Chessboxing in the UK

By Laura Lynch

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In a rundown dance hall in north London, the faint smell of stale beer hangs in the air. This is where the action is – or will be. The dance floor has all but disappeared under a boxing ring erected for the night.

In the middle of the ring sits an elegant chessboard.

It's all for the strange and relatively new sport of chessboxing. The combination of flying fists and mental manoeuvring has its roots in science fiction, but it's coming to life around the world, especially in Britain.

Mark Hickey is the first fighter to arrive. By his own admission, he's an absolute rookie; never boxed or played chess before he started training for this bout eight weeks ago.

"I decided that life was a little bit mundane at the moment and I should get involved and do something that would get me physically fit, would be a bit of a challenge, and be a bit of fun too," Hickey said.

When asked whether he's stronger in chess or boxing, Hickey laughed. "I think I'm equally as crap at both."

Chessboxing began as an idea in a novel in 1992. It didn't come to life until 2003 when a Dutch artist saw the potential of combining the extremes of physical and mental prowess. Now it's entertainment that people pay to see.

As the spectators start to file in, organizers dim the hall lights, turn up the music and open the bar.

The headliner arrives, standing a foot taller than the tallest person in the room. Hubert van Melick is nicknamed "The Wardrobe" for his imposing size. This Dutchman is the veteran here. A relative veteran, Van Melick's been chessboxing since 2008 when he lost his white collar job in the banking crash. Van Melick says he's no chess master.

"My level is 1,500 Elo," he said, referring to the Elo rating system for chess. "1200 is beginners and at 2200 your start being a Bobby Fischer."
Getting over the fear

Van Melick added that the hardest part of chessboxing is getting over the fear. "Because you perform in front of a live audience, a wild audience, and they publicly see your chess. You are in a gladiatorial arena."

Chessboxing has 11 rounds; six four-minute rounds of speed chess, alternating with five three-minute rounds of boxing. You win by either a knockout, checkmate or in the case of a draw, on points.

The loudspeaker announces Mark Hickey's match. Hickey climbs into the ring, pumping the air with his fists. His opponent steps in soon after. Both men take their seats at the chess table. The gloves, necessarily, are off so they can grasp the pieces.

Four minutes later, the board is carefully lifted out of the ring and the gloves go on. Mark comes out swinging. But he's swinging a bit too much, apparently. Before the first round is over, Mark is cradling his right arm. He is hurt, and the bout is all over.

Since most people here know boxing better than chess, Malcolm Peine has one of the toughest jobs of the night. Peine does a sort of play-by-play for the chess rounds, trying to make it all exciting and understandable.

"You tend to find that after they finish the boxing, the first move they play in the chess is usually awful," Peine said. "Often, it's a pretty bad move because the adrenaline is pumping from the chest and it's hard to get yourself in chess mode."

But ringside, it's clear the sport is attracting new fans.

"They're playing chess, they're boxing, it's fantastic," said this enthusiastic fan. "To be a good boxer you have to have brains. Don't let anybody fool you."
The main event

"Ladies and gentlemen, without further ado, in the red corner we have the one and only, The Wardrobe, Hubert van Melick!"

Van Melick's opponent used to be a semi-professional boxer. But his hair is grey, he's packed on the pounds, and he hasn't played chess in years.

After one round, there's no clear advantage. So the men jab and thrust, land a few blows – again, no one is winning.

Then, in round three, stooped over the chessboard, Hubert lands the killing blow.

"And it's over," yelled the announcer. "It came from nowhere; The Wardrobe opens up the door and pulls out a checkmate after only 25 moves!"

Hubert's arm is raised in victory. Later, he'll tell me he would have preferred to win with his fists. But tonight his mind made the difference.

Hubert struts around the ring as it fills up with fans who are ready to party. Beer slops from plastic cups onto the ground as dancers gyrate and stumble.

In chessboxing, Hubert sees a chance to make a buck and be a somebody. After all, world champion boxer Lennox Lewis loves chess and is a chessboxing fan. For Lewis and others, the sport is a winner – the ultimate test of brawn and brain.