Mike Tyson stands over the boxing ring, hands on hips, staring the room down. He’s dressed for combat – red boxing shorts, his fists covered in hand wraps. This image of the ‘baddest man on the planet’ is a painting; a portrait, that hangs on the wall of Islington Boxing Club, where every Saturday morning London Chessboxing holds its training sessions.
Chessboxing does exactly what it says on the tin: a curious hybrid sport where participants play chess for six, three-minute rounds, alternating with five, three-minute boxing rounds. Fighters win by knockout or checkmate. The sport came from Dutch artist, Iepe Rubingh, who, after reading Enki Bilal’s 1992 graphic novel, Froid Équateur, which features a form of chessboxing, decided to bring the concept to life.
In Amsterdam, 2003, the first chessboxing competition took place, and in the following year, the first chessboxing club opened in Berlin.
Thirty minutes before training starts and Islington Boxing Club is already buzzing. Men are jumping rope and hitting the bags; women are lifting weights and sweating on the bike machines and kids are doing pad work in the ring. All under the watchful eye of Tyson.
Chessboxer Matt “Crazy Arms” Read, who helps run London Chessboxing, along with Gavin Paterson, Tim Woolgar and Sina Krause; sets up a row of chess boards along two tables next to the ring. He arranges the pawns, rooks, and knights into their rightful order; all the while giving me a quick history lesson on how chessboxing made its way to London.
“A guy called Tim [Woolgar] saw it in Germany. He was in Berlin visiting a friend, saw a poster and thought, ‘That can’t be what I think that is?’ He bought a ticket and went along, and it was exactly what he thought it was! He was like, ‘Where can I do this in London?’ The answer was, ‘You can’t do this anywhere outside of Berlin.’ So he was like, ‘Right, OK. I want to do it, so I will start the club,’ and we sort of grew and grew,” says Matt.
“We grew from Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club, we had about 200 hundred [in attendance]. Then we went to the Boston Dome in Tufnell Park, where we got up to about 400 to 500, we outgrew that and then went to the Scala, King’s Cross, which went to about 1,000. That went really high. We did a Royal Albert Hall gig where we took over their car park, they have an underground loading area, it’s the most ghetto thing you have ever seen. It was exactly like Fight Club, they even had graffiti artists come in to do a chess mural ahead of it. It was amazing.”Matt has been involved in chessboxing for more than 10 years and chess is his strong suit. He used to work for Chess magazine, “I’m still technically one of the editors,” he says. However, he admits he found the boxing part, “Really tough, really tough. I couldn’t box for shit. Eleven years on, it doesn’t stop me from fighting, I love it. The adrenaline masks any pain.”
Most of the chessboxers I spoke to share a similar experience of how they fell into the sport: coming across it by chance, trying it out, then slowly becoming obsessed with it.
A good majority of the people training today compete in the sport or have plans to compete, meaning every so often they fight, for real, in a ring, in front of hundreds of people, but being a chessboxer is not a full-time gig, they also have day jobs, proper day jobs, such as architects and software designers. Chessboxing is done for enjoyment, not for the prospect of prize money.
Although chessboxing is growing in popularity, Matt tells me it’s still a challenge to entice casual practitioners to enter the ring in front of a paying audience. “The hardest thing is getting the participants. We can get bums on seats, but it’s convincing people to lace the gloves up and take a few blows all for entertainment. There’s no big prize money, and there’s not big money involved in participating.’Today, there is an ‘all or nothing’ energy in the gym, this might be because around half of the chessboxers here are gearing up to do battle at London Chessboxing’s St Patrick’s Day Bash, due to be held in three weeks’ time.
Richard ‘The Razor’ Frazer is one of them. He will be facing Italian chessboxer, Daniele ‘Dada’ Rota, in a hotly-anticipated re-match. Frazer’s previous fight with Rota was supposed to have been his last, but unfortunately, ‘The Razor’ lost in devastatingly fast fashion. No punches were thrown, it was a first-round checkmate. “I trained for two months getting ready for the fight, and yeah, it was supposed to be my retirement fight,” he says, “I had all my friends come to watch, they had all bought ringside tickets. This was supposed to be the last one, and then he checkmated me in the first round, so I didn’t get to throw a single punch, and as you can imagine, I was somewhat gutted.”
