You could be forgiven for thinking, “only in Berlin.” Chess and boxing are as unlikely a combination as you can imagine, but the two disciplines were married in 2003 and combatants and promoters are taking this strange game throughout Germany and beyond.


“It’s the competition, it’s the fact that you combine physical combat and psychological combat,” explained novice chess boxer Jeronimo “the Chief” Barbin, in an interview with Deutsche Welle.


“Boxing is the number one physical sport and chess is the number one psychological sport and to combine both is complete. You are a complete human being.”


The birth of a new game


The idea was conceived by Dutch artist Iepe Rubingh, who goes by the stage name The Joker, and was inspired in part by a cartoon depicting a chess boxing match. Developing the rules and format further, Rubingh and the World Chess Boxing Organization (WCBO) have created a system that fully integrates the two disciplines.


Bildunterschrift: Großansicht des Bildes mit der Bildunterschrift:  The trick is to be aggressive only when it’s appropriateCombatants must ensure that their aggression with the gloves on is tempered when the gloves come off.


“A chess boxing fight goes over 11 rounds – you have six chess rounds and five boxing rounds,” explained Andreas Dilschneider, a chess trainer at the Berlin Chess Boxing Club. “Rounds are alternating, so first you have a chess round of four minutes then you have a boxing round of three minutes and so on.”


Especially fascinating are the chess rounds immediately after the boxing rounds, as the competitors struggle to focus on the intellectual nuances on the chess board with adrenaline from the physical fight coursing through their veins.


The single-elimination policy cranks up the pressure: A knockout in a boxing round, checkmate in chess or exceeding the time limit in either discipline automatically ends the match.


A new style of fighting


While, to an outsider, it may seem like a bit of a joke, participants take every bit of chess boxing seriously. Before being allowed to even take part, fighters must have experience in a minimum of 20 boxing matches and have an official rating from a national chess rating organization.


Training is also an important part of the sport and chess boxing creator and veteran fighter Rubingh invested much energy in preparing for this past weekend’s fight in Berlin, which could be his last.


Bildunterschrift: Großansicht des Bildes mit der Bildunterschrift:  Barbin delivered the first KO chess boxing has seen – but didn’t come away unscathed

The same, however, could not be said of beginner and first time competitor Barbin.


“I was just told two days ago that I would have to fight today so I didn’t have time to get nervous,” said Barbin ahead of the match against opponent Jonathan Vonnenmann. “It’s my first fight, so I cannot really prepare for something that I don’t know.”


During the bout, Barbin – in the white boxing trunks and in control of the white chess pieces on the board – discovered first-hand how important it is to be an all-round competitor.


“It was an interesting fight because we had a very strong position for black in chess which would’ve been decisive if it had continued for one or two rounds,” said Dilschneider. “So it was very clear that Jeronimo Barbin had to try for the decision in the boxing, and he was successful.”


The bout ended in a knockout – the first ever in the short history of the sport.


So while some fighters use the wisdom that comes with years of experience, the younger breed are bringing a new level of physical confrontation to the squared circle. Sporting a bloodied nose after the bout Barbin admitted candidly, “I’m not looking my best.”


Author: Jonathan Gifford, Berlin

Editor: Kate Bowen