Chessboxing might be the only sport to combine a bright mindset with a great physique. It sounds like the sport for the perfect man. Eleven rounds are divided into five of boxing and six sessions of speed chess. Victory is achieved either by knockout or by checkmate. Still in its infancy, the sport has only four clubs worldwide so far, in Berlin, Los Angeles, Krasnoyarsk (Siberia) and London.
The Berlin club currently counts 70 members. Although the number of active members is still quite low, some 2,000 spectators attended the World Championship match in Siberia last November, when the sport’s brightest talent right now, 18-year-old Leo ‘Granit’ Kraft, defeated his senior by four years, Nikolay ‘The Chairman’ Sazhin, when the latter ran out of time on the chess clock. It’s no coincidence that the two were both from the former Soviet Union (Sazhin from Siberia and Kraft from Belarus), as the western Europeans have a hard time competing especially with the Russians, traditionally a dominant force in both chess and boxing.
The International German Championships at Festsaal Kreuzberg on November 6 will be a rare opportunity to see two Berliners battle it out for a title. It’s a classic master versus apprentice bout as the ‘father of chess boxing’, 36-year-old Dutchman Iepe Rubingh, will try to prove he’s still got some jaw-breaking jabs against the rising star of German chessboxing, 26-year-old Sebastian Bauersfeld.
THE RISING STAR Sebastian Bauersfeld
ELO rating: 1855
Matches won: 8
Matches lost: 3
How did you get into chessboxing?
My father used to box and my grandfather was a good chess player. Maybe it’s in my genes. So when I found the website, I thought it was a fun combination. And then it actually turned out being a great workout as well, which I hadn’t expected at first.
Which is more rewarding – to win by knockout or on the chess board?
It’s really hard to say. But it’s a great feeling when you’ve got control in the boxing [ring] and you can see that it affects the way your opponent plays during the chess round. Against ‘The Lawyer’ I was so much in control in the first boxing round, that it caused him to blunder big-time during the second round of chess where he lost his queen.
What was your best chess boxing experience?
In my first match I fought in front of 400 spectators, which was a new experience for me. But I knew my opponent as we had been sparring before, and as soon as you enter the boxing ring you’re 100 percent focused on the game. I won because my opponent dislocated his shoulder. It was really dramatic, but I would of course have won anyways!
Have you had any bad experiences chess boxing?
I fought a Spaniard in London in March when I hurt my knuckles. So I was out until a couple of weeks ago when I got back to practice. But there are still four weeks [at the time] left till the championship and I’m constantly improving, so there should be plenty of time.
How much training do you need compared to regular boxers?
Physically it’s quite different from regular boxing. You have six minutes between each round, so that makes it less demanding. But when you’re in the ring it’s the same. I have two chessboxing training sessions per week, and then I also do amateur boxing once a week and run for an hour at the weekend. The big difference is that I use a lot of time looking on the internet for people to play chess with.
Trash-talk is a huge part of boxing. Is it more intellectual, when you combine it with chess?
I haven’t really been trash-talking before, so I don’t really have a strategy. But I think it could be one of the things we could do to promote the sport (laughs)!
You’re still recovering from injury. Do you think you have a chance against Iepe?
I hate to sound arrogant, but I’m pretty confident that I’m a better boxer and a better chess player. So I would have myself to win both in a regular boxing match and in a game of chess. I also think the age difference is to my advantage. From what I’ve heard, the 10 years from 26 to 36 should be pretty vital. His biggest advantage is that he is really calm under pressure. Even if he’s low on time in chess, he keeps his cool.
THE GODFATHER Iepe Rubingh
Age: 36 years
ELO rating: 1850
Matches won: 2
Matches lost: 1
You’re the ‘father of chess boxing’. How did it all start?
I got the idea from a comic and as I am an artist, I first thought of a performance. But then I thought that it definitely had the chance to grow into a real sport, and that’s basically how it happened. The first fight was in 2003 against an old friend of mine. It was in front of 1,200 people in an old church in Amsterdam. It was really a thrill to be in the first game, and of course to win as well!
How was the first game?
I was stronger boxing but I couldn’t knock him out. No matter how hard I hit him, he wouldn’t go down. In chess I was losing but I had a time advantage. So in the last round of chess he had 1:20 left on the clock while I had 3:40. He ended up running out of time before he could checkmate me. It was one of the most beautiful chess boxing fights to watch so far, because it was exciting down to the last second.
What is more rewarding? Winning in the ring or on the chess table?
It doesn’t matter. You can’t rely on one discipline. After a heavy fight it can be really rewarding to checkmate your opponent, but on the other hand, if you’re losing in the chess game, it adds an extra aspect that you can still knockout your opponent in the boxing round. That’s what makes it so special.
Does it affect your chess game whether you’re winning or losing the boxing?
We still don’t know actually. You only really feel the pain in the splitsecond when you’re getting hit. The exhaustion and adrenaline is the problem. There’s a lot of air going to your muscles and not so much going to your brain. That’s basically the biggest challenge.
How do you make sure it doesn’t affect your game?
Basically by sparring – going from the boxing round to the chess round and vice versa. And with interval training: running up a hill and playing a game of chess at the top. Going from the physical to the mental and doing it loads of times. Human beings are good in the way they learn so much from repetition.
What’s your worst experience?
I had a demonstration fight against ‘Anti-Terror Frank’. I was actually sick but we still decided to do it. He beat me up in the ring and the chess was going badly, and at the same time I really didn’t feel well. Frank is also called ‘Frank the Tank’ because of his strength and I really wasn’t a match for him. I got checkmated in the seventh round.
The Russians have been quite dominant lately. Do you western Europeans stand a chance?
At this moment the best chess boxers without a doubt come from the east. I haven’t seen other Europeans on that level yet. But I think that the Cubans could be the future. The best amateur boxers come from Cuba and they have great chess traditions and a former world champion in Capablanca.
In boxing there’s a lot of trash-talking. How is that in chess boxing?
It depends on the characters. Louis and I trash-talked quite a lot before the first fight. It wasn’t as brutal as Mike Tyson’s trash talk, but it would be nice to have an interview with Sebastian before the game where we could have some real trash-talking.
Sebastian feels comfortable that the match is already decided. What’s your say on that?
He feels too comfortable; I will turn his confidence against him. I’ve been doing a lot of sports and I’m always really good when it comes down to the moment of performance. I’m mentally stronger. In boxing they always say that you win the fight in your head and maybe that’s even truer for chess boxing. There’s a saying: “Control yourself before your opponent does.” So it’s about control of aggression and outsmarting your opponent. You need cold blood. And that I have.
Chess boxing International German Championships | Iepe Rubingh meets Sebastian Bauersfeld and other matches TBA. Tickets from €18, up to €75 for a ringside seat. November 6.