BERLIN – Let me say something obvious: fighting someone is exhausting. The switch—or whatever you want to call it—that flips when the lizard part of your brain tells the rest of you to hold off on metabolizing or thinking is inescapable. When you’re a novice fighter like me, the only thing you can think about is hitting and then, very quickly after the first time you get cracked in the nose or temple, not getting hit. I found out that self-possession is a cornerstone of boxing. The best guys are the ones who can delay that switch from taking over. Panic will drain you and then kill you. And I panicked a lot.
Excuse the trite equivalence but the same goes for chess. If your opponent takes your Sicilian Opening and shoots it in the head then you have to figure out how to respond without flailing at their backline and desperately trying to down their queen. The board slowly starts to shrink-wrap itself around your king. You have to try to fight off the attrition. You eyeball your waning set of moves and hit your side of the clock unsure if you’ve read the board correctly. There are more possible positions on a chessboard than there are atoms in the universe. It’s useless.
I am not a very good chess player. My biggest victory on the board was late one night against a friend who was ranked in high school but had just eaten a brick-sized pot brownie an hour before our game. He left his king wedged in a corner behind two stagnant pawns and I somehow landed a quick combination of moves to put my rook on the backline. He would have been angry if he weren’t so high; he still doesn’t acknowledge the loss.
I am not a very good boxer, either.
“I can tell you’re American and not Mexican because you’re a terrible boxer,” was the first thing Jesus Cutino told me when he saw me warming up against a heavy bag. Jesus, my diminutive Cuban boxing coach, only speaks German and Spanish, a product of a bygone era when communist countries exchanged citizens like trading cards. (I’ve met Angolans who speak fluent Czech and Cubans who speak English with Russian accents and it never stops being strange.) We spoke in a flimsy alloy of the two since my Spanish is bad and my German is worse. Jesus gave me some pointers and got me to mime his steps in the mirror that runs the length of the damp basement gym in Berlin. After a few minutes of watching me sidestep like a goon he gave up and went back to barking instructions at the half-dozen Germans working their heavy bags.
So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that my first sparring session in Berlin didn’t go very well. I was paired with a grizzled German named Josef because we were the closest in size—and I should clarify that by “close” I mean he had 50 pounds and three inches on me instead of the 80 pounds and eight inches he had on everyone else. He was covered in faded tattoos and his gloves had the terrifying effect of making his hands look smaller than they actually were. You could have told me he was Danzig’s bodyman and that would have sounded about right.
He knew I was a beginner and said he’d take it easy on me, which was just as well because I soon found out he could have killed me without much effort. Every “punch” I threw was met by a nail-gun counter to my chin or gut. If I landed more than one clean hit during our entire session I’d be surprised. He slid his mammoth frame under my punches easily until he got bored and said we should switch to just body shots which was somehow less pleasant than getting my face smashed in. Eventually I could barely keep my gloves up. Every right I threw was like giving him a free shot. My body stopped tensing up in preparation for a hit because it was unable; I was all jelly-soft tissue. It was a new kind of exhaustion.
I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t think. And then I had to play chess.
Chessboxing first emerged in American public consciousness with Wu-Tang Clan’s “Da Mystery of Chessboxin’” from their 1993 debut album. (It was not the first mention of the then-fictional sport; that was in a French sci-fi graphic novel the year before.) The lyrics have nothing to do with the hybrid sport—the intro sets up chess as battle and vice versa in the collective’s usual Art of War-influenced philosophy—but that didn’t stop people from entertaining a decreasingly ironic curiosity in the combination. What eventually emerged as a legitimate sport is a simple concept: a timed round of boxing followed by a timed round of chess that takes place on a small folding table in the center of the ring. Points are scored in either discipline, and getting checkmated is the same as getting knocked out, just a lot less painful and slightly more embarrassing. It’s the sort of sport that’s only serious when you’re the one under pressure, like curling or speed walking. For observers there’s an unshakable silliness, as if everyone watching assumes they’re in on a joke.
Instead of a joke, maybe it’s more accurate to think of as a performance. The father of the sport, Iepe Rubingh, came to it after a career as a performance artist. The Dutchman held the first sanctioned chessboxing fight in 2003 and opened a club in Berlin the following year. Since then clubs have popped up all over the world: India, China, England, South Africa, Italy, Russia, Iran. The geographic spread is impressive, but the ranks haven’t grown much in the decade since Rubingh started things—the current worldwide chessboxing membership is estimated at about 500 people.
Berlin remains the sport’s mother church, though, and Rubingh its most ardent evangelist. I spoke with Rubingh at a coffeeshop around the corner from the chessboxing gym in Berlin’s Mitte district in the city’s core. He had just gotten back from Iran’s first national chessboxing championship in Shiraz. Iran may seem an odd outpost for the sport since professional boxing is banned and western imports are viewed with a healthy amount of suspicion, but the nation is mad over amateur boxing and wrestling. Rubingh came back to Germany with a glowing review of the tournament. “The quality of fighting sports is extremely high in Iran and it’s pretty well organized,” he says.
There was a genuine enthusiasm in Rubingh’s voice, the sort of confidence in an odd idea you hear from startup founders convinced of their vision. Rubingh is a natural salesman, something to which he credits his background as an artist. He says that a large part of being an artist “is about convincing someone to care about your ideas,” which has carried over well in managing an amateur sporting league that at first glance can seem like an elaborate practical joke.