The idea of bowing out of his chessboxing career on a brutal loss did not sit well with Frazer: “It felt like unfinished business because you train for several months and you become quite focused on the boxing, and you fight and get it all out and then it’s done: you go to the pub and have a beer, there was never that.”
“Sense of completion,” I say.
“Exactly. So even though I tried to retire, Gavin’s been pulling me back in and winding me up about a re-match against Daniele,” he tells me.
Richard is chatting with Gavin Paterson, the businessman behind London Chessboxing, about the forthcoming fight. Rota agreed to the re-match. “He wanted to come over and fight again, well I don’t know, the way Gavin tells it, it was that he wanted to fight me again. I don’t know,” says Richard.
Gavin thinks he does, though: “I think he actually wanted to have an actual boxing round – you didn’t really pit yourselves against each other. I think he wants to see what you’ve got, as much as you want to see what he’s got.”
This is the moment when Gavin drops the bombshell: the European Middleweight title belt is what’s up for grabs this time, which seems to be news to Richard: “Is he putting that on the line? Is it an actual title fight? If I beat him, do I get the belt?”
Gavin replies: “You do, yeah.” ‘The Razor’ mulls this over. “Yeah, there’s no way I can beat him because…” and Gavin finishes Richard’s sentence: “He is very good at chess. You gotta knock him out.”Frazer started chessboxing around six years ago, shortly after he started kickboxing and learning how to play chess. “I was fascinated. I thought this is great, these are two things that I’m starting to learn,” he says. “I started training here, then after a couple of weeks they said ‘there is a show coming up, do you want to fight?’ I said ‘yes’, so, from finding this club it was probably about three months to my first fight.”
The Rota re-match will be Richard’s sixth fight and thoughts of how he will perform are keeping him focused, “I’m using that as my motivation at the moment. It takes over your life a little bit though, it’s all I’m thinking about most of the day.”
Training begins. Jumping rope. Basic boxing combinations. Footwork. Half-an-hour passes and the coach breaks up the boxing drills with rounds of chess. The guys pull off their gloves and gather around the chess tables for a three-minute round of brain fighting. Thoughtfully and energetically, they start moving their chess pieces. Still covered in sweat. Hands still covered in boxing wraps.
The crux of chessboxing is to be able to think critically and strategically while under tight time constraints, all the while trying to fend off the inevitable brain blankness that follows a round of draining physical activity. Chessboxers who can overcome, or at least work with this challenge, will have the edge against their opponents.
Another enthusiast, Toby ‘Slowby’ White, told me: “Not being able to focus is really hard, because your brain is tired, sometimes your brain will just go, ‘move this piece,’ and you look at it and go, this is a terrible move, but your brain’s like, ‘no, I’m tired just move that piece, it’s cool, it’s cool, we’ll recover later,’ and it keeps telling you this.
“Eventually you just do it, because you’re tired. It’s like in boxing, sometimes when you’re really tired and you just start taking punches and don’t defend yourself. You get like that in chess as well. When you stop the boxing round, you have a one-minute turnaround, so often you get your gloves off, I just try and calmly do it,” he says.Toby has been chessboxing for four years. He first came to the sport after reading about it in Time Out magazine: “I think I’d heard rumours of a sport like this existing, but it was the first time I’d read about it. Then I just went to an event and it was awesome. Basically, I read about it, booked an event, went with my friends and was hooked ever since.
“When I was younger, I always wanted to box, but my old man would never let me because he had boxed when he was younger and had a bad experience with it. He was like, it’s not worth it. I played chess up to thirteen but then had stopped it since. I kind of wanted to learn to do both. If you’ve ever watched an old film, there are always the cool old guys. The cool old guys in the boxing gym or there’s a cool old guy in the park playing chess, and I was like, ‘I can learn to do these things, and these are things I can take forward in my life. I can be both of them. So I want to be a cool old guy.”
