Courtesy of Chess Boxing Global/Yves Sucksdorff
Courtesy of Chess Boxing Global/Yves Sucksdorff

By Pawn or by Brawn: Inside the Chessboxing Movement

Courtesy of Chess Boxing Global/Yves Sucksdorff
Courtesy of Chess Boxing Global/Yves Sucksdorff

In April 2017, an anesthetist from Poland named Michal Adamski climbed into a ring in Berlin clad only in boxing shorts and sat down in front of a chess board. His opponent was Stephen Kring, a 50-year-old teacher from Sweden.

Adamski and Kring—wearing earphones to muffle the crowd noise—sat in front of the board for three minutes, and quickly moved the game pieces around. When the time was up, they had one minute to don boxing gloves and mouthpieces before mounting a frenzied physical attack on one another. Then it was back to the board. After every exhausting boxing round, the men drew in large breaths and attempted to focus on a cerebral pursuit with adrenaline, fatigue, and trickling blood compromising their every decision.

The opponents were scheduled to alternate chess with boxing for 11 rounds total, but Adamski—who is two decades Kring’s junior—was able to avoid any mistakes on the board and overwhelm Kring in the ring, forcing Kring’s corner to throw in the towel during the sixth round. Later in the evening, an Italian physicist named Luigi Sbailò won his bout by checkmate with only seconds left to spare.

The fights made up the program of Intellectual Fight Club VII, part of a series of events that hosts amateurs of varying experience levels in chessboxing, a staple of weird news headlines since its inception in 2003. It’s less a combination of boxing and chess than it is a test of how focused contestants can remain while concussive blows blur their board strategy.

“Chess is all about making decisions,” George Krasnopolskiy, the founder of USA Chessboxing, tells Mental Floss. “How are you going to make those decisions after you’ve been punched in the face and you’re tired?”

With fewer than 2000 participants worldwide—600 of them in India alone—it doesn’t appear that many people want to answer that question for themselves. Yet chessboxing perseveres in all corners of the world, inviting a very particular breed of man and woman who want to take the war metaphor inherent in chess to its literal conclusion. To succeed in the States, it will have to gather structure, solicit regulation, and find a way to reconcile the very docile act of a table game with the looming threat of a broken jaw.

“Very few chess players are looking to learn how to box,” Krasnopolskiy says. Even fewer want to bleed.

 
 

For all its intricacies, chess has proven to be one of the more adaptable board games in recent history. There’s speed chess, which places compressed time limits on a player's turn; blindfolded chess, which forces players to try and keep track of pieces in their heads; and team chess, which groups players into squads.

While temper tantrums have been on display during the occasional high-stakes game of professional chess between rivals—troubled grandmaster Bobby Fischer was prone to emotional outbursts that could delay games—it appears few have ever thought to purposely incite violence during matches. That changed in 2003, when Dutch performance artist and painter Iepe Rubingh came across a 1992 French comic book titled Froid Équateur. In it, Yugoslavian artist Enki Bilal depicted an alternative future in which chess was played on a giant, human-sized board, where the players bludgeoned one another.

A chess board awaits two boxers between rounds
Chess Boxing Global/Yves Sucksdorff

Rubingh, with his interest piqued by Bilal's panels, founded the World Chess Boxing Organization (WCBO), a sanctioning body that consisted solely of Rubingh. After training in boxing for nine months, he won the inaugural world championship in Amsterdam in 2003 after his opponent exceeded his allotted time to make a move during the chess portion.

“Looking around at the 1000 or so people at the [first] show, I had the feeling it could become a real sport,” Rubingh tells Mental Floss. “I had done cross-country skiing [and] table tennis, but this was the most difficult and most rewarding sport.”

What Rubingh saw was more than the wry social commentary of the comic book. His chessboxing would involve three-minute rounds that alternated between chess and fighting, with the idea that one would be transformed by the addition of the other. If you’re behind on the board, then it’s possible you’re more likely to go for a knockout during the pugilism phase. Get rattled there and you’ll have trouble remembering which of Fischer’s gambits worked for you in the past.

