Chess Boxing And Other 'Sports From Hell'

Chess boxing match i i

Chess boxing was one of the unconventional sports Rick Reilly observed. During the matches, the board and pieces became drenched in sweat. Reilly asked his host, promoter Tim Woolgar, how often they get washed. His answer: "Uh, never." Cynthia "TLC" Reilly hide caption

itoggle caption Cynthia "TLC" Reilly
Chess boxing match

Chess boxing was one of the unconventional sports Rick Reilly observed. During the matches, the board and pieces became drenched in sweat. Reilly asked his host, promoter Tim Woolgar, how often they get washed. His answer: "Uh, never."

Cynthia "TLC" Reilly
Cover of 'Sports From Hell'
Sports From Hell: My Search For The World's Dumbest Competition
By Rick Reilly
Hardcover, 224 pages
Doubleday/ESPN Books
List price: $26

Read An Excerpt

In his long career as a sports columnist, Rick Reilly has covered the biggest games, including the Super Bowl, World Series and the Masters. But for his new book, Sports from Hell, Reilly sought out the championships of decidedly less conventional sports, such as chess boxing and rock, paper, scissors.

One of Reilly's criteria for choosing a sport from hell was that it had to be dumb to everyone except the competitors.

"For instance," he tells NPR's Guy Raz, "we didn't do cheese-rolling or wife-carrying ... These are all things that chambers of commerce dream up. ... We did stuff where they really didn't realize it was dumb."

Reilly took part in just about every sport, save for bull poker. "That's done only in American prisons," he explains. At the Angola prison in Louisiana, inmates sit down at a poker table and put $250 in the middle. But "the cards are to bull poker what the plot is to porn," Reilly says. "Doesn't matter at all, because they release a 2,000-pound bull. The bull comes charging at the table. The last guy to leave his chair gets the money."

Chess boxing made Reilly's list, though he only participated in the chess half of the sport. In a chess boxing match, "these two people are boxing in a ring with gloves, and then at the bell, a little guy brings in a waterproof chess board, and they take off one glove very quickly and play speed chess for four minutes," then back to boxing, back to the chess and so on.

"They're bleeding now on the chess board, they're sweating, they're terrible boxers so they've taken about 25 straight jabs to the temple, and now they can't remember which way the pieces move."

And then there's a single golf hole in New Mexico that's 3 miles long, which Reilly did play.

"It's in a place just outside of Albuquerque where they blow things up," says Reilly. "All kinds of police departments from around the world, they like, build a fake 7-Eleven and blow it up, and study it intricately."

But once a year, the site is devoted exclusively to golf. "They take all the bombs down and you play this golf hole, from the top of a mountain down to the bottom."

Author Rick Reilly i i

Reilly grew tired of covering typical sports events. As he puts it, "there's only so many Brett Favre retirement conferences you can go to." Eric Bakke hide caption

itoggle caption Eric Bakke
Author Rick Reilly

Reilly grew tired of covering typical sports events. As he puts it, "there's only so many Brett Favre retirement conferences you can go to."

Eric Bakke

And the first drive off the top of the mountain is a doozy. "You feel like you just went to the Barry Bonds pharmacy, because your drive goes about 850 yards."

On his fifth shot, Reilly's found his ball surrounded by a rattlesnake. He figured he'd take a 1-shot penalty and use a new ball, but his caddy — with an eye on his tip — insisted on retrieving the ball from the rattler.

In the five hours and 12 minutes it took Reilly to play the hole, he shot a 19. By his calculations, if he'd played 18 holes, he'd have shot "something like 325, and it would have taken five days and 11 hours."

Excerpt: 'Sports From Hell'

Cover of 'Sports From Hell'
Sports From Hell: My Search For The World's Dumbest Competition
By Rick Reilly
Hardcover, 224 pages
Doubleday/ESPN Books
List price: $26.00

There is a sport — chess boxing — that sounded just so deliciously dumb I almost didn't want to know what it really was. I just liked saying it, "Chess boxing."

Questions poured forth:

1. Was it two guys sitting at a card table in the middle of a boxing ring playing chess? And maybe one of them goes, "Check." And the other guy looks at the board, scratches his chin, and then just cold-cocks the guy with a roundhouse right, sending him backwards — bishops and queens and mouthpiece flying — and adding, "You sure?"

