In 2003, a Dutch performance artist in his late twenties named Iepe Rubingh took the idea for chessboxing from a sci-fi graphic novel called Froid Équateur
("Cold Equator"), written in 1992 by a Franco-Yugoslav artist named Enki Bilal. In it, millionaire fighter John-Elvis Johnelvisson slugs away with the enigmatic Loopkin. Bilal's vision of chessboxing
is dark, dystopian; by the end of the bout, both men are battered and beaten, their eyes white pinpricks underneath heavy, bloody brows.
"I remember there was this sketch," Rubingh explains, calling from a Berlin park in midsummer. "The people fight, then play a grandmaster game of chess. And I just... It clicked." Rubingh and a Dutch lawyer called Jean-Louis Fainstra had been going to boxing training together, and were eager to have their first bout against each other. "I said to him that if we're going to fight, we're going to do a chessboxing fight," Rubingh says. Fainstra was dumbfounded by the suggestion, but went along with it. Rubingh gained funding from Dutch arts organizations
to put on the show.
The club that agreed to host the bout — Paradiso, on de Weteringschans — was once a church that became a squat for hippies in the late 1960s. In the absence of the creepy environs of the graphic novel, Paradiso, with its barrel roof, overhanging balconies, and large stained glass windows, was the next best venue, in Rubingh's opinion. The practicalities also changed slightly from its graphic novel origins: The bout time was shortened, and rules were written up in concert with the Dutch chess and boxing associations.
"We had Dutch TV there, German TV, Japanese, French TV," Rubingh recalls. "We had an official press conference. And we were saying, 'OK, people really want to see this.'"
All told, the November 2003 novelty match drew 1,200 spectators to Amsterdam to watch Rubingh and Fainstra chessbox for 11 rounds. Rubingh, fighting as the self-anointed
"Joker," won and became the world chessboxing champion by default.
Though it retains that fantastical, somewhat absurd veneer, in the intervening decade, chessboxing has managed to evolve. Rubingh estimates there are maybe 500 people worldwide actively involved in competition under his umbrella organization, the World Chessboxing Organization (WCBO); 125 alone are members of the Berlin chessboxing club where he now trains. There's a club in China, in India, in Italy; South Africa, Australia, and Russia chessbox, as does Bulgaria. Absurdly, Iran (where pro boxing is banned) recently opened its own affiliate. The Los Angeles Chessboxing Club
, which claims no official affiliation, held its first event in New York this summer at the famous Gleason's boxing gym, butting up against NYC ChessBoxing, a club set up in March.
Each regional or national organization comes together much in the same way: One dedicated guy sees or hears about the sport and gets the bug. (YouTube, and the ability to remotely watch chessboxing bouts from Croydon to Calcutta, Tehran to Tbilisi, has helped spread the sport.) The organization draws together a group of like-minded people, and begins small, with members training at local gyms. Eventually, they graduate to promoting their own shows. (India's chessboxing organization was founded by Montu Das, a former kickboxer. His second tournament held in July attracted 200 potential fighters.) Then a club applies for accreditation with the WCBO.
But Rubingh wants to raise barriers to entry, and generally to smarten up his sport. The performance artist has become a tycoon, promoting events and legitimizing chessboxing. The world championships will be held next week in Moscow under the banner of a new brand name, Chess Boxing Global (CBG). Rubingh's making the leap to turn his 10-year-old art project into a mainstream sport. He has secured investments from Enki Bilal, chessboxing's accidental progenitor, and Soundcloud founder Eric Wahlforss, to build the group internationally. The WCBO is offering €1,500 purses (a little over $2,000) for prizefights.
"We filter," Rubingh explains. To pass muster, fights must be organized with a degree of professionalism; the fighters themselves must meet certain standards in chess and have boxed for a year.
And with this attempt to become legit comes casualties. "We decided to cut loose the London Chessboxing Organization, because it couldn't live up to WCBO standards," he explains. "Don't get me wrong, I respect everybody that steps into the ring because I did it myself. But I think the quality of the sport and the image of the sport is also being damaged by such events, which are more of an entertainment. We have a lot of people training, but fighting — fighting seriously — there's only a very small, dedicated group."