Shortly afterward, clubs began popping up in Russia, India, Turkey, Iran, and China, with participants encouraged by Rubingh’s Chess Boxing Global arm and intrigued by the exclusivity of chessboxing. Not only was it a fight club, it was one most people didn't know existed. “Say you’re a chessboxer at a party and some really interesting conversation will emerge,” Rubingh says.

The media was captivated. The Los Angeles Times, ESPN, and other outlets traveled to shows to cock their collective heads at the juxtaposition between the cerebral and primal. (The joke, if there was one, was that boxing has always been a contest in which it pays to be several moves ahead.) For a time, it seemed like chessboxing would morph into the next great pursuit of weekend warriors who had tired of mud marathons.

It didn’t quite happen. “The federation in the U.S. hasn’t been very active,” Rubingh says. “The ‘why not’ is a good question.”

Krasnopolskiy formed the USA faction in 2011, having learned chess from his grandfather beginning at age 4 after his family had fled communist Russia. He says that one of the main determining factors is regulation. Fights of any sort are usually under the jurisdiction of state athletic commissions, who license athletes and provide services like health screenings and medical attention for events. Regular boxing or mixed martial arts require little exposition, but chessboxing, with its wayward rules, is an anomaly. The events that have been held in Los Angeles and a handful of other cities come off more as theater than sport, slipping under the radar of commissions. Because of the fractured nature of some clubs, rounds can be longer or shorter; headgear can come and go.

“It’s easier in Europe,” Krasnopolskiy says. “Here, it’s more a matter of securing enough money to have lawyers work on the problem.”

Krasnopolskiy is a bit like a king with no kingdom. USA Chessboxing has no formal gym or office space, just a handful of interested parties spread throughout the country. “The idea would be to find people places to get boxing training, then train them in chess online,” he says. To prepare for the dual mental and physical strains, he says, beginners often alternate chess rounds with running so combatants can begin to learn how to plan strategy under stress.

Rarely will Krasnopolskiy try to turn a highly rated chess player into a pugilist. Most chessboxers are boxers with some amateur experience who want to improve their chess game, either to continue to one of the European competitions or to sharpen themselves for more conventional prizefighting. Max Baumert, a professional kickboxer, has trained in chessboxing for the mental acuity.

“In chessboxing you need to stay focused all the time and you really need to stick to the strategy,” he says. “So the mental part is perhaps even more important than in every other combat sport. That's something that helps me in kickboxing and boxing.”

A chessboxing match, Baumert says, is not simply fighting interrupted by chess. “The pace is much higher because of the longer breaks. There are one-minute breaks between the rounds in [regular] boxing, but in chessboxing there are five minutes of intermission due to the chess rounds so we can fully recover physically. The fighter who’s going to lose in chess has to risk everything in the boxing rounds.”

Krasnopolskiy remembers his first bout being similarly frenetic. “I was up against the ropes in the third round taking a beating. With 10 seconds left, I threw one uppercut. We went into the chess round with him half-dazed, and I won the chess game.”

 
 

With the WCBO championships held every year—the Intellectual Fight Club is more of a minor-league event, the sport's version of Toughman amateur night—Krasnopolskiy hopes to be able to send American representatives soon. “There are a few people I’d like to bring to Europe, and we’re trying to find sponsors [for travel costs] now,” he says.

But chessboxing’s future stateside may reside in other arenas. Krasnopolskiy also operates CheckMates USA, a program that utilizes chess as part of an afterschool curriculum for disadvantaged students. Eventually, he’d like to incorporate chessboxing into the rotation. “I’m teaching boxing to some kids on the south side of Chicago, and hopefully those are kids we can also get into chessboxing,” he says.

