History: Chessboxing, a sport invented in Berlin by Iepe Rubingh, is the ultimate challenge for both the body and the mind. Inspired by fictional depictions by French comic book artist and filmmaker Enki Bilal in his graphic novel Froid Équateur in 1992, the concept was brought to life, first as a performance art, and later as a sports club first in Berlin (CBCB) and now all around the world. The first world championship was held in Amsterdam in 2003. The World Chess Boxing Organization’s (WCBO) primary objective is to promote chessboxing as a self-contained, internationally recognised athletic discipline. The ultimate hope is that chessboxing will one day become the supreme discipline of the Olympic Games. During a chessboxing fight control of aggression plays a big role. That’s why the WCBO’s motto is: “Fighting is done in the ring and wars are waged on the board.”
The Rules of the Game: The contest starts with a round of chess, followed by a boxing round, followed by another round of chess and so on. A contest consists of 11 rounds, 6 rounds of chess, and 5 rounds of boxing. A round of chess takes 4 minutes. Each competitor has 12 minutes on the chess timer. A round of boxing takes 3 minutes. Between the rounds there is a 1 minute pause, during which competitors change their gear. The contest is decided by: checkmate (chess round), exceeding the time limit (chess round), retirement of an opponent (chess or boxing round), KO (boxing round), or referee decision (boxing round). If the chess game ends in a stalemate, the opponent with the higher score in boxing wins. If there is an equal score, the opponent with the black pieces wins.
Battle of the Cities – Press Conference: Last week club members from Berlin and London met to compete in a Battle of the Cities. At the press conference two days before the fight, Tim Woolgar, the head of the London Chessboxing Club, complained about a bad reception in Berlin (no car waiting at the airport, no tea, no warm welcome in Berlin). Iepe Rubingh replied that tea shall be served after London is defeated, predicting 3-0 victory for Berlin. In response, Tim Woolgar presented an enlarged photograph from 1978 to the press, which allegedly proved that chessboxing was actually invented in London and not in Berlin. Before Iepe Rubingh had a chance to respond to the provocation, Tim Woolgar walked out in the middle of the press conference, causing for some stir in the press corps.
Fight night: London managed to go home victorious defeating Berlin in two of the three fights (each time at the chess board, rather than in the ring), only leaving Berlin with one victory by Nils Becker in the second fight.
1. Fight: Alex ‘The Snake’ Troll (CBCB) vs. Tim Bendfield (LCBC)
2. Fight: Nils ‘the Berlin Bull’ Becker (CBCB) vs. Nick ‘the Show Stopper’ Cornish (LCBC)
3. Main fight: Lukasz ‘Frog Kosowski’ (CBCB) vs. Daniel Rivas Lizarraga (LCBC)
Gender Trouble: Iepe Rubingh and co. were in the unique and privileged position to invent or re-invent (if one chooses to take Tim Woolgar’s claims at the press conference in Berlin seriously) a new sport, which at its essence carries a philosophical striving for balancing the body and the mind. While they succeeded in combining two very differently challenging sports into one rigorous quest for the strongest and smartest “man” on the planet, they utterly neglected to take this opportunity to revolutionize the gender roles of both sports.
Even the rhetoric of the quest for the strongest and smartest “man” is aimed at spectacularizing the fights. Already during the press conference, the metaphorical punching began, as the two club leaders attempted to sensationalize the sport and to build up tension before fight night by exchanging provocations and even insults.
But mostly, the real problem of gender inequality happens during the fight championships, where men are celebrated as contenders and heroes, in their fight for the title of the smartest and toughest, while women can only have secondary roles, helping set up the chess table (female club members), or parading in tight outfits in the ring, holding up signs (hostesses).
When I asked the hostesses what they thought of their role in the fight, they told me that they have never heard of chessboxing before, that they answered a casting call for the fight night, with the requirements to submit their photos and their measurement (including shoe and bra sizes). Even though they were aware that men had a dominating role in the whole spectacle, and that they themselves were objectified by the spectators, they seemed to accept their role, since the gender roles have been established like that from the beginning.
I asked Tim Woolgar about his impressions of the gender dynamics in chessboxing, he proudly mentioned the first female chessboxing fight in London coming up in September 2011.
I also had a chance to talk to one of the female members of the Berlin Chessboxing Club, who has been training for 5 years and has been assisting at several championships, but does not (wish to) compete / fight. She pointed out that women are treated very respectfully by men in the club, but if they are not fighting, the only way to participate in the championship is to set up the chess table or assist in the corner (which up to now is also only done by men).
Finally I got a chance to ask Iepe Rubingh about his views on the gender issues in chessboxing:
K.S.: One couldn’t help but notice the limited and often objectified role that women had in the event. While the men get to prove themselves in the ring and on the board as the strongest and smartest, women had only secondary roles, helping set up the chess table or parading in skimpy outfits with the signs in the ring.
I.R.: Well there will be a first female chessboxing fight in London in September. We are all very much looking forward to that.
K.S.: Analyzing and writing about culture and cultural trends, art, gender roles, etc., I can’t help but notice the lack of innovation and progress in this area. I feel like as the inventor of chessboxing, and as a socially and politically engaged artist and intellectual, you had the unique chance to revolutionize the sport in relation to gender roles as well, but perhaps chose not to.
I.R.: How should I do that? We have been looking for female fighters and/or asked female members of our club to fight without any results until now. Chessboxers are a rare breed and chess and boxing are still male dominated sports, with women on the rise. Finding male chessboxers is already like pearl diving, finding female chessboxers is even more difficult. By the way, we also explicitly wrote on our website: “We are preparing for fights in Europe, Russia and USA and are looking for new chessboxers from all over the world. Females/males from all weight divisions are wanted and welcome.” What about you making a statement: We are looking for the smartest toughest women on the planet! Applyhere!
Equality: In all the conversations and interviews both genders regretted the pre-existing inequalities, and either accepted their role in the system, or couldn’t think of ways to revolutionize or innovate gender roles in given circumstances. Most people I’ve talked to about this seemed to stress the lack of female participants, especially in the fights, yet the what I tried to outline here is that the gender issue is not merely about not having enough women in both sports, but rather to re-think the roles women have in the sport already, and create more positive and inspiring female role-models to spark the interest of other girls and women.
What is needed is a strategic vision. In light of the upcoming first female chessboxing fight in London, here are thoughts of inspiration:
- Either get rid of the hostesses completely (the rounds can be announced on the screens), or hire male models as well, and alternate the rounds (since the audience consists of both male and female spectators).
- When the female contenders are fighting, have male member of the club set up their chess table.
- Hire a female coach!
- Establish a fellowship fund to promote female chessboxers around the world.
- Showcase female club members more in the community and in the championships to inspire young girls and women to take up chessboxing.
- Foreground the female fighters in London the media and include images of female fighters in the promotional material for the clubs around the world.
- Make gender equality a priority of WCBO.
Other suggestions can be sent to WCBO.
For a German version of this article, please visit The Intelligence.