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The paradox of brains vs. brawn

Chess merges with boxing in a new sport that is seeking a foothold in Europe

— PHOTO: AP

CONTRASTING MOVES: U.S. chess boxer David Depto, right, moves a piece with his taped hand during a chess boxing world championship against German Frank Stoldt in Berlin, in a file picture.

BERLIN: Nikolay Sazhin almost knocked out his opponent with a blow to the chin in the second round, but he had to take the queen to win the match.

As Sazhin moved a bishop to go in for the kill in front of 1,000 cheering fans one recent Saturday night, he took the title of world champion of chess boxing, a hybrid sport that combines five rounds of pugilism with a 24-minute game of chess.

“It’s the No. 1 thinking game and the No. 1 fighting game,” said Iepe Rubingh, the sport’s 32-year-old founder.

Rubingh’s inspiration was ‘Cold Equator,’ a 1992 French comic book in which two heavyweight boxers fight for 12 rounds and then play a 45-hour game of chess. “That’s not functional. So I thought about how it could work.”

His version comes complete with a custom-made electronic chessboard that lets spectators watch the action projected onto a pair of large ringside screens.

In 2003, some 800 people turned out in Amsterdam to watch an exhibition match between Rubingh and a friend. “It was a catastrophe. I lost my queen in the second round of chess,” he said.

But the loss did not stop him from pursuing his dream. The Dutchman returned to Berlin, where he has lived for a decade, and set out to find tough fighters who could also play a good game of chess.

Germany has emerged as a major boxing centre attracting top talent from Eastern Europe. Most of the world’s top heavyweight fighters are natives of Russia and Ukraine, and many train in Hamburg. Rubingh hopes that will create room for variants like chess boxing or ultimate fighting, a more punishing combat sport seeking a foothold in Europe.

He knows he would not be recruiting either boxers or chess players at the top of their games, but does believe there is a deep reservoir of talent among amateur and lower ranked pro fighters who have a sharp, tactical mind. “With a certain level of practice, people can play chess during a chess boxing match almost at their normal level,” he said.

One of his first prospects was Frank Stoldt, a 37-year-old Berlin riot policeman and amateur kick boxer. Stoldt was also an obsessive chess player, who often lost himself in late night online matches.

“Both disciplines are aggressive,” Stoldt said of his attraction to the sport. He started training at Rubingh’s chess boxing gym in Berlin’s downtown Mitte district. In November, he won the sport’s first world championship in Berlin.

He lost his belt this month to Sazhin, a 19-year-old Russian who had never travelled abroad until he came here to prepare for the match.

Sazhin learned about the sport while surfing the Internet, and tried out by mailing boxing tapes to Rubingh and playing him in online chess games.

Rubingh thinks he could be the first of many chess boxers from a country that has embraced fighters and immortalises chess players, like Russian legends Garry Kasparov and Boris Spassky.

It was long after midnight in a Berlin warehouse when Sazhin and Stoldt entered the ring and sat down at the chessboard. In this version of speed chess, each had 12 minutes in which to beat their opponent on the board, which would be broken up between as many as five rounds of boxing. — AP

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