Chessboxing Manifesto

I. The Universe, Survival, Chess

You can close your eyes and imagine all the things that could be happening at just-this-moment-in-time. Someone, somewhere, is probably giving birth right now, smoking a cigarette, or, for those who have travelled enough to know traffic isn't the same everywhere around the world, getting run over by a car. People continents-apart might be thinking the same thoughts, completely unaware and without the slightest preoccupation this is the case. It's all part of what we don't control and yet we all love when this mystique becomes tangible: it hints at the possibility that the true underlying human destiny is out of our grasp. Reassuring really...

In 2003, Iepe Rubingh was having a moment of inspiration. Being a conceptual artist, you could argue that that's what he does routinely, but this time his wizardry was going to pay off bigger than usual. To my eyes, he has the enormous credit of having picked up an idea as fanciful as chessboxing and making it into a reality. A match, a club, a Federation: challengers are now multiplying on a planetary scale, and the media catch the thread at every occasion they can. Roughly around that period, then a young man of 22, I had ran away looking for adventure. It had been a fantasy I had frequently entertained during my youth; in significantly similar fashion to that of a household cat: my genetic predisposition for freedom was systematically outweighed by hunger. I had one or two anecdotes of hiking, I had hung out in strange neighbourhoods, and enjoyed black-market taxiing as a lucrative pastime but nothing too far fetched.

When I landed in LAX, I had no idea the next eight months would be the toughest though disputably the most appreciated in my life (well, who knows what the future holds). I bought an old dusty Toyota to get around, for, in Los Angeles, at default of having wings, wheels can come in handy. But, just my luck, it broke down and realising money would soon run out, I bought a quilt and some pillows and set up camp. I paid for the gym where I could take a shower daily, to stay clean and, while I was at it, stay fit. Then, with as much disdain as it is mentality safe to harbour, I let myself sink gently to the bottom. As soon as money truly became scarce I started to investigate. Sure, I would seek for odd jobs, but my main concern was to survive off the land. For example, I would go to church, or other places of religious conglomeration and participate in rituals of all kinds to get any food they were offering in the bargain. On one occasion I found myself at the I AM sanctuary chanting a “Oh God inside me: Wake up!” mantra, incrementally louder and louder until screaming it at the top of my voice. Anyway, who could honestly say something doesn't work without giving it a try? I stole in restaurants with great ingenuity, sometimes begged just to see how well it would work. When things got really bad I would be content with protein powder mixed with tap water a few times a day, a luxury product that I had purchased before hand, and very fortunate I felt do have done so. Other problems I hadn't even imagined popped up sporadically, here and there, such as the legitimate tendency to want to go to the toilet (number 2 as my grandma would put it) which is not as easy as you would expect passed most people's bedtime. Once the enquiry-saturated night auditors of the environing hotels had imposed the full spectrum of their authority, I would find my way to the back of a rubbish heap with cockroaches crawling around with great speed and purpose, and would take a stick or whatever I could find to keep the rats at a distance.

One day, my wandering gave way much more than I'd ever could have expected, in the discovery of a park, in the Skid Row area. This was the roughest place in the city: a crack peddling hell hole, a hideout for murderers and crooks, a home for 11000 homeless souls in a 50 block-wide desolate and surrealistic setting; in one word, a slum. Stripped of superficial - though very necessary - assessment, Skid Row was what you made of it. Spiritually-orientated people would go out there on Buddhist-like retreats, to cut themselves from their prevalent conditioning; but possibly they were just unconscious thrill seekers. Personally, natural, animal, fear had kicked in, keeping me alert and sharp on the one hand, but, just as in an endgame against Ulf Andersson, a second weakness on my behalf could have proved fatal. When confronted with people on the margin of society, I spontaneously assumed the role I found most appropriate in any given situation; one day I was Russian, the next I was from Northern Ireland, Johannesburg...any powerful stereotype I could use to vehicle the credibility of my being there as some sort of refugee, at the cost of a slight accent for a few minutes to an hour and a bit of the good old English bullshit. I made sure I didn't appear as if I was down on my luck and eagerly transpired the aura of a young Mowgli desperate and stubborn to survive in the jungle.

As soon as I set foot inside the park on the intersection of 6th street and Gladys it was a whole different ball game: I was at home, the land of the chess playing community, and I knew Caïssa was looking over my shoulder (a bit like meeting Baloo to keep my jungle book metaphor).

Photo ©

The homeless-drug-addicted-chess-lovers would play for hours on end mainly to kill time but also to use the only form of expression they had left and, in case of a win, regain self-esteem. What a beautiful sight it was, to see a man who had the full amount of his belongings in a trolley (basically rubbish he relied upon as materiel possession), knowing he would pass another night out on the rough streets of LA, laugh whole-heartedly at a tactical desperado that finally worked out in his favour. Chess definitely deserves it's reputation in this respect – insouciance - just as much as crack or alcohol, only free and everlasting.

