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Tuesday, April 13, 2010
Updated: April 20, 4:26 PM ET
'Sports From Hell': Chess boxing

By Rick Reilly
ESPN.com

chess boxing
Chess boxing is just one of the world's dumbest sports Rick Reilly discovered in his journey.

Editors note: This excerpt from "Sports From Hell: My Search For The World's Dumbest Competition," by Rick Reilly, delves into the game of chess boxing.

There is a sport -- chess boxing -- that sounded just so deli-ciously 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. Can you think of two things that have less in common? I know! Let's combine scuba and baking? Bowling and colonoscopies?

4. 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. 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!

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?

Anyway, I set out to meet a real, live chess boxer and see a real, live chess boxing match. 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.

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 alter-nating 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. 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.

Q: What wears one glove, chases queens, and isn't Michael Jackson?

A: A chess boxer.

Alternate answer: Woolgar, a square- jawed babyface with bangs and rectangular glasses. In the ring, his feet were anvils, but his punches jackhammers. Which was funny, because when he talked about his style, he saw himself as a kind of British Muhammad Ali.

"I like to dance, stay out of reach, and hammer with the jab, like Ali," he said.

And I think I look a lot like Brad Pitt.

As a youth, he was decent -- his record was 1-1. At nineteen, his trainer said he either had to turn pro or quit. So he quit and went to college. "Too bad, though," he rued. "I have a very strong jaw. I used to ride my bike to school and had no basket for my satchel, so I'd carry it in my mouth. I can take quite a punch because of that, you see."

Of course, it's hard to tell if he's lying. He promotes himself as thirty- five in chess boxing when he's actually forty-five. The bastard -- he actually looks thirty.

The chess is far more brutal than boxing, Woolgar says. "Boxing is the sport of gentlemen. In chess, there's no quarter asked nor given. We have a champion, Frank Stolz. He lost his crown to a nineteen-year-old when he blundered his queen. I know Frank would've rather been knocked out cold than do what he did, to lose his queen. It was humiliating for him."

Chess genius Bobby Fischer used to find great pleasure in "the moment when I break a man's ego." It's a truism: Men prefer their nose broken to their pride.

The best boxer of the six was a kid named Sascha (the Flascha) Wandkowsky, an unemployed German student who rides his bike to the gym every day, practices his chess and his English, and scares the bejeebers out of anybody who has to face him in the ring. In his last bout, he disfigured a British guy. "He concede," Sascha says in his spotty English. "He had a little broken bone in his face, I think. Just leettle. But he was bleeding all over the board, so he stop the fight."

chess boxing
Rick Reilly couldn't think of two things that have less in common than chess and boxing.

Those annoying little broken face bones.

"My chess is good, but I always make mistakes," says Sascha, who is just a beginner in chess.

Me: Well, that figures, because you're probably tired from the boxing.

Sascha: No! I make them in the first round, before the boxing!

So his strategy is to stall on the board and attack on the canvas. He will take as long as he can over each chess move, figuring he will rearrange your cerebellum quite quickly in the ring. Generally, the ref will nudge you if you haven't moved in twenty seconds, DQ you in thirty or forty. If Sascha the Flascha can get a guy in the ring for at least two rounds without doing something really stupid to lose the chess first, he usually wins. "In my second bout, I am almost out of time. I am at 11:50 and he had only use only fifty seconds. I managed to have only ten seconds left when the four minute bell go off. This poor guy he must put on his glove and come back to ring. And then I knock him out, I really knock him out."

But why couldn't a person who never plays chess -- like Mike Tyson -- simply stall for the first round of the chess and then knock his opponent out colder than a flounder in the first ring minute? I put this to the club's best chess player, a five-six brainiac named RajKO (get it?) Vujatovic, one of 200 actual chess masters in all of London.

"Well, he could," RajKO declared. "He would just have to get through the first four minutes of chess without doing something so completely stupid that I was able to mate him before we got into the ring. And that'd be very, very stupid. I think I'd need at least into the third round of chess to defeat a simple beginner, unless he just had no idea how to stall."

And in the ring?

"I'd just have to run," RajKO said.

I wanted to test this theory, but Woolgar's insurance wouldn't allow me to box. So I played RajKO in chess just to see how long I could last. I know as much chess as I do Swahili. I only know how the pieces move. He beat me in about six minutes -- thirty-one moves -- thus proving himself wrong. He could've defeated me in only two chess rounds and he'd need only to survive one round in the ring with me. Although I was an idiot about it. I was taking five seconds between moves, not thirty, so it all went much too quick. But considering that in his sparring sessions, he sometimes threw both fists at once, I think that's all I would've needed.

