Chess-Boxing In Berlin, Balancing The Brain And The Body

Chess-Boxing in Berlin

The idea of chess-boxing originated from the comic "Le froid eqateur" by Enki Bilal. Chess-boxing was initially conceived by the Dutch artist Lepe Rubingh as an artistic performance in which the themes of a healthy spirit in a healthy body and aggression management played a role. Monika Mueller-Kroll for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Monika Mueller-Kroll for NPR

Men decked out in athletic gear are playing a round of speed chess in a gym in Mitte. They are dressed for boxing, but before they enter the ring, their battleground is the chessboard.

“Chess-boxing,” a sport that combines body and mind, originated in Berlin. The first chess-boxing club was founded in 2005 and currently has 70 members.  Athletes who want to compete in the hybrid sport train at least twice a week.

Andreas Dilschneider, the spokesperson of the Berlin chess boxing club says chess and boxing have a lot in common.

"You have to be aware of your strategy. If you want to be active, if you want to attack, if you more have a style of defending, have a secure style. All these points are similar in chess and in boxing," Dilschneider says.

This unusual sport was invented by Dutch performance artist Lepe Rubingh who stumbled across the idea of chess-boxing in a French graphic novel.

Over the past five years, the sport has spread from Berlin to the United States, the U.K. and Siberia. According to Frank Stoldt, Siberia is a chess-boxing paradise.

"We found the diamonds because the Russians are very, very good. They learn chess at school. They are also very good boxers and they are very disciplined," Stoldt says.

Frank Stoldt coaches new talents in Berlin. He previously held the title of World Champion in chess-boxing.

The rules of chess-boxing are fairly simple: A fight goes up to 11 alternating rounds. It starts with four minutes of chess, followed by a three minute round of boxing. The fight ends by either a knockout, checkmate, exceeding the time limit, or by the judge's decision.

Switching back and forth between the extremely brainy to the extremely physical seems tricky, but Tim Woolgar, a chess-boxing promoter in London says the key to winning is to forget about it.

"If you start to think about the event as being, 'Now I'm doing some boxing. Now I'm doing some chess,' it's very difficult. That's when you can lose, and that's an inexperienced way to approach it. As I have done more and more chess-boxing matches, I realized you actually just have to maintain, ‘I am gonna win.’ You need that will to win, and if you have that focus in your mind, then the transitions are just seamless,” Woolgar says.

Chess-Boxers train in Berlin

Since 2005, Berlin has been home to the world’s first chess-boxing club. Training takes place twice a week. Monika Mueller-Kroll for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Monika Mueller-Kroll for NPR

Tim Woolgar has come to Berlin to watch 36 year-old Lepe Rubingh, the inventor of chess-boxing, in what might be his last fight. According to Woolgar, putting yourself on the line is what draws him to the sport.

"You are looking at someone who is putting themselves on the line. They are taking a big risk with their ego with their personality, if you like. They can be beaten on the chess board, or they can be beaten in the boxing ring, and either of those defeats would seem rather annoying, especially when it's happening in front of 500 people," he says.

Chess boxer Helmut Kuhn is too old to compete in the ring, but the sport still means a lot to him. The Berliner is writing a novel set around the chess-boxing scene. He says most chess boxers in Berlin are students and intellectuals.

Kuhn believes the sport can be quite helpful in getting through difficult times.

"They are architects. They are doctors. They are intellectuals, but they don't have any fixed jobs, because the system in Germany is changing, and I think chess boxing also teaches you how to fight your way through life in an intelligent way."

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