where Rubingh got his idea for chessboxing. The comic, "Alexander Nikopol Gesamtausgabe," is part of a trilogy created by Enki Bilal, a Serbian comic book legend. It tells the story of an apocalyptic society of escalated violence, set in the year 2034. In this world, hockey is played with steel, stick blades sharpened into knives. And two men box one another on a chessboard floor, the match ending with one player braining the other with the queen.
Rubingh’s version of chessboxing conforms, more or less, to the comic book representation. There is no blinding of participants, but there is a fin de siecle feel to the whole affair, with Rubingh talking an awful lot about how the sport combines elements of the complete man, one who is prepared for any eventuality, not a pure brute, not a hopeless nerd. Rubingh foresees a day when his sport will gain Olympic status and even go on to resolve implacable global conflicts. "The future chessboxer will be a grandmaster and a professional boxer," Rubingh says. "Chessboxing could even solve the problem in the Middle East. I want to hold a chessboxing match between an Israeli and a Palestinian, and the winner will get to decide what happens to Israel."
Iepe Rubingh is not crazy; he just sounds like it. He’s as crazy as one need be to pull off something like this, prevailing upon people to take chessboxing seriously.
Rubingh is as much showman and promoter as he is anything else. Testament to this is the fact that he was able to attract 800 people to the first World Championship of Chessboxing in November 2003 in Amsterdam. Rubingh himself fought in that match — after nine months of training, transforming the Joker into a chessboxer — against a boxer called Luis the Lawyer. Rubingh won the title, and then took his show on the road a year later, with a showcase in Tokyo, where he fought against a guy called Yoichiro the Wicked. Last September, Rubingh held the first European chessboxing championship, between a German and a Bulgarian, in Berlin. This match served to promote the opening, also in Berlin, of the first all-chessboxing gym, which now has 40 or so members, all of them sliding off the gloves at the end of each sparring round to wrap delicate fingers around tiny chess pieces.
The riot cop makes the scene
On the afternoon of fight night, the riot policeman arrives from Berlin. Frank Stoldt, 36 and a cop for 16 long seasons, presents a sobering alternative to his Croatian opponent — lean where Mijatovic is beefy, laconic where Mijatovic loves to gab. Stoldt hangs around a Cologne police precinct as a video crew shoots some raw footage of him in his element. "Very straight, very sober, that’s my style," he says. "I am a policeman and I stand for right." Stoldt learned about chessboxing over the Internet (where else?), and as a former kickboxing champion and longtime chess player, he figured the sport presented an advantageous mix. Plus, the man was looking for something outside the day job — leading a platoon of 30 riot police into Berlin’s toughest situations. "I believe in a divine plan and divine order," Stoldt says. "I plan on winning this fight, and I will let the cosmic order take care of the rest."
This is Rubingh’s greatest mark of success, the fact that he can attract a cop and a longshoreman to his "art project," without them considering it art in the least. This round of Rubingh’s performance art has gone beyond tongue-in-cheek and into the realm of sincere endeavor. It has crossed over, jumped off the pages of a futuristic comic book, zipped through the imagination of a professional provocateur, and been made manifest and masculine through the participation of some genuinely tough customers. As with all performance art, there are moments when you’re not sure if you’re supposed to take chessboxing seriously. (The PR material for Rubingh’s World Chess Boxing Organisation [WCBO] doesn’t much help: "Within a very short period of time, chessboxing has expanded the realms of the performing arts." Is this the ballet?) But then you are confronted with Stoldt’s riot police demeanor, and you realize that this is no joke.
Fight night dispels all doubts … Well, some
Still, the initial reaction is always one of befuddlement. At the Cologne hotel, they have never heard of chessboxing.
"Sounds like Japanese TV show," says the manager. He turns to a bellhop, gauging him for knowledge. "Strange stuff, ja?"
"Ja, strange stuff," agrees the bellhop.
"Strange sports, ja?"
"Ja, strange sports."
Fight night has arrived, and all doubts will be dispelled. A long line leads to the entrance of Gloria, the theater that’s hosting the matches. The place exists in a soft glow of indirect lighting and a low, dinner theater hum of conversation. A disco ball spins red over the bar and the crushed velvet of the wall serves as backdrop to the large, rolling cursive "Gloria," which lends a touch of class to the affair. Projected onto the screen behind the ring is the WCBO’s insignia: a boxing glove grasping a rook.
Down in the bowels of the theater, the two chessboxers on the undercard — they will fight for the Cologne championship — go through their prefight routines. Jan Mielke jumps rope like a pro, skipping, hopping, crossing the rope in the air. Stefan Dittrich wraps his hands before slipping on his gloves to check the fit.