A chessboxer wonders what to do next
Chess Boxing Global/Yves Sucksdorff

In Germany, Rubingh sees people at his gym who have been to prison and are looking for a way to handle their lingering aggressions. “A lot of them have heavy backgrounds,” he says. “It’s a way to learn the ability to control [anger], then shift to a mental state.”

Ultimately, part of chessboxing’s growth may hinge on whether spectators decide it’s a sport that promotes personal growth or is slightly absurdist performance art. For Rubingh, it began as a way to explore artistic theory. Since then, he sees no reason it can’t be both.

“As part of the generation of artists I belong to, it’s important to bring something out of the gallery and touch society,” he says. “Doing chessboxing is more interesting than a painting about chessboxing hanging in the Louvre.”

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Karl Walter, Getty Images
When the FBI Investigated the 'Murder' of Nine Inch Nails's Trent Reznor
Karl Walter, Getty Images
Karl Walter, Getty Images

The two people standing over the body, Michigan State Police detective Paul Wood told the Hard Copy cameras, “had a distinctive-type uniform on. As I recall: black pants, some type of leather jacket with a design on it, and one was wearing combat boots. The other was wearing what looked like patent leather shoes. So if it was a homicide, I was thinking it was possibly a gang-type homicide.”

Wood was describing a puzzling case local police, state police, and eventually the FBI had worked hard to solve for over a year. The mystery began in 1989, when farmer Robert Reed spotted a circular group of objects floating over his farm just outside of rural Burr Oak, Michigan; it turned out to be a cluster of weather balloons attached to a Super 8 camera.

When the camera landed on his property, the surprised farmer didn't develop the footage—he turned it over to the police. Some local farmers had recently gotten into trouble for letting wild marijuana grow on the edges of their properties, and Reed thought the balloons and camera were a possible surveillance technique. But no state or local jurisdictions used such rudimentary methods, so the state police in East Lansing decided to develop the film. What they saw shocked them.

A city street at night; a lifeless male body with a mysterious substance strewn across his face; two black-clad men standing over the body as the camera swirled away up into the sky, with a third individual seen at the edge of the frame running away, seemingly as fast as possible. Michigan police immediately began analyzing the footage for clues, and noticed the lights of Chicago’s elevated train system, which was over 100 miles away.

It was the first clue in what would become a year-long investigation into what they believed was either a cult killing or gang murder. When they solved the “crime” of what they believed was a real-life snuff film, they were more shocked than when the investigation began: The footage was from the music video for “Down In It,” the debut single from industrial rock band Nine Inch Nails, and the supposed dead body was the group's very-much-alive lead singer, Trent Reznor.

 
 

In 1989, Nine Inch Nails was about to release their debut album, Pretty Hate Machine, which would go on to be certified triple platinum in the United States. The record would define the emerging industrial rock sound that Reznor and his rotating cast of bandmates would experiment with throughout the 1990s and even today on albums like The Downward Spiral and The Slip.

The band chose the song “Down In It”—a track with piercing vocals, pulsing electronic drums, sampled sound effects, and twisted nursery rhyme-inspired lyrics—as Pretty Hate Machine's first single. They began working with H-Gun, a Chicago-based multimedia team led by filmmakers Eric Zimmerman and Benjamin Stokes (who had created videos for such bands as Ministry and Revolting Cocks), and sketched out a rough idea for the music video.

Filmed on location among warehouses and parking garages in Chicago, the video was supposed to culminate in a shot with a leather-jacketed Reznor running to the top of a building, while two then-members of the band followed him wearing studded jumpsuits; the video would fade out with an epic floating zoom shot to imply that Reznor's cornstarch-for-blood-covered character had fallen off the building and died in the street. Because the cash-strapped upstarts didn’t have enough money for a fancy crane to achieve the shot for their video, they opted to tie weather balloons to the camera and let it float up from Reznor, who was lying in the street surrounded by his bandmates. They eventually hoped to play the footage backward to get the shot in the final video.