The turning point in my mind's eye was, I suppose, on the last day of my three-months ticket's expiration date, that, after a long stare down between it and myself, I finally ripped up in shreds. From then on, I was there clandestinely, with the slight nuance that the further my situation was seemingly unbearable to mainstream ideology, the happier I was to give it a try. My main income came from hours of gambling 50c a game with a 'Crip' (blue bandanna) gang member called Cal. He didn't mind losing so long as he beat me once in a blue moon. He would sell crack at the playing table and saw me as the perfect pale-faced alibi; all this was officious, obviously, but I came to see it as getting a cut, a thought that amused me a lot. There was also James, a charismatic 45 year old Wesley Snipes look-alike, with a Bernie Mac sense of humour, whose impertinence in the face of anyone or anything would give me hysterical fits of laughter. He never beat me during the full length of my stay, which made him frustrated at times but also gave him exaggerated admiration for my skills, which in turn gave me status in everyone's eyes. Ocean was the oldest of our playing group, and rumour had it that once Maurice Ashley became the first Black GM, it turned his world upside down. He was a nice man, with good elocution, but I often felt I was unwelcome on what he considered his turf. When it comes to psychology, street life and chess have a lot in common. When you have the correct amount of fear, you stay focused and humble, which defines a certain attitude, a posture. As soon as you start taking things for granted you get into trouble. I have a few stories when paranoia took over, notably one hot summer afternoon when the park was packed and we ended up playing at the back of a van, sipping on very bad Rhum and puffing on very strong herbal substances, a pretext Cal found to balance out our levels. My trail of thought went out of control and I became concerned they might entertain the possibility of regarding my bodily organs as a commodity. But nothing ever happened of the sort and I gained confidence that I had earned my rite of passage. At first I would leave the neighbourhood at nightfall when other jungle animals would come out of hiding, after a few months I was hustling on the pavement next to the park after opening hours, under a glim lamppost – playing two boards at a time to get money quicker. I had people, I considered friends, fetching beer and cigarettes from the closest liquor store with part of the winnings. I started making contacts, I met a falsifier who got me a bus pass for the disabled. A 80 year old Chinaman nicknamed 'kamikaze' who taught me to play Go. I got chatting for hours on end to people who had been from all strides of life to end up here: in an open air mental asylum, fully aware life wasn't going to change any time soon; in some cases ignorance is bliss. Some had been lawyers, others in sales, lots had been married with kids. Everybody who wasn't completely out of their mind was a great conversationalist with their own story to tell. I took great pride in the fact they thought I was the crazy one, completely embracing life on the row, and I came to understand choice as the ultimate luxury.

Photo © Manuel Compito

Deep in the night I had another address, a doughnut shop in Hollywood that stayed open late. The regulars were all ethnicities, shapes and sizes. India, the Philippines, Chile, Guatemala, Vietnam, Iran. The myriad of personalities wasn't dissimilar to an intergalactic bar scene in Star Wars. The level was higher than in the ghetto, especially the Filipinos who were Natural Born Blitzers and winning wasn't so straight forward. A bit like in poker, I would seek out the fish and be content to draw even with the others. Complementing one another mutually, this made out my routine, one of a comfortable standard of survival, functioning perfectly as long as I conformed to a precise code. I couldn't afford not to be active, focused, or to go against what experience had proved to work. At the same time I couldn't see how I would move forward from this point: I was condemned to play the game that was offered, over and over, day after day, if I were not to fall victim to another routine; one of compulsive introspection and unmethodical contemplation that, on the catching of the slightest potential idea in it's mechanism, turned itself into abominable circular thinking that was, on the long run, too much for one mind to handle.