Dittrich, 28, a student at the Cologne Sports University, read about the sport in the local paper. "My family thinks I’m stupid for chessboxing," he says, while acknowledging that he doesn’t much care, having delved into the difficulties of the sport for long enough to know that this is for real. "Chess is harder," he says, "because you can train to become a good boxer. But you need to know chess for a long time."
Mielke, 32, gained 17 pounds in the two weeks leading up to the fight. At 155, he is still a slim 6-footer, which makes his prediction for the fight unsurprising: "I’m gonna beat him by checkmate."
Once the two meet in the ring, two things become abundantly clear: Mielke can’t handle Dittrich’s big left hook, and Dittrich plays an impatient, unnecessarily risky game of chess. In the first round of chess, the two men fly through their prearranged opening salvos, which end with Dittrich losing his knight. This means that in order to recover in the overall match, he must box well, which he does, battering the shorter, lighter Mielke around the ring.
But when they return to the chessboard, their hearts racing, blood feeding their muscles and starving their brains, Mielke quickly puts Dittrich into check. With the gloves back on, Dittrich continues hounding Mielke into forgetting the fine jump rope and shadowbox form he displayed in the dressing room.
After another round of chess, during which Dittrich stalls for time with his queen in danger, he pounds Mielke with an energetic flurry of punches, realizing that he hasn’t much chance left in the chess portion of the match. The desperation is obvious. When the bell rings at the end of the third boxing round, Mielke has survived the onslaught, and a red mouth guard shows through his wide smile.
In the fourth chess round, Dittrich comes up against his 12-minute time limit, having stalled through the last few rounds. Mielke chases his opponent’s queen around the board, until finally Dittrich’s minutes elapse and the match ends with a very loud whimper. The lights come up in the Gloria, and the crowd of several hundred roars its approval as Mielke raises the city championship trophy over his head.
Down below in the locker rooms, there is not so much enthusiasm. With Stoldt and Mijatovic locked away and meditating on what’s to come in the main event, there is no joking. Stoldt enters the ring to Frankie Goes to Hollywood, which can’t possibly be a good sign.
As the first chess round opens, it’s clear that this fight will be different from the last, as each player moves with intense deliberation. A Berlin actor friend of Rubingh’s calls the chess action blow-by-blow over the P.A. system, Stoldt and Mijatovic wearing headphones to screen out all distractions and block possible coaching. They trade a few pieces and end up dead even as the bell sounds and they slip on the gloves.
The nature of the first boxing round resembles the recent chess play, as each assumes a classic stance, feeling out his opponent, risking little. Then it’s back to the chess, where they begin to carve the board in two, diagonally with their pawns. Mijatovic begins an attack at Stoldt’s knight, but is thwarted. Draped in white towels, the two men stare daggers into the chessboard, as a single bright spotlight washes the table in a godly glow.
The boxing opens up in the second round. Mijatovic drops his left, because Stoldt refuses to lead with his right. But this looks like a ploy, because when Mijatovic tries to use that left to the body, he pays for it, as Stoldt pounds him, punishing him with a long, stiff reach.
When the two return to the board for their third round of chess, Stoldt is markedly more composed than the Croatian. Having gained the upper hand in boxing, he quickly does the same on the board, putting Mijatovic only a handful of moves away from checkmate.
With the chess well in hand, Stoldt risks nothing in the next boxing round. Mijatovic, meanwhile, has begun to tire of Stoldt’s defense and superior size and stamina. When the two settle down to the fourth round of chess, Mijatovic’s face scrunches into obvious and overwhelming perplexity, and three moves away from checkmate, he knocks over his king, conceding the match.
The two fighters gather in the lobby of the Gloria a few minutes later for interviews. "One mistake in chess, and it’s over," says Stoldt, his serious demeanor magnified by the hard-earned sweat that rolls down his face. Mijatovic, meanwhile, fields questions about why he surrendered instead of soldiering on, stalling for time on the chessboard so he could face Stoldt at least one more time with the gloves on. "You really think I could have won in the boxing?" Mijatovic asks. "Me, no." And here is revealed a flaw. One must summon a lot of heart to box; the chess portion of the match gave Mijatovic an easy out, while bilking the paying crowd of a few more rounds of what was a pretty good go at chessboxing.
But it’s still early in the life of the sport, and the spectacle of it works well, all considered. Interest also has spread to the United States, where Rubingh has established contact with several boxing gyms in New York, Los Angeles and Boston. He is planning the first chessboxing match for early 2007 in either L.A. or New York, with about 15 fighters already having applied to take part.
Hovering about the scene just now is Rubingh, who has won the right to take it easy after several weeks of playing what he calls "chessboxing’s Don King." He orders one of Cologne’s famous short beers up at the bar, and he reflects on the nature of his art project-cum-sports league. "I don’t like having borders between things," he says. "People are too focused on classifying sport in only one way. Life is much broader than that." As he drains his glass and orders another, the Joker couldn’t be more sincere.
How weird? Just weird enough.