After the boxing, the six combatants went back to the board and proceeded to sweat all over it. The pawns were nearly drowning. It was a rubber board, but still. I asked Woolgar how often he cleans the boards, which looked like something that should be sent immediately to the Centers for Disease Control. His answer? "Uh, never."

A lot more matches end by rook than hook, and there's a reason for it. It's much easier to topple a king onto the board than a man onto the canvas. It takes some real skill and strength. These guys don't have it. It's mostly a lot of, "Ow! That hurt!" and keeping the distance of a Cessna between each other.

It's hard to explain how awful most chess players box, but this may give you an idea: The two best chess players -- RajKO and a very skinny Chinese guy named Doug -- began sparring. They both employed the seldom-seen double-punch strategy. RajKO was closing his eyes when Doug threw a punch, which never got past RajKO's gloves. He had them both in front of his face and yet Doug wouldn't go for the body. Nor would he extend his arm fully when punching, nor turn his fist into the punch. His salvos had all the power of a man on his deathbed reaching out for one last brownie.

Hanging over the ropes, trying to give them pointers, was the London senior lightweight boxing champ. He'd come up from below just to help out a little. He hollered at RajKO, "Try the jab!"

And -- get this -- they both stopped and looked at him. Just stopped boxing, turned to the guy, and said, "What?" It's the equivalent of a coach yelling at his running back to "Hit the hole!" and the running back suddenly stopping -- ball in hand -- running over to the sideline, and saying, "Say again?"

The real boxer just buried his head in his hands. At one point, Doug got a punch through RajKO's double-fisted closed-eyes wall and bopped him on the nose. The receiver looked surprised and his eyes watered a little. He dropped his hands and rubbed his nose. Doug looked like he'd just shot a bunny. He apologized and then actually reached out and rubbed Raj's nose, too. I thought the boxer from London was going to cry.

Afterward, there was this exchange:

Me: Who would be the greatest chess boxer in history?

RajKO: Pound for pound? You'd have to say [world chess champ Gary] Kasparov.

Me: What?

RajKO: Yes, he trained his body with a boxing trainer and he could beat any normal player, like Lewis or Klitschko, in twenty to twenty-five moves.

Me: He'd get murdered in the ring.

RajKO: And don't forget, he gets a five-minute rest between boxing [while playing chess], so he could run.

Me: He'd get turned into a lot of lumps.

Against this backdrop, Woolgar stood out like Halle Berry at a fat farm. He was devoting his life to this. He was running five miles every day, followed by two hours in the gym and an hour of chess. He was pretty good at both. He'd better be. Two years of work were coming to a head very soon in one scary night.

Quiz: Which strategies are boxing and which are chess?

A: The first four are all boxing, the last four all chess.

Also: Somebody needs to make a chess boxing movie in which the bent-nose mafia mook comes into the pre-fight locker room and says to the fighter: "Listen up. Da boss wants you to go down in the fifth."

The terrified chess boxer argues, "No! I can't!" "Yeah, you can," warns the mook. "Let him take yer queen. And no funny bizness, or you'll be movin' pawns witch yer elbows the rest of yer life!"

At last, the big night arrived -- the first chess boxing card in British history. More than 150 people crowded into a place called the Bethnal Green Working Men's Club in East London, which isn't a strip joint but a kind of blue-collar nightclub.

Inside was the largest paying audience for a chess match in the UK since Kramnik vs. Kasparov in London in 2000, even outselling -- yes -- the club's recent Mexican wrestling event.

By dinnertime, Woolgar was as nervous as a quart of coffee. He was not only the promoter, manager, ticket agent, media director, and technical advisor, he was also half the main event in the heavyweight division. He'd sunk a silo of his own money into this. Worse, he was up against a brute with a broad back and long arms named Stewart Telford, who once owned a 5-5 record in amateur heavyweight bouts. Telford worked with juvenile offenders, so you got the feeling he'd be able to hold his own against a very polite, false-aged ex-BBC producer.

It was only a two-fight card. Sascha the Flascha opened against a fireplug Dutchman and didn't disappoint. Sascha took him out in the seventh round -- on the chess board, no less -- although it took the in-house bonehead commentator thirty seconds to realize Sascha had checkmated him. OK, so it's a new sport. We're still trying to iron the wrinkles out.

Eventually, it was time for the main event. Telford came out first in a Tyson-like black cape with two guys in white vests escorting him. He seemed to have hit a few too many donut shops on the way to work over the years, and immediately you could tell that Woolgar, who came out by himself to Guns N' Roses, was more fit.