Out of the blue, a friend came to visit Los Angeles (God bless LA public library's free access to the internet), and brought me some money my at-this-stage very worried mother had given him. Around 1000$. By now, compared to the average civilian, I was streetwise: there was no way I was buying into short term comfort. I repaired my car by myself without any knowledge of mechanics and bought tables, chairs and chess sets. Before you knew it I had set up my own artist stand on Venice beach - a wild mind-blowing hang-out for people displaying anti-conformism in a overly ostentatious way - giving, every week-end, continuous simultaneous displays. 5$ to play 10$ if you win...a motto I gladly shared with by-passers, giving what I saw as a '2-1 odds' illusion Machiavelli would have been proud of himself. I would get there before the sun rose and leave when it set. My income reached 200$ a week-end: considering I didn't have any rent to pay, I was rich! Although my car was repaired, considering where I had spent so much time to be 'home', I identified it such with a territorial-like sense of security and decided to stay put. Instead of getting a cheap hotel room, I was fed up of pumping iron at the gym, and invested some hard earned dollars by registering at the LA Boxing club, at walking distance. My newly found place of training and cleansing was a perfect match for the lifestyle I led as it was very demanding. The fighting, more than being afraid, just gave me a headache so bad it 'kinda put me off'. Brain cells are, to the chess player, an investment fund to be preciously cared for and I understand the reluctance I witness so often when I attempt to enthuse my chess-playing peers. Though, retrospectively, I think it just needs getting use to. Having given a fairly rough approximation of what the picture actually looked like, I'll end my story here, rather abruptly. Things got worse to the point I felt I had no choice but to make it back home in desperate need of rehabilitation, and I managed to do so, not without some help. Once more, the salmon returns to the source. I left with the idea The Great Tailor of the universe somehow works in mysterious ways. When I dwell on the past and wonder about my alternatives, I tell myself some things happen for a reason and are simply pointlessly questioned.

If you are wondering what I have been getting at by indulging in subversiveness with such delight, I will provide some philosophical context with some vintage from my own cellar. In view of my obstinacy to maintain my lack of enthusiasm to conform to conformism and anti-conformism alike, I decided, though admittedly biased by hindsight, to attempt, to strip my mind of the useless rags, the mindset full of assumptions we so dearly cherish. I had found a living situation in which I was in constant use of intuitive faculties and completely be-ridden of living through conditioned response offered since birth by our beloved consumer's society and it's service-providing totalitarianism*. I was absorbed in the nostalgic desire to go back to our hunting-gathering ancestor, to be confronted with the territory, the plains of nothingness, as the contemporary philosopher and sociologist Baudrillard beautifully coins the phrase, the deserted ruins of a murdered reality, as opposed to a virtual life in a hyper-reality synonymous of insomniac nights filled with repeated episodes of 'columbo' on satellite channels, or the phenomena of mass tourism, many adherents of which finally end up in front of the allegedly-longed for monument looking at a hip-hop show through their camcorder lens and claiming still, hypocritically of course, to treasure culture. And I believe it was chess, having been up to then my most influential social structure [having been only briefly institutionalized by the educational system] that gave me the intuition, lucidity and purpose to follow this trail. *type “mystique of solicitude” on google.

II. The essence of Chessboxing

Needless to say, you can imagine that I believed fate had struck when I discovered chessboxing 5 years later on the internet. I passed through many stages, with mixed feelings, fighting it, reducing the concept to artistic pushfulness; as I have heard others define it, just another buzz. I realise that if I had fully flourished as a chess player I may not have felt the need to attempt something that seems like a travesty to my primary aspiration and would have continued jogging once in a while. Nevertheless, this pessimistic view would be unfair. As it seemed I was fitting the profile and had nothing better to do, my own ambition kept me juggling, weighing the pros and cons. It took me a whole year of debating with my reflection in the mirror, to go ahead and, like the Nike advert pragmatically asserts: just do it! I registered at a local boxing club in Paris and sent a registration form to Iepe. 6 or 7 months passed, still only a rookie boxer, I was offered to give a demonstration fight as part of an art festival. You can watch the video on dailymotion. It wasn't the 'real deal' but it was great fun. I got lots of praise, much more than my skill had to offer. Now that I have gathered a bit more experience, I am ready to go the full length, and you will hear from me as soon as that happens. For the moment, I'm just happy to have found two complementary disciplines that have a lot to offer... Be it as a preparation for a radical alternative lifestyle or simply a prerequisite for a balanced city life, a good physical condition helps extract the stress, builds confidence, and is a great remedy to slothfulness when exposed to the great periods of boredom that define our modern era. Practising sport regularly has it's downsides too; liberating endorphins in great quantities, one's happiness becomes dependable on it, and stopping your activity can turn you into a very angry person. In the same way as sex is addictive. Of course there are innumerable ways in which you can find a balance.

