It’s 1992 , the death throes of the Cold War. French artist Enki Bilal publishes the last installment of his epic graphic novel, The Nikopol Trilogy. It depicts the bleakness of life in a post-apocalyptic Paris; sport in such a violent world, Bilal reasons, would reflect the bloodthirsty culture. As evidence, he invents an absurd mashup: boxing plus chess, where fighters battle both in the ring and on the board. Cut to 20 years later: the nuclear apocalypse he imagined may not have come to pass, but the sport he created is thriving. More than 250 fight knights are devoted adherents of the strange but compelling sport of chess boxing.
It was a prankish performance artist, Iepe Rubingh, who staged the first real-world bout in Berlin a decade ago. Calling it the perfect combination of “the No. 1 thinking sport and the No. 1 fighting sport,” Rubingh recalls his anxiety that the match might lack the drama to grip the 300 spectators, “but nobody went to the bar during the chess rounds—everybody was fascinated.” Rubingh was inspired to start the World Chess Boxing Organization, or WCBO, which now oversees the sport worldwide.
The rules of this surreal combination of knuckle dusting and brain twisting are simple. Two players alternate between boxing (three minutes) and chess (four minutes) up to a total of 11 rounds. A champ can be declared by knockout or checkmate; if neither has been achieved by the end of those 11 rounds, the decision rests on the points scored in the ring. Longtime competitor David Pfeifer—a biographer and novelist by profession—explains the challenge: “Adrenaline rushing through our body makes you punch back under attack, but you have to control that impulse to play chess,” he says. “Everybody who watches is instantly struck by the logic of that, and it’s what makes it so exciting to watch.”
The leading American pawn-and-brawn star is the 6-foot-9 L.A.-based photojournalist Andrew McGregor, who took it up as a form of therapy after returning from several grueling war-zone assignments. “Why does everyone still know who Bobby Fischer is, who Muhammad Ali is? Why are they icons?” he asks. “Chess and boxing are both mythological activities.” McGregor’s regulars often tussle outdoors in the balmy L.A. sunshine under amateur rules (headgear strongly encouraged in the ring); like him, many of them use chess boxing for therapy after emotional stress. Indeed, as a nod to the number of brokenhearted brawlers he trains, McGregor is planning his next chess-boxing demo in downtown L.A. on Valentine’s Day.
McGregor’s chapter is just one of the dozens that are emerging worldwide—see the recent 150-man tournament in Kolkata or a brand-new group in Shanghai; they’re even hoping to persuade the International Olympic Committee to include the sport in the Olympics within the next decade. The issue, of course, is money—and that’s where twin events next month in Paris should prove useful. On the Champs Élysées on Feb. 1, two of chessboxing’s most storied fighters, Frank Stoldt from Germany and Leonid Chernobaev from Belarus, will stage an exhibition match; a few weeks later, this profile raiser will be followed by a fundraising evening. The centerpiece of the night’s auction: 150,000 euros’ worth of artwork, donated by the sport’s godfather, graphic novelist Enki Bilal.