First round is always chess, so the two gladiators went through the traditional donning of the... headphones? Yes, huge headphones to help them concentrate and avoid hearing advice yelled from the crowd. What was playing in the headphones? "Choral music, with sounds of the ocean," Woolgar said. Funny, I just can't see Mike Tyson listening to ocean sounds minutes before he fights, can you? More theagullth, dammit!

The two felt each other out on the chessboard for the first four minutes -- each safely castling their kings away -- with nothing much coming of it, and soon the bell rang and they removed the board, table, and two chairs from the ring in order to let the punching begin. The inebriated crowd was much louder than anybody would've thought. And perhaps spurred on by it, the two started brawling. All the caution and tiny steps on the chessboard were gone now, replaced by two palookas whaling at each other like Dublin bar patrons. Telford greeted Woolgar's face with a hook very early on, leaving him with a nice mouse above the eye.

"He kept lining me up where the spotlights were blinding, then coming in with lightning-fast hooks to the temple," Woolgar recalled. "He caught me a couple of times and rocked me, but I managed to respond with a perfect right uppercut which landed on his jaw and made him think."

In Round Three, the best thinking on the chess side was done by Woolgar, who took charge of the middle and even captured a piece. It's a very odd thing to hear a lot of lusty Brits roar for a captured pawn.

When the two went back to the ring for Round Four, one could hear Woolgar's corner telling him to "Make him miss! Make him miss!" Woolgar heard and obeyed. "I just stayed slightly out of reach and watched various fists whizzing past my jaw but not connecting," Woolgar remembered. Maybe it was fear, but his leaden feet seemed to be lighter and he was no longer absorbing leather facials.

By Round Five (chess), it was clear Woolgar was the Doberman and Telford the pork chop. He was starting to dominate the sixty- four squares. He looked in command of the whole night. Prepare the crown. But then, in Round Six, a very odd thing happened. Woolgar started listening to the suddenly bloodthirsty crowd.

"F*** him up, Timmy!" somebody hollered.

"Knock his f***ing head off!" another screamed.

You know how rowdy chess boxing crowds can get.

Somehow, Woolgar was flummoxed by it. He remembers thinking, "That's not the sort of thing I want to hear at my fight!"

Although exactly what he was expecting them to yell, he had no idea. "Some sort of sporting soundtrack from an old Basil Rathbone movie perhaps," he says. "You know: 'Jolly good show! Oh I say, what a corker!' " And while he was wondering how his chess boxing event had turned into an NHL game, Telford planted a straight right- hand flush in his kisser. While Woolgar's head was snapping back, Telford added a fierce left hook on his temple for good measure. Woolgar started hugging Telford then like he was Bela Karolyi, hanging on for dear life. Soon as the ref separated them, another right hook came, which Woolgar ducked and followed with a combination to Telford's ribs. The bell rang. It was a great round and nobody could remember anything like it in Fischer vs. Spassky.

The doctor and the ref examined the swelling under Woolgar's eye, but let the bout continue. Which meant he had to go play chess with one eye, one glove, and a spinning brain. Luckily, Telford's mind was also moving at the speed of cold honey tipped over. The two of them made only three moves in four minutes. It was the Stupor Bowl. Perhaps even the ref was woozy, because he did nothing to speed them up. Suddenly, they were back in the ring, and this time Woolgar was on the counselor like freckles on Opie. He pummeled him in the corner, against the ropes, with his back to the lights, everything. The crowd was beside itself as the bell rang.

As they sat down for chess and Round Nine, Telford's brain must've been on sleep mode, because, by expert accounts, he played chess like a poodle on Xanax. "Twice in five moves he was oblivious to the long-range diagonal threat of the Black queen," RajKO wrote breathlessly of the match later. The second time, 2:23 into the round, Woolgar delivered checkmate.

All of which led to a deliriously happy chess boxer named Tim Woolgar accepting his honor as the Great Britain Chess Boxing Organization Heavyweight Champion of the World from Great Britain Chess Boxing Organization director Tim Woolgar. It was a very easy picture to take. One guy. Plus, nobody thought to make up a belt.

Telford admitted later that his strategy was to play chess slow and box fast. "He took some pretty clean, hard shots," Telford admitted. "He wobbled a few times, but didn't give up."

Satchel in the teeth, my friend. Satchel in the teeth.

***

Overall, I believe chess boxing has a bright future, provided it adopts immediately the following change: The chessboards themselves should have little tiny boxing ropes around it.

And be cleaned at least once a decade, for sure.