Photo © Florent Quenault

Rather than assuming chessboxing has in itself a therapeutic effect, or falling to the temptation of enumerating the similarities and differences of each and the other, I would like to state what a perfect framework it provides, one that we can build upon, to finally break the image of the long-lasting stereotype everyone's complaining about and is supposedly unjustly founded. Chess players need to accredit the fact we pass off in the collective subconscious as a microcosm of self-centred monomaniacs who believe in intellectual primacy (in a nutshell). To some extent we deserve this reputation, we are not to be fully blamed, as today's society is largely over-extended and heavily compartmentalized and, as a result, uncompromising over-specialisation, leading frequently to obsession, has become unavoidable in many departments and even has a virtuous connotation to those who worship such tendencies. We do not bake bread, build, protect or serve, chess' contribution to the world is of an artistic nature and only understandable to a small minority. We focus on something we feel has a meaning outside of the neophytes grasp; and the latter are willing to confirm this. Finally, on a larger scale, chess players are the most cosmopolitan bunch that has come to exist, but that will continue to remain unnoticed. Boxers also are victims of stereotypical labelling on the over side of the social arena, even though some top professionals have a Ph.D. As such, this comes from general attitudes when seeing something from the outside in. Stigmatising violence, mocking nerds. We easily forget what history is based on, and rather than pretend we are an evolved species, should make an effort to approach what we fear. Not all violence is traumatising and ultimately it's existence is inevitable. Nerds, to their credit, invented the internet, just to pick at something randomly, and some go on to marry fashion models...

Amusingly, if the internet is anything to go by, both disciplines have been described as 'the noble art', semantically hinting at their inevitable friendship. As with all phenomena that involves the giving and taking of attention, chessboxing is primarily a social activity, before being mentally and physically challenging towards it's participants. It's like going to the theatre to see a play, that which arouses the emotional, the observational and identification with it's actors. This type of gathering dates from time immemorial and satisfies an inner craving for shouting, screaming, and participating in life. Its appearance is surrealistic which makes it mundane and approachable to those hordes who crave the unfamiliar. With so many ingredients to start afresh, this psychedelic energy creates a whole new opportunity, for chess and boxing alike, to change meaning in the public eye simply by rubbing them together. It's chemistry. With time chess' 'mental-strategic-warrior' posture will spread and be associated with the game just as much as the nerdy one already present, balancing the general insight. This is already more or less the case in the US, in view of the context of the Bobby vs Boris match, and you can play chess without being considered a wimp or an intellectual.

Unfortunately the days when world titles were broadcast on the radio waves didn't last forever, ended also is the time when boxers would be greeted home on the airport tarmac. Yesterday's stakes have left our disciplines consumed to the bone; when it comes to interest, people believe they already know all about it. We haven't got much to offer today's market economy, to say the least, in comparison to the dream-selling poker or Mixed Martial Arts. I still hear frequently about “the guy who beat the computer”, when you come to realise that was 15 years ago, ouch! When it comes to doing something about it, maybe shifting the perception people have of chess could be the intermediate key move out of this zugzwang position. We need to become something else. For the chess family (gens una sumus – or is this just a fantasy?) to be properly represented, I would like to invite the young, talented and fighting-spirited players to take an interest; all that is needed is that they invest a few years at the most, a period in which brain damage is highly unlikely; take it as modern military service. There is a whole matchmaking process, taking in account your predispositions, to keep the show a show. Just imagine a public thinking “this guy is a bona fide chess player? Wow! I sure wouldn't mess with him! Who would have guessed?!” By being over-rationalist, and arguing a Kasparov-Tyson match would be ridiculous (but fun!) doesn't quite qualify as relevant in refuting chessboxing altogether, because this is typically an amateur sport. With some training, you might be up against a slightly better boxer than yourself but that is exactly where we have something to gain, mind over matter... Think about that :-)

To conclude, writing this article reminded me of one I once read, in a reputed science magazine, that suggested that, on the evolutionary level, humanity has not fully digested the settling process that the development of agriculture brought about, approximately 10000 years ago. This accounts for our thirst for war (although a subconscious fear of penis-size-inadequacy is also a good theory for this, especially if you take into account the symbology of phallus-shaped missiles), our urge to travel, or action of some kind or the other. The necessity to find an appropriate outfit to fit this mental structure in the most beneficent way until we become more adapted to our relatively new model of life suggests itself. What is clear is that it is not today's natural order of things as far as daily life is concerned: we are almost exclusively exposed to patterns of productivism and accumulation (no matter what political ism you cherish or put in power); habits and purpose that reflect (or induce - whatever way you care to look at it) a subconscious belief in lack and fear of the future. In the same way that our bodies store fat because our ancestors went through famines, we are constantly saving resources – just-in-case. On earth, spending wastefully is associated with guilt; while the sun's expenditure is either scoffing us or showing us the way. I believe it to be every individual's responsibility to create his own dynamic psychological patterns. I find it necessary to put aside the collective-minded, wishful-thinking, promise of an insurrection as being not only an utopian solution but a panacea acting as a mental barrier, a make-believe you need society to change before you can start living, the real priority being the need to connect back our intuitive powers with our mind and our body!

Carl Strugnell (FRA, 2288)



Fabulous...simply awe inspiring. This is what I call living life!