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What chessboxing can teach you about the battles of body and mind

A fusion of two contradictory disciplines, chessboxing has found a growing following in India, with exponents swearing by its combination of brain and brawn

Madhavi Gonbare practises chess at a boxing academy in Parel, Mumbai
Madhavi Gonbare practises chess at a boxing academy in Parel, Mumbai (Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint)

It has only been 3 minutes but Madhavi Gonbare, 24, already has her opponent on the backfoot. Playing with black pieces, she has launched a pawn attack on the white’s kingside, with a queen and a knight waiting in the wings. In a hurry to beat the clock, her opponent, Nandini Ojha, 17, has whittled away the chessboard’s centre control. As Gonbare looks poised to capitalize on white’s weak defence, the referee yells: “Stop!"

Chessboxing amateurs practising at the Dahisar Sports Club in Mumbai.
Chessboxing amateurs practising at the Dahisar Sports Club in Mumbai. (Photo: Sanjay Borade/Mint)

On cue, the two get up and walk away from each other, into opposite corners of the ring they have been playing in so far. It’s around 11 am and the sprawling Dahisar sports complex in Mumbai is pulsing with cricketers, footballers and late-morning joggers working up some Sunday sweat. Yet, a small group of spectators, mostly children, are slowly gathering around, watching Gonbare and Ojha put on their gumshields, slip on their headgear, strap on their gloves and march back in. By now, the chessboard has been removed, pieces still in position. After a quick check of the players’ protective gear, the referee yells again: “Box!"

Welcome to chessboxing, a hybrid sport that is exactly what its name suggests: a fusion of two seemingly contradictory disciplines. An average bout consists of six chess rounds alternating with five boxing ones, each of 4 and 3 minutes, respectively. You win by checkmate, knockout or if the clock runs out during a round of chess. And on this cool December morning, Gonbare, a two-time gold and one-time silver medallist at the Amateur World Championship for chessboxing since 2017, looks like she could win by either.

A fiery 3-minute boxing round has provided no respite to Ojha, who also represented India at the championship. Gonbare’s relentless punches on her gut and head have taken a toll. Ojha looks shaky and dizzy even as the children who have gathered to watch try to cheer her on with somewhat futile cries of “India, India!". More than once, she ends up accidentally knocking off pieces while moving them on the board. By the end of round 5, she has lost out on time.

Five places where you can learn chessboxing
Five places where you can learn chessboxing

The players’ coach, Shailesh Tripathi, also India’s first professional chessboxer, has an explanation for Ojha’s meltdown over the chessboard: “When you are playing chess, your brain needs a lot more oxygen to function at its optimum capacity. But when you are boxing, your entire body is demanding it. If you can’t balance the two, you can’t think properly."

And that, Ojha confesses after the match, is precisely what happened. “I found it difficult to get back to chess after the boxing round." By then, Gonbare had sensed that her opponent was losing on the chessboard and decided to conserve her energies, switching to a defensive semi-crouch and shuffling around the ring a lot more. “After a point, I only focused on defending myself while boxing," she says after the match. Indeed, by the time the game was over, her queen had already ambushed the kingside pawns, sending the white king scurrying for cover from repeated checks.

Chessboxing started in 2003 when the Dutch performance artist Iepe Rubingh staged a bout against his friend in front of a crowd of around a thousand people in Amsterdam. Rubingh got the idea from the depiction of the sport in Froid Équateur (Cold Equator), a 1992 graphic novel by French artist Enki Bilal. The success of the exhibition game prompted Rubingh to set up the World Chess Boxing Organization (WCBO) in Berlin in 2004. Today, chessboxing has players in nine countries across Asia, Africa, Europe and North America.

The overwhelming response to his brainchild seems to have astonished the creator himself. “Inventing the real, imagining what others do not see is the role of artists in society and I am really happy to see that this idea has become concrete," Enki Bilal was quoted as saying by the news blog in November. For its ability to fuse the primal and the cerebral, Rubingh calls chessboxing the “ultimate expression of manhood in the 21st century".

At its core, a chessboxer depends on regulating emotions in order to maintain cognitive control, writes US-based cognitive scientist Andrea Kuszewski, in her study published in the Scientific American magazine in 2011. “The element of chess-boxing that makes it so challenging is the task-switching—from adrenaline-pumping physical activity to intense cognitive activity, in short bursts—all while maintaining a low level of emotional arousal. Because you don’t have the luxury of time to allow yourself to calm down naturally, you need to keep yourself from getting overly excited in the first place."

In order to be a good chessboxer, Kuszewski adds, one needs to be able to master automatic emotion regulation. Effective training in chessboxing helps strengthen that skill.

Chessboxing was brought to India in the 2010s by Kolkata-based kickboxing practitioner Montu Das, now the president of the Chess Boxing Organisation of India. Das, who stumbled upon the sport online, says he was particularly taken by its psychological demands, especially the requirement to stay calm even after being pummelled. “Already, I had recognized the benefits of meditation in kickboxing," he says. “Both chess and boxing are popular sports in India. I thought a combination of the two would work as well."