Instead, the Windy City lived up to its name and quickly whisked the balloons and camera away. With Reznor playing dead and his bandmates looking down at him, only one of the filmmakers noticed. He tried to chase down the runaway camera—which captured his pursuit—but it was lost, forcing them to finish shooting the rest of the video and release it without the planned shot from the missing footage in September of 1989.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to the band, a drama involving their lost camera was unfolding in southwest Michigan. Police there eventually involved the Chicago police, whose detectives determined that the footage had been filmed in an alley in the city's Fulton River District. After Chicago authorities found no homicide reports matching the footage for the neighborhood and that particular time frame, they handed the video over to the FBI, whose pathologists reportedly said that, based on the substance on the individual, the body in the video was rotting.

 
 

The "substance" in question was actually the result of the low-quality film and the color of the cornstarch on the singer’s face, which had also been incorporated into the press photos for Pretty Hate Machine. It was a nod to the band's early live shows, in which Reznor would spew cornstarch and chocolate syrup on his band members and the audience. “It looks really great under the lights, grungey, a sort of anti-Bon Jovi and the whole glamour thing,” Reznor said in a 1991 interview.

With no other easy options, and in order to generate any leads that might help them identify the victim seen in the video, the authorities distributed flyers to Chicago schools asking if anyone knew any details behind the strange “killing.”

The tactic worked. A local art student was watching MTV in 1991 and saw the distinctive video for “Down In It,” which reminded him of one of the flyers he had seen at school. He contacted the Chicago police to tip them off to who their supposed "murder victim" really was. Nine Inch Nails’s manager was notified, and he told Reznor and the filmmakers what had really happened to their lost footage.

“It’s interesting that our top federal agency, the Federal Bureau of [Investigation], couldn’t crack the Super 8 code,” co-director Zimmerman said in an interview. As for Wood and any embarrassment law enforcement had after the investigation: “I thought it was our duty, one way or the other, to determine what was on that film,” he said.

“My initial reaction was that it was really funny that something could be that blown out of proportion with this many people worked up about it,” Reznor said, and later told an interviewer, “There was talk that I would have to appear and talk to prove that I was alive.” Even though—in the eyes of state, local, and federal authorities—he was reportedly dead for over a year, Reznor didn’t seem to be bothered by it: “Somebody at the FBI had been watching too much Hitchcock or David Lynch or something,” he reasoned.

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Courtesy of Park Circus and MGM
West Side Story Is Returning to Theaters This Weekend
Courtesy of Park Circus and MGM
Courtesy of Park Circus and MGM

As Chris Pratt and a gang of prehistoric creatures get ready to face off against some animated superheroes for this weekend’s box office dominance, an old rivalry is brewing once again on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. West Side Story—Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins’s classic big-screen rendering of Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s Broadway musical—is returning to cinemas for the first time in nearly 30 years.

As part of TCM’s Big Screen Classics Series, West Side Story will have special screening engagements at more than 600 theaters across the country on Sunday, June 24 at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. If you can’t make it this weekend, encores will screen at the same time on Wednesday, June 27. The film—which is being re-released courtesy of TCM, Fathom Events, Park Circus, and Metro Goldwyn Mayer—will be presented in its original widescreen format, and include its original mid-film intermission. (Though its 2.5-hour runtime is practically standard nowadays, that wasn’t the case a half-century ago.) The screening will include an introduction and some post-credit commentary by TCM’s Ben Mankiewicz.

West Side Story, which was named Best Picture of 1961, is a musical retelling of Romeo and Juliet that sees star-crossed lovers Maria (Natalie Wood) and Tony (Richard Beymer) navigate the challenges of immigration, racial tension, and inner-city life in mid-century Manhattan—but with lots of singing and dancing. In addition to being named Best Picture, the beloved film took home another nine Oscars, including Best Director, Best Supporting Actor and Actress (for George Chakiris and Rita Moreno, respectively), and Best Music—obviously.

To find out if West Side Story is screening near you, and to purchase tickets, visit Fathom Events’s website.

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