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Chess Boxing Tests Brain and Brawn in Berlin

October 6, 2005

BERLIN — Bulgarian boxer Tihomir Titschko’s punishing right hook and fancy footwork were not enough to defeat his opponent.

Instead, it was the stocky fighter’s mastery of knights and bishops that proved decisive in his successful bid to become the first European chess boxing champion on Saturday night in a dimly lighted warehouse in east Berlin.

Chess boxing is one of the newest and most unlikely hybrid sports, designed to test both brain and brawn. A typical match consists of up to 11 alternating rounds of boxing and “blitz” chess sessions.

Contestants start with a four-minute chess round, then it’s into the ring for a two-minute bout of boxing. A minute’s break to tend wounds and remove gloves and the sweaty competitors, towels around their necks, sit down at the chess board again.

The form of chess played is “blitz” chess. Competitors have a total of 12 minutes on the clock before the match is over.

“I was just curious,” said Tobias Gries, a 30-year-old from Berlin who watched Saturday’s championship. “It is one of most unusual combinations possible, so it was interesting to see how these totally contrasting games could be brought together.”

The World Chess Boxing Organization (WCBO), which trains several dozen chess boxers twice a week near its headquarters in Berlin, says combining the “No. 1 intellectual sport” with the “No. 1 fighting sport” offers a unique challenge.

The group’s motto is: “Fighting is done in the ring and wars are waged on the board.”

The German capital, which has won a reputation as a cutting-edge, bohemian city since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, seemed the perfect place to host the competition.

Although a chess boxing contest can end with a knockout, checkmate, or judges’ decision, the final on Saturday ended in the seventh round when Titschko’s opponent, Andreas Schneider of Germany, conceded defeat.

Schneider’s 12 minutes of chess time had nearly elapsed and his king and remaining pawns were in hopeless retreat. He extended his hand to congratulate Titschko.

COMIC BOOK IDEA

Chess boxing was the brainchild of Iepe Rubingh, a 31-year-old Dutch artist who lives in Berlin and got the idea for combining chess and boxing from a comic book.

“I am really pleased about how this match developed,” he said. “Andreas really gave it his all in there and unfortunately lost. But Tihomir was the clear and deserving winner.”

Titschko — whose stocky build, round jaw and dark, sweat-soaked hair drew comparisons with Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky Balboa character in the “Rocky” films — certainly looked the part of a boxer and battled relentlessly in the ring.

But he also came into the finals as one of top-10 rated “bullet” chess players in the world, according to the WCBO. Bullet chess is even more hectic than blitz chess: Players have only 3 minutes per match to move their pieces.

Rubingh staged the first chess boxing world championship in Amsterdam in 2003, and organized a show match in Tokyo in 2004.

For the Berlin competition, organizers hired certified boxing and chess judges. But there was certainly a big-fight atmosphere as women in short skirts and high heels walked around the ring displaying round number cards, and a raucous announcer fired up the crowd.

While a few spectators said they might one day try chess boxing, most shook their heads at the bizarre sport.

“It’s hard to imagine coming back from a round of boxing and remembering what you were trying to do on the chess board,” said Bastian Demmer, 31, a German carpenter.

“You’re probably sitting there preoccupied with the pain.”

Rubingh and the WCBO believe they have found a winning formula. They hope high-profile events will boost local participation and lead to the creation of chess boxing groups.

Others, however, foresee possible limitations to the sport’s popularity. The average boxing fan may not understand the rules of chess, and vice versa.

“I thought the tension between the chess and the boxing worked well,” said computer progammer Sven Kwiotek, 35. “But boxing on its own is definitely easier to follow.”




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