Inside London’s brutal chess club where you have to hit each other between games
Dazed at catching a stray punch, I dragged myself to the line of chessboards and looked at the pieces.
I could barely remember who was gone, let alone how I could protect my king.
Squinting, I tried to ignore the middle-aged man behind the table who was taking off what looked like serious frustrations on a heavy punching bag.
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Sweat ran down the plastic table as the digital clock on the side showed time was running out.
Calculating the least risky move based on my limited knowledge of chess would be hard enough, but it was nearly impossible with the boxing suit I had just practiced and was still swimming around in my head.
But that’s the point because it’s chess boxing.
The sport, where opponents alternate between turns in the ring and time on the chessboard, is one of the most unusual workouts in North London.
I was one of about 20 people who came on a cold Saturday morning for a training session in Islington.
They’re not the typical crowd you’d see beating leather at your local gym, but that doesn’t mean you should underestimate them.
“It’s normally the chess fans who want a little more,” one of the organizers, Gavin, told me. “A lot of people in the boxing community kind of think we’re taking the p*** out of their sport.”
While Gavin and his friends certainly don’t make fun of the sport, you can understand why people might be skeptical.
And the row of tables lined with chess sets and clocks against a wall in the gym attracts the questioning looks of those who showed up to boxing.
But you shouldn’t hit it until you’ve tried it.
Because, as I found out pretty quickly, your appreciation for both skills only gets high when you try it.
Like many people, I didn’t believe chess boxing was a real thing when a friend first told me about it.
He said the venue, attached to a pub opposite our school famous for its £3 pints and free pool, also staged these odd fights from time to time.
“You can win either by knockout or by checkmate,” he added.
It sounded ridiculous, but it turned out to be true.
Events have been held at the Dome club in Tufnell Park for years and chess boxers train nearby at the Islington Boxing Club.
Their Saturday workouts are always welcome for newcomers who want “Get in shape! and “Be smart!”
The session begins with a pair of quick laps in the park where the boxing club is located.
It’s absolutely freezing, but not too strenuous.
It was not a sign of what was to come.
Back inside the group, we throw jabs and hooks as boxing trainer Zowie takes us through a series of increasingly complex combinations.
If you’ve never done boxing before you might think all you have to do is throw your arms up, maybe you’ve seen two fighters struggling in the ring and wondered if it was just brute force.
But, as anyone who’s been tasked with throwing a wetsuit knows, the sport requires as much gray matter as it does brawn.
It might be because it’s early on a Saturday, but it takes a while to get the routines down.
But as soon as it crystallizes in the head, there is a cry of “failures”.
As soon as this shout is thrown, everyone must leave where they were throwing punches and team up to play against someone for a quick chess match.
Those familiar with the Netflix series The Queen’s Gambit will know that in chess circles there are faster versions of the game that can be just as intense and exciting as the traditional format.
But being about as fresh in chess as they come, I just hope I remember where the pieces are moving.
Fortunately, my opponent realizes that I am far from an experienced player and spends most of his time advising me on how best to protect my pieces.
The most striking thing about this is that, especially when the chess clock is ticking, the intensity of the game is on par with boxing.
You are filled with equal anxiety about how to protect yourself.
Just like when you’re in boxing and an ill-timed slip leaves you with a punch in the face, the wrong move of a pawn suddenly causes a more valuable or worse piece to be lost.
The coaches never gave us too much time to dwell on the board, however, you catch your breath when the cry suddenly goes up that you need to do 20 burpees.
It’s like trying to do a math test and having it interrupted by an overenthusiastic PE teacher.
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The boxing side of the class gradually increases in intensity until at the end everyone is wearing helmets and doing some light sparring.
As pairs of fighters jostle for space in the gymnasium, circling each other and throwing punch combinations, the contrast to the stillness of chess is more pronounced.
But even then the similarities between the two are there to see, the timing and strategy of boxing can be just as nuanced.
Although there’s no escaping the fact that if your head isn’t in it, you might get punched in the face.
If you leave your head on the chess table you could be in trouble and after an hour of hard work it’s a real test of endurance.
I was faltering at this point and forgetting where to put my hands. A lot of boxing is about coordination and when you’re tired you might know you need to raise your right elbow to block a hook, but it’s your left that’s lifting.
At the end of the session, I was sweaty, but my brain was also tired.
It was hard to know what gave me more headaches, boxing or chess.
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