One of Toby’s previous fights was a charity chessboxing match with former UKIP MEP Jonathan Arnott at an event called, ‘The Brexit Belt.’ As Toby is a Liberal Democrat member, “I’ve put many leaflets through many doors,” he says, this made for quite an interesting match-up.
Arnott is a “very good chess player,” according to Gavin, but his boxing wasn’t quite at the same level. “He was training outside of our gym, so we weren’t able to see how he was getting on. When they actually came together it was a bit of a mismatch, to say the least,” says Gavin. “The fight was stopped, so it was a technical knockout, in a matter of seconds, like 30 seconds.“
Toby reflects on his slightly bizarre, but ultimately enjoyable, once-in-a-blue-moon opportunity. “When I started hitting him, it just felt so righteous, I’d never felt so righteous in my life,” he laughs. “It just felt like it should have happened, this was like the weirdest thing I had ever done in my life, but it was also something I could keep with me for the rest of my life.”
“In 50 years’ time, you can tell your grandkids about the time you had a boxing match with a UKIP member,” I say.
“Hopefully, they’d be like ‘who the hell are UKIP,” he responds, “like, that would be that case, but I will always have bragging rights with my siblings and my old man. My old man tells the story more than I do. When he’s with his brother and stuff, with his friends, he’ll whip it out. It’s great.”Back to training, the chessboxers, who are now wearing protective headgear and gum shields, take their practice into the ring for a few rounds of sparring. Their coach, who is standing at the edge of the ring, leaning on the ropes, calls out boxing combinations and reminders to keep “hands up” to protect the face, while two fighters go at it. Matt records all sparring sessions and shares them with the fighters on WhatsApp, so they can watch their progression and spot areas they need to work on.
One of the fighters, Jon ‘The Brick’ Wood, who has been hooked on chessboxing for just six months, is competing at the Saint Patrick’s Day show: “About the sparring, you kind of worry about it, but then when you do it, it feels good and you’ve got better. So it’s kind of a self-improvement thing and all the lads are good. So socially it’s a kind of connecting thing, which you don’t get, we’re in London, you know, you don’t know any neighbours.”
After sparring, training ends and the group slowly disperses. Some go home, others stick around for the post-training brunch in a café around the corner, while Gavin does the weekly London Chessboxing podcast, in his car in the club’s car park.One week later and the show draws closer. Training has just ended and I’m standing in the same car park with Gavin. He’s explaining to me why chessboxing such a fun spectator sport. “There’s an electric atmosphere. There’s something about people fighting each other, I don’t know, you can’t really explain it,” he says. “You can’t know what it’s like until you go and see it. Then you couple that with just how nice the boxers are – It just has like a real cult community feel to it, it’s just the juxtaposition of like, these really geeky people and then they are fighting each other.”
Before Gavin leaves to start the podcast, he outlines London Chessboxing’s vision for the future. Rather than focusing on booking bigger venues, the goal is to get more viewers via online streaming. “It feels like the events are better when it’s a smaller venue. A bit more sweaty and Fight Club-ish. I think what we’ll try and do is run this kind of event, but then promote it through the streaming services.”
The Dome, located in the north London neighbourhood of Tufnell Park, is the venue playing host to London Chessboxing’s Saint Patrick’s Day show. Inside, a blue canvas boxing ring stands in the middle of a dimly-lit room filled with tipsy spectators. Some are queuing for drinks, some are playing chess by the light of their iPhones, on tables set up in the corner, while others are seated around the ring waiting for the main event between Richard ‘The Razor’ Frazer and Daniele ‘Dada’ Rota; which is due to start any moment now. Once in a while, a crowd member will shout the battle cry, “come on chess!”Three fights have been and gone before this. Matt ‘Crazy Arms’ Read won his bout against London Chessboxing’s founder, Tim ‘The Hippo’ Woolgar, by checkmate in the third round of chess. After Matt and Tim walk backstage to the sound of Rage Against the Machine’s Killing In The Name, I overheard an audience member say to his friend, ‘how is this not massive?”
