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.
In front of 1,000 cheering fans one recent Saturday night, Sazhin moved his bishop to go in for the kill and won the world championship of chess boxing, a weird hybrid sport that combines as many as five rounds of pugilism with a game of chess.
The combatants switch back and forth between boxing and chess — repeatedly putting their gloves on and taking them off, so that they can move the pieces around the board without clumsily knocking them over — in a sort of brains-and-brawn biathlon.
“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 beat each other’s brains out for 12 rounds and then play a 45-hour game of chess.
“That’s not functional. So I thought about how it could work,” Rubingh said.
In his version, a chessboard is brought into the ring on a table and the combatants play four minutes, after which the board is wheeled off very carefully so that the pieces don’t fall over. Then the fighters put on the gloves and trade punches for a round, after which the board is brought back. The pattern is repeated over and over. The chess game can last up to 24 minutes.
If you knock your opponent out, the chess is over, too, and you win the match. If you beat your opponent at chess, then the boxing is over, and you are the victor. In the case of a draw at the chessboard, the boxer with more points in the ring is declared the winner.
Rubingh uses an 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 didn’t 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 center, 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 knows he won’t be recruiting either boxers or chess players at the top of their game, but he believes there is a deep reservoir of talent among amateur and lower-ranked pro fighters with sharp, tactical minds.
One of his first prospects was Frank Stoldt, a 37-year-old Berlin riot policeman and amateur kickboxer. Stoldt was also an obsessive chess player who often lost himself in late-night online matches.
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