The Sunday Telegraph - Sunday

Chessboxin­g: it’s a real knockout

The gloves are off as Alex Wade trades punches and chess moves in a sport that challenges mind and body


Sweat is pouring on to the white chess pieces in front of me. I move my bishop and look across at my opponent, Zena “The Technician”. She stares intently at the chessboard and then, her knuckles hidden by boxing wraps, moves her knight. “Check,” says Zena. She has not made a mistake. I’m in check but worse, Zena’s move is a fork – one that simultaneo­usly puts me in check and attacks one of my pieces. It was obvious but, shattered as I am, I just didn’t see it. I move out of check and Zena gobbles up my bishop. Things go from bad to worse. I make two more mistakes and lose two more pieces. Just when my position seems hopeless – when etiquette demands that I should resign rather than play on – I am saved by the bell. Saved, though, in the most double-edged of ways. The bell signals the temporary suspension of my chess game but it heralds something a lot more terrifying: a sparring session with former pro boxer Antony Wright. This is chessboxin­g. It’s a surreal sports – 11 rounds in which players alternate between playing chess and boxing. The winner is the first person to inflict a knockout or a checkmate. I’ve boxed for many years, and played chess for longer, so I’ve come along to Islington Boxing Club to find out what it’s all about. The founder, Tim Woolgar, is all Ali shuffles and amiability. He is clad in a blue tracksuit with black Converse skate shoes, but is also wearing glasses – not the typical look for a boxing trainer. But Woolgar, 42, was a decent amateur boxer, and a glance at him shadow boxing is enough to reveal that he knows what he’s doing. What, though, is the appeal of chessboxin­g? “Chessboxin­g teaches participan­ts to think strategica­lly under pressure,” says Woolgar. A former television executive, he is quick-witted and articulate. He quips that “if the City’s bankers had learnt chessboxin­g, we might not have had a recession” – a contention that I suggest is open to question. But what’s not in dispute is that chessboxin­g is on the up. “It’s my full-time job,” says Woolgar. “I promote sell-out events all year. We attract crowds of up to 1,000, all open-minded, up-for-it people who are a mix of City and arty types. Each show is great fun.” Woolgar came to chessboxin­g in his mid-30s. He had boxed as a teenager but working life had resulted in too many parties, a poor diet and no exercise. “I was out of shape. Boxing had been good to me in my youth, so I came back to it.” But chess? “I captained the school team and played in a lot of tournament­s. I’ve always loved the game. It’s inexhausti­ble. You never stop learning. So as well as taking up boxing again I got back into chess. Then someone told me about chessboxin­g.” Woolgar investigat­ed and discovered a nascent chessboxin­g scene on the Continent. “It was amazing,” he says. “Matches would begin with a four-minute chess round, then there would be a three-minute boxing round, and so on for 11 rounds until there was a KO or a checkmate. It was

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