At the time, the world championships were restricted to professionals. Only those above a certain ELO rating (a chess ranking system) and a minimum experience of 50 bouts in boxing were allowed to participate.

When he was elected WCBO vice-president in 2014, Das says he lobbied for championships for amateurs to enable increased participation. The world body has organized amateur championships since 2017: in Kolkata in 2017 and 2018, and in Ankara, Turkey, in 2019. The aim has been to ensure a greater number of participants and, thereby, more popularity.

Today, India has over 1,300 registered amateur chessboxers—the highest number in the world. Over 30% of its chessboxers are women, unlike the West, which has only 10% women players. Das says he wants to get the sport included in the Olympics.

Shailesh Tripathi, 34, India’s first professional chessboxer, who represented the country in the 2013 world championship, says that despite its increased popularity in India, it will be tough to get government support. “Once I went to a minister and he told me that they can’t allot me money because every penny from the fund went into election campaigns. There is a specific fund allotted to ministers for sports, but they were not ready to give me," he recalls.

Gonbare has her own story. She lives in a one-room apartment in a slum resettlement colony in Mumbai with her mother, a peon at a local school, and elder brother, a bus driver. “When I was selected for world championships in Kolkata in 2017, I had no money to afford my travel and stay," Gonbare recalls. “I spent nearly a week contacting local politicians and activists, and going door-to-door to collect funds." Although she has won over a dozen medals in national and international tournaments since, Gonbare has to rely on local sponsors to afford her training and tours. What rankles, she adds, is that there is no prize money for the winners in chessboxing tournaments, only medals and certificates.

It was only in 2017, at a tournament organized in Nagpur, that the city’s civic body sponsored the event and felicitated the winners. The first prize: 900. “But at least they recognized us," Tripathi adds quickly.

In Mumbai, Tripathi and his team of trainers conduct chessboxing workshops at local sports clubs and colleges, charging as little as 2,000 a month. Participants are trained in boxing five days a week and in introductory chess for an hour on weekends. The training spans warm-up exercises, shadow-boxing, practice with sandbags and meditation. For a sport that seeks to combine mind and body, such emphasis on boxing seems disproportionately high. But physical prowess often outweighs mental agility for chessboxers, says Das. “I can teach Mike Tyson chess for a few months and he can stall Viswananthan Anand in the chess round. But how long can Anand stand Tyson in the boxing round?" Going by the deft uppercuts and nimble footwork I witnessed at the practice session, probably not too long.

Part of the reason is also the kind of people who are attracted to both sports. Professional athletes like Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic are known to play chess. However, few chess players are willing to take on physically demanding sports, though current world No.1 Magnus Carlsen regularly plays football. There is, therefore, a tacit understanding among chessboxers that while their chess skills come handy, a knockout would most often seal the deal.

The format of chess used—speed chess—does little service to those seeking to develop their game, says Mumbai-based grand master Praveen Thipsay. “Speed chess is played on reflexes and instinct. Most professional chess players, including Magnus Carlsen, advise against it." But unlike chess, he admits, chessboxing is a spectator sport. “Promoting it can help lend popularity to chess."

What also sets chessboxing apart is the players’ personality. When British chess grandmaster Arik Braun played chessboxing the first time, he recalls being surprised to find players exchanging book titles in the locker room. Thomas Cazeneuve, the world middleweight chessboxing champion from France, says he likes meeting boxers “who can think and you can have a real conversation with". The game, he says, also helps him in his day job as a hiring consultant. “My job is target-oriented. Even if you exceed it in a month, the next one you start from zero. When you are under pressure, I tell myself to keep calm and work. No matter how difficult it is, it can never be as tough as being punched in the ring."

Krishna Soni, a chessboxing player in Tripathi’s team of coaches, says that one of the highlights of his stint as a trainer has been in the slum pockets in Mumbai’s suburban region of Malvani. “The area has long been known for its high crime rates among youth. We introduced this sport to them a couple of years ago." Since then, he claims, they have found over 60 players from the area. “Many have told us it helped them control their aggression and to regain focus on their lives," he adds.

For all its benefits, concerns remain about the sport’s impact on the body. Boxing has long been criticized for making players highly susceptible to head injuries, with the legendary boxer Mike Tyson one of its victims. A 2010 study by researchers at Technical University Munich showed that 10-20% of boxers develop neuropsychiatric impairments over the long term. Repeated blows to the head, aimed at achieving a knockout, can have an immediate effect on a player’s performance on the chessboard. After all, with a maximum of 20 allotted seconds per move, a chessboxer can’t afford to stall too long to regain his focus.

It’s a tricky balance, admits Sakari Lähderinne, a professional chessboxer from Finland and a world champion in the middleweight category. “Boxing isn’t the healthiest of sports. You have to learn how to protect yourself: how to move, how to use your legs. If you find yourself losing three-four matches in a row by knockout, this ring isn’t the place for you—chessboxing or otherwise."

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