2. Could a guy cheat in chess boxing?

Cornerman: Ref, check his glove! Check his glove! There's a rook in there!

3. Why combine chess and boxing? Can you think of two things that have less in common? Hey, I know! Let's combine scuba and baking? Bowling and colonoscopies?

4. Has a fan of one ever attended a match of the other? Although, it's true, the two do have one thing in common: Participants in both disciplines rarely have sex before a match. Of course, chess players don't have it after, either.

5. Did they do the chess and the boxing at the same time?

Breathless announcer: Frazier's trying to get to his knight, but Foreman keeps slamming him with the jab!

6. Could the ref step in and call it if it's getting out of hand?

Ref: That's it! Fight's over! He just tried to move his knight diagonally! We're finished here!

7. Was it live people — dressed as chess pieces — being moved around by two players standing in giant towers, with control of the square in question being decided by one piece boxing holy hell out of the other?

The truth, though, was nearly as dumb. Chess boxing involves two combatants alternating six rounds of chess (four minutes) and five of boxing (three) until one of them is either checkmated on the board or knocked out in the ring, or time runs out on the chess clock. In that case, whoever is ahead on the cards of the judges is the winner.

Does that make any sense?

The sport was never meant to be a sport in the first place. It was a piece of performance art by a Dutchman named Iepe Rubingh. He called himself "Iepe the Joker" and his opponent was a friend, "Luis the Lawyer." Sitting in a fully lit, roped boxing ring, they proceeded to actually box, then play chess, over and over, much to the mouth-agape bewilderment of the art gallery audience. It was Iepe's statement about pigeonholing. It was so stupidly compelling — like Celebrity Apprentice — that they did it again two months later in Amsterdam. In that bout, Iepe was behind in the chess going into the last round of boxing and just decided to start throwing a slew of punches. He connected enough to make Luis the Lawyer loopy, so much so that when they got back to the board, Luis couldn't make sense of the pieces nor where they should go. Iepe won, declaring himself the world middleweight chess boxing champ, possibly because there was no world middleweight chess boxing champ.

Next thing you knew, sane people were under the mistaken belief that this was actually a sport — similar to NASCAR. Iepe began promoting the idea all over Europe and Asia, and suddenly, there was a whole mess of kings in the boxing world not named Don. Actually, Don King could clean up with this. Consider: Both former world boxing champion Lennox Lewis and current champion Vitali Klitschko both play chess, and play it very well. Can't you see the posters?

Blood on the board!

Or … Black, white, and red all over!

Or … "Cut me, mick. My queen's trapped!"

Anyway, I set out to meet a real, live chess boxer and see a real, live chess boxing match. And that meant Europe or nothing. America wasn't ready. There was one small club in Los Angeles trying to start up but getting nowhere. We decided the best of the European chess boxing seemed to be in London, where a former Channel 1 BBC reporter named Tim Woolgar was attempting to promote — and win — the UK's first sanctioned chess boxing match.

So I boarded a plane for England, hoping more than usual that the plane wouldn't crash, if only for the ignominy of it.

Mourners at funeral: Why was he going to London again?

My kids: Uh, well … chess boxing.

There are things you figure you'll never see in your life as a sportswriter and one of them is a regulation-size boxing ring next to four waterproof chess boards, full of pieces, with fighters alternating rapidly between knocking each other's blocks in and knocking each other's queens off. But this is what I came upon at the Islington Boxing Club in north London, top floor, far corner. There were no chairs. Three men were on one side and three on the other, each sweating like B.B. King onto the boards, trying to clear their eyes so they could make their moves and punch their speed chess clocks. Each player had twelve total minutes of time to make his moves in the allotted six rounds of chess. If the player ran out of time, he lost the match. Suddenly, a buzzer would ring and they'd all put back on the one glove they'd taken off, and climb into the ring and start punching each other.

Excerpted from Sports From Hell by Rick Reilly. Copyright 2010 by Rick Reilly. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday/ESPN Books.

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Sports from Hell

My Search for the World's Most Outrageous Competition

by Rick Reilly

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