Jon ‘The Brick’ Wood was up against a player named, Geroid ‘Sex Appeal’ Veale, Jon lost in the third round after running out time on the clock. Despite that, the crowd was on Jon’s side that night, chants of “Brick, Brick, Brick,” filled the room.
Toby ‘Slowby’ White shadowboxed to DJ Snake and Lil Jon’s Turn Down For What while entering the ring to beat Nick ‘Showstopper’ Cornish by a checkmate in the second round of chess.
But now it’s time for the main event. The MC stirs the audience up for a chant of, “Chess, Chess, Chess.” Homemade signs with hastily-written chess puns are held in the air reading, Pawn Star, Ruin His Knight and En passant Motherfucker. An audience member starts making an impromptu placard by hastily scrawling ‘Dada’ with a sharpie on a white piece of cardboard, then holds it in the air in time for Rota’s entrance.
After the MC announces a few fun facts about Rota, “he’s played chess since he was six years old, wait a minute, he also does Muay Thai, he might be a tough guy,” heavy metal starts to blare through the speakers and ‘Dada’ makes his entrance. He is wearing two championship belts, one around his waist, the other over his shoulder, his long auburn hair hangs in French plait down his back. Stepping into the ring, he makes the prayer sign with his hands in a show of gratitude to the audience.‘The Razor’ comes out wearing a hoodie to the thumping sound of Run the Jewels’ self -titled song. He high-fives the crowd while making his way down to the ring, smiling and fist-pumping the air.
The chess board is already set up in the middle of the ring, the two men sit and put on sound-cancelling headsets, so they don’t hear the commentator’s analysis. They then shake hands. The bout begins.
The crowd starts chanting ‘Rota, Rota, Rota,” to the tune of 2-Unlimited’s song, No Limit. The first chess round is slow and steady but ends with Rota having the advantage, nonetheless, this must be a small victory for ‘The Razor,’ he’s made it past the first round with Rota, whatever happens here tonight, the ghost of the first-round checkmate has been exorcised.
Rota and Frazer now stand on opposite sides of the ring, hands in gloves, ready for their first round of boxing, Frazer’s biceps are covered in tribal tattoos, and has a slight size advantage against Rota, he looks like a heavy hitter. He is. Richard comes out and lands a few hard jabs while Daniele tries to cover his face.
Rota manages to through a few punches Frazer’s way, but they don’t have the quite the same power as Richard’s. “Come on Razor” shouts a crowd member, as Frazer stalks Rota around the ring. The bell rings, signalling the end of the boxing round, and to borrow a line spoken by one of the commentators, “the edge, so to speak, is on ‘The Razor’.”The re-match stretches on to two more rounds, until ‘Dada’ manages a third-round victory when the ‘The Razor’ runs out of time on the clock. The men shake hands and Rota, who retains his European Middleweight belt, takes a victory walk around the ring.
The Rota-Frazer re-match turned out to be a crowd pleaser. Audience member Luke Curtis, who has never been seen a chessboxing match before, came with a group of friends. The main event slug-fest was his favourite match. “I think he’s [Frazer] the better boxer. It was quite interesting because it was a proper clash,” he says. “One guy was a better Chessboxer and one guy was a better boxer and it was, ‘who was gonna win?’ It was entertaining. I quite enjoyed that factor of seeing each person having an advantage in each separate round, that was quite cool.”
For his friend, Chris Reading, the night’s highlight was the penultimate match between Toby ‘Slowby’ White and Nick ‘Showstopper’ Cornish. “They were really boxing in quite a professional way I think,” he says. “Not that the others weren’t, but they had the build and the energy, we felt like we were watching a boxing match.”
The night ends with a spur-of-the-moment live chess match between a groom and his best man who are out on a stag do and ends with them playfully tussling in the middle of the ring after the best man won.
London Chessboxing returns to The Dome on October 5 for Oktoberfist – details can be found at: http://londonchessboxing.com.
Featured image by Lucy Arup