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Interview: 'Blood on the Chessboard' Anne Kapranos talks to Chessboxing founder Tim Woolgar

Anne Kapranos talks to Tim Woolgar, founder of the Chessboxing Organisations (UK), prior to the biggest tournament to date - The London Chessboxing Tournament in association with Run Riot at the Scala, on Saturday 10th September.


It was about a month ago when, watching a particularly tense episode of University Challenge, I managed to get a question right without resorting to my usual tactic of eavesdropping on the conferring before shouting out the answer.

When I heard a baby-faced contestant smugly enunciate the word ‘Chessboxing’ to a bemused Jeremy Paxman, I knew that this sport that I’d heard only whispered around the back streets of London, and written up in cool magazines like this one, had finally become mainstream. Well, nearly.

Chessboxing is exactly that. Consisting of up to eleven alternating rounds of boxing and chess a chessboxing match begins with a four-minute chess round, followed by two minutes of boxing, with rounds of chess and boxing alternating until the end. Whether won by checkmate or knockout, a match could go either way.

Having read up enough about the sport to become intrigued and slightly intimidated (both by my lack of chess skills and lack of a left hook), I looked forward to my meeting with Tim Woolgar, the founder of chessboxing in the UK. We were there to discuss the growing popularity of this fascinating sport, and chat about the chessboxing event of the year, taking place at The Scala in September.

I didn’t know whether to expect a geeky guy in glasses or a big brawny muscle head. Woolgar was actually a mixture of both. Kind of like Clarke Kent pre-phone box.

I’m sure he had heard this a thousand times, but I had to ask...chessboxing? Why? How two such different sports could possibly be combined?

Apparently, it’s not as strange a hybrid as it first seems. As Woolgar explains “Chess is an adversarial sport – it’s vicious. Both chess and boxing are ways of simulating warfare and because of that boast many similarities. Those who play chess and those who box all have violence on the mind.” I suppose chess and boxing are also among the oldest sports in the world. There is something very raw and medieval about seeing two men in one-on one combat, battling wills and strength, trying to outmanoeuvre and outsmart each other. I felt tempted to ask if there was a fair damsel in distress up for grabs instead of prize money.

Woolgar goes on to describe the trash-talking that has been known to go on before and during a match. Forget David Haye’s bitchy comments, these guys are brutal. The tension builds on the chess board, where a well-timed hiss of ‘loser’ and ‘stupid’ can rile opponents and put them off their next move, while before getting into the ring, the threats become more ferocious.

However, Woolgar is keen to point out that Chessboxing is not about being macho, but about showing sportsmanship. “These guys are comfortable in themselves and have a huge amount of respect for their opponent. Although a loss on the board or in the ring is a blow to the ego, the contenders have nothing to prove”.

Woolgar is the current holder of the British Heavyweight Chessboxing Champion title and has been responsible for taking Chessboxing from Berlin, where it first began, to London 3 years ago. It has grown here so successfully that the London club is now the biggest in the world. Having set up The ChessBOXING Organisation, the first United Kingdom chessboxing institution, Woolgar is now campaigning to Sport England to have Chessboxing officially recognised. If successful, the sport will both have a governing body and receive necessary funding.

In light of the recent rioting and the UK’s problems with disenfranchised youth, particularly young men, I ask Woolgar if he thinks Chessboxing could be a way of getting kids off the street and interested in an intellectual pursuit. He has already set up a charitable outreach programme to London schools which gives the benefit of chessboxing as a developmental tool – targeting 11-18 year olds. As Woolgar explains, “Chessboxing gives kids an intellectual weapon and a sense of self worth.”

So what kind of person becomes a chessboxing champion? There is, as expected, those who are better at one discipline than the other, so Woolgar ensures that contenders are well matched. He is keen to point out is that boxers can easily learn chess and vice versa. Some of the regulars at the Islington gym include; bankers, schoolchildren, salesmen, students and, randomly (or actually quite aptly), a medieval sword maker.

The variety of chessboxers is certainly evident at the September event’s line up. The match card of 5 bouts reads like a list of colourful comic book characters.

The main event of the evening is the heavyweight battle for the cherished Bobby Fischer belt. Quarter of a ton of hybrid fighting action will take place between Andrew “Man Mountain” McGregor, a 6 foot 11, 250Ib boxer hailing from LA, and Hubert “The Wardrobe” Van Melick, 6ft 4 and weighing in at 220Ibs, from London.

The undercards include a bout between Ben “The Rumble” Robinson Vs Mark Lech, two very experienced chess players, and Chris “The General” Levy Vs Mike “The Bedfordshire Bull” Botteley.

One of the most interesting events of the evening is the Women’s Commonwealth Middleweight Decider, a bout between Kath Dodson and Emma Richardson, who will doubtless show that chessboxing is not just for the blokes.

With more of a party atmosphere than a normal sporting event, the entertainment for the evening will not stop after the final check mate or knock out. Between the rounds, there will be a bevy of ‘beer bitches’ on hand to provide vintage entertainment. Also there for our pleasure will be singers, hula hoop girls and a break-dancing magician. At chessboxing – it seems all hybrids are possible.

Chessboxing is incredibly popular in London, and I can see it having a fantastic future as it becomes more and more recognised as a sport throughout the country.

In the meantime, I for one am getting rather excited about seeing these brainy, brawny men strip to their shorts and do battle in September.

As Tim Woolgar puts it “You know you have had a really good night when you get blood on the chessboard”.

WIN TICKETS: We will be running a competition for the Run Riot subscribers to WIN a free taster session (you, plus one) at the London Chessboxing Gym as well as a pair of tickets to attend the tournament at the Scala in September. The competition is open to both men and women, you must be 18 or over. If you're not already subscribed to Run Riot you can sign-up here for free. Stay tuned for updates about the Tournament and after party, along with all sorts of other hot tips flashing on our culture radar.

London Chessboxing (Official site):
Scala  / Event Details / Tickets:

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