He believes he also happened to be in the right place at the right time. “It was the atmosphere of Berlin that created this idea,” he says. “Berlin, especially at that time, served as a place where people develop ideas, have a passion for ideas, have the time and the money for ideas, because living here wasn’t very expensive.”
That’s still true of course, and a big reason why chessboxing has thrived here is because there are still grimy basement gyms in tony areas like Mitte. Gentrification has hit Berlin hard but it’s less scorched-earth than it is in New York or London. The weight room attached to the chessboxing club is a holdover from the GDR days, whereas a choice piece of real estate like this in Bushwick or Brixton would have been long ago been converted into an expensive personal training studio, or just knocked down to put up a glass box. Rubingh says there’s also something about the civic character here. “There’s so many people [in Berlin] who are extremely open minded for new ideas, so that made it the perfect breeding ground.”
When considering the sport’s growth prospects, he hopes to take lessons from the success of MMA, and more specifically, UFC. “We’ve been looking very closely into their business model because it’s one of the most amazing sports cases being built,” he says, though he admits that “its target group is completely different.”
Rubingh is also interested in chasing down the burgeoning market for alternative fitness like CrossFit and the Tough Mudder races, outlets that are popular with young, often affluent populations. Competition isn’t enough; it’s the performance that Rubingh believes will build a fan base. “Our target group is [in] a place like San Francisco...we want to create intelligent entertainment and create stories around the sport that our core audience wants to see.”
But Rubingh sees potential where most folks see irony. I tell him most people in the States think of chessboxing as a Wu-Tang fairy tale and he says he’s talked to RZA about expanding the gym past its current form. “Sooner or later I’ll meet RZA again and we’ll see,” he says with a hint of pride before adding, “He’s a really nice guy.”
The hulking Josef was just there to box. He seemed to enjoy kicking my ass, then waiting for me to flail about at chess until it was time to kick my ass again. Instead a Chinese-German named Yen set up across the board from me. Yen looked exhausted which worried me since he was one of the more competent boxers at work that night. If he looked tired I must have looked in anoxic shock.
Our opening was traditional enough: two pawns each to the middle of the board, our knights and bishops avoiding the walls, mirrored castling. For whatever reason I started to make the same mistakes with Yen as I did with Josef. I started pushing aggressively towards his backline and he easily picked off a couple pieces before I retreated with what was left of my arsenal. The headshots Josef gave me from the opening bell were delayedly taking their toll. I can typically plan four or five moves ahead; against Yen I saw only two. Where I would usually weigh the inevitable cascade of taking a piece I only won Pyrrhic victories.
I was surprised by how little physical pain I actually felt in the places Josef had hit me. He wasn’t throwing his full heft behind his punches, obviously, but I could feel tiny webs of cartilage fraying when he hit the point of my nose. That shit hurt, and I figured I’d be too busy wondering whether I really got my bell rung or not to play a competent game of chess. Instead I was just plain exhausted, sweat dripping onto the board whenever I leaned against the plastic folding table to catch a break. (To be fair, Yen would have probably beaten me anyway, mild concussion or not.)
Jesus yelled “tiempo!” and I was back in the ring with my first tormentor. He decided we should practice close-quarter hits. I was too numb to consider this a bad idea. We forced our forearms together—his like giant cleavers, mine the size of a bread knives—and I felt like I had finally found something I was at least adequate at. Then he gave me a few halfhearted hits to the kidneys and I realized that I had made a terrible mistake.
It went on like this for about an hour. Josef would try to restrain from knocking me unconscious and then Yen would look up quizzically, wondering how I had managed to make such an obvious mistake. Yen wore me down into the H-1 corner and played his rooks masterfully while I was trapped behind two useless pawns. As the night wore on I realized that the bouncing back and forth was slowly shaving away my decision-making skills in both disciplines. I went for immediate satisfaction on the chessboard, trying to wear down Yen’s stockpile instead of thinking ahead. I stopped trying to get Josef to bite on feints or probing jabs and went for straight jabs that left entire continents of my midsection and face open to counters. There was nothing but the present for me, and given the strategic backbones of both activities, I was setting myself up for catastrophe.
Technically my night should have been over after Yen checkmated me in the second round but we reset the board and I bounced back and forth between Josef and Yen until I lost again less than 10 minutes later. I made the same mistakes on the chessboard I did the first time around, but Josef’s punches started closing the doors on my short-term memory until every move I made against Yen was solipsistic, a plastic figure moving in a vacuum. Eventually I started playing one-sided speed chess, slapping my side of the clock after only a few seconds had ticked off thinking it might be the only way I could knock off Yen since I couldn’t exactly execute a stretched strategy. He made easy work of me and we wrapped up the board. On the way out I dazily thanked Josef in broken German for beating the shit out of me. “Bis gleich,” he said, looking almost apologetic as I stumbled out the door for my half-braindead U-Bahn ride home. “See you soon.”
Walking up the steps of the Frankfurter Tor subway station I realized that the fact people had opened their arms to an odd hybrid in a place like Berlin shouldn’t be surprising. It’s a city that wears its strange side under a tightly buttoned German stoicism but never faults anyone for cutting loose, given its history of intense surveillance and distrust among neighbors. Strolling geriatric couples give me dirty looks when I cross the street against a red but couldn’t care less about the dreadlocked squatter sipping a beer and walking her dog offleash. Berlin has an invaluable role to play as an incubator for odd ideas like chessboxing that shouldn’t quite work. The sport has a safe place to grow. Whether it actually will is another question altogether.
Illustration by Jim Cooke.