|Check & Jab: Chess in the Ring [VIDEO]
|By Macauley Peterson
|October 15, 2012
Saturday night at The Scala, a nightclub near London’s King’s Cross station. With hip-hop music blaring through the loud speakers, the crowd cheers as a scantily clad brunette silently announces the start of the next round with a giant sign.
Is this a chess match? Well, yes...sort of. It’s the hybrid sport of chessboxing! Alternating rounds of blitz and boxing. Win by knockout, checkmate, or “submission.”
On this fight night, grandmasters and other guests from across town at the London Grand Prix arrived an hour into the show, and are escorted up to a VIP room for complimentary gin & tonics. Overlooking the action from a glass-enclosed lounge, we catch the tale end of the ladies fight. (Of course, women can blitz and box too!)
To entertain the crowd before the next bout, a Finnish hula-hooper shows off some fine moves of her own. We’re wondering what to expect from the chess.
International Master Malcolm “the incomparable” Pein calls the chess portion of the bout with admirable flare from inside the ring.
The first match starts inauspiciously, when black attempts to move first! The adrenalin rush must have made him a tad over eager, though one would hope that having an understanding of the basic rules would be a prerequisite to participating in any sport. I assume this is the exception rather than the rule.
An absurdly bad game ensues:
I tune out, hoping the bell will ring soon. In fairness, we were warned these guys are not experienced wood pushers. IM Pein tries to keep it interesting.
“Woah! Pawn to h5! Violence! Aggression! A violent aggressive move on the kingside!”
For the first boxing round, the chess board is lifted out of the ring, with the position intact, to be resumed a few minutes later. We assume the players will make up in boxing skill what they clearly lacked at chess. Unfortunately not. I’m no expert, but the boxing looked to be only marginally better. A lot of lunging, with very little contact.
The main event of the evening, however, is a title bout for European Heavyweight Champion. Andy “the Rock” Costello versus a heavy-set Italian, Gianluca Sirci.
Costello, in the blue corner, has been a regular on the chessboxing circuit, with twenty-eight years of fighting experience. He was a former British heavyweight judo champion, a top ten heavyweight cage fighter and, the announcer proclaims, “international young players chess champion.”
His opponent appears formidable. Sirci, in the red corner, is 6’4 and 105 kilograms, with experience in professional boxing, and apparently and undefeated record at chessboxing.
Again, they start with chess. Twelve minutes each.
“We’re gonna pump some heavy metal music in there to help them concentrate,” says Pein, whose commentary might otherwise influence these more experienced players.
Pein, who also directs the educational charity Chess in Schools and Communities, uses the occasion to provide a little instruction to the raucous audience.
“Remember, with that knight on h6 -- a knight on the rim is very very ...” he pauses for the crowd to shout in unison, “DIM!” “You got it! We’re all learning how to play chess here.”
After a passive opening white breaks in the center. “Great move! Brilliant chess! Oh I love it! Two pawns in the middle!
The bell rings. This time the boxing is significantly higher class. They seem roughly evenly matched. Part of the novelty in chessboxing is seeing players come back from the boxing round and try to play chess. Getting your head banged around in the ring to play chess is generally antithetical to playing good moves.
After the round of boxing, Costello is evidently disoriented and tries to move for the second time in a row. Pein puts the kibosh on that.
“The last move was Nxe4! Come on! Let’s play fair -- you can’t have two moves at once.”
“He’s found it!” Pein explodes. “Yes! Nf6+! Oh, I don’t believe it! I don’t believe it! He’s nailed him! Nf6+ attacking the king and the queen!
White pockets the queen, and manages to swap a few pieces, but then a few moves later, blunders a rook. Queen for rook down, Sirci nevertheless managed to double-rooks on the d-file before the bell sounds.
After another boxing stalemate in the ring, it looks like the game will be settled at the board in round five. But after a few aimless moves, somehow Sirci managed to get his rooks doubled menacingly on the second rank.
“Gianluca! We are not talking penetration, ladies and gentleman, we are talking double-penetration, ooohh.” Pein milks it for all it’s worth. “Those rooks are right inside his position. That is not pretty.”
Just when it looks to be getting difficult for Costello, his opponent mysteriously blunders one of his rooks, and resigns a move later.
Afterwards I had a few words with Andy, “the Rock.” The fight is his eighth chessboxing bout. Gianluca was European champion, although even he was surprised and skeptical that this was truly a Heavyweight Title fight.
He played actively up to age 12, and garnered and ECF rating of 121, or about 1500 USCF. He doesn’t currenly have a coach, but plays a lot on Chess.com where he goes by the name TheMightyZohan.
Nowadays, he doesn’t think people would be impressed with his chess, but adds, “you should have seen me back in the day.”
As for the hybrid spectacle, “[Chessboxing] is growing in popularity as a spectator sport because it’s fun to watch, but as a participant sport, as you know, chess is really hard to master and boxing is a really tough sport as well, so the number of people who are willing to participate is inevitably going to be limited.
When I ask if any GMs should take up boxing, hoping to crush their opponents in the blitz portion, Costello shakes his head. “Oh, I wouldn’t suggest that -- much as I respect them.”
Video impressions from a night of Chessboxing in London: