There are the sports everyone undoubtedly knows – football, baseball, basketball – but then there are the ones that make viewers question what they are watching. “Wacky sports” are on the rise, lifted by the mainstream attention of ESPN 8: The Ocho and the trademark weirdness that social media craves. While some of these “sports” are deeply ingrained in forgotten cultures, others are spectacles with the sole purpose of pushing boundaries — the type of absurd human activities you find in the darkest YouTube rabbit holes.
And so, we begin a discussion of outside-the-box competitions with the aim of categorizing each one: Real sport or just a weird activity? In our first review, we will look at a competition that combines brain and brawn: chess boxing.
What is chess boxing?
Chess boxing is exactly what you’d expect given its name. A match consists of 11 alternating three-minute rounds of chess and boxing, starting with chess. A victory occurs by checkmate, knockout, or if an opponent's nine-minute chess timer runs out.
You probably haven't seen the 1987 martial arts movie "Mystery of Chessboxing," but it inspired the Wu-Tang Clan song "Da Mystery of Chessboxin’" and, notably, Ghostface Killah adopted his name after the movie's antagonist.
In 2003, Dutch performance artist Iepe Rubingh turned this fictional activity into a real event and hosted the first chess boxing competition.
Competitors must go through vigorous physical and mental preparation that allows them to be proficient in two completely different disciplines. They are required to have a high degree of expertise in both chess and boxing. Not to mention, maintaining an effective chess strategy after taking blows to the head isn’t an easy task.
Is chess a sport?
There's no argument boxing is a sport. But what about chess? While matches may provide intense competitions, it's missing the physical element of sports, right?
Maybe not. Robert Sapolsky’s Stanford University study claims a chess player can burn 6,000 calories a day playing in a lengthy tournament. Explanations include an elevated heart rate and dehydration. Sounds intense for staring at game pieces all day.
Although there's no doubt chess grandmasters need to be in top physical shape, don't anticipate chess becoming the latest workout fad. These numbers only pertain to top competitors who play fiercely over a full day. An hour of casual play burns closer to 280 calories. By comparison, one can burn 150 calories watching an hour of TV.
The International Olympic Committee recognized chess as a sport, but not an "Olympic Sport," admitting that chess has sport-like qualities, but not enough to be recognized as a real sport. So what does that make chess boxing?
Champion boxer vs. chess grandmaster?
What would happen if the top competitor in their respective fields faced off? Like say Yahoo Sports' 2010s fighter of the decade, Floyd Mayweather Jr., versus Magnus Carlsen, the undisputed World Chess Champion.
This matchup is hypothetical, but the intrigue and strategy could elevate chess boxing from game to sport. How would each competitor wield strengths and shield weaknesses to excel at such different tasks?
For argument's sake, let's assume both competitors had three months to train for the match. While Mayweather technically retired from boxing and Carlsen, 29, is in good physical shape, there’s no chance the chess grandmaster would last one round in the ring with “Money” Mayweather. Just ask undefeated kickboxer Tenshin Nasukawa how he fared.
Fortunately for Carlsen, the game begins with chess. If Carlsen were to checkmate Mayweather in under three minutes, he would be victorious, having never put on gloves against the boxing legend.
Mayweather, perhaps satirically, claims he is an avid chess player and says that helps him in the ring, but there is no reliable evidence of his skill. Therefore, we have to look at how Carlsen played against another chess amateur.
In 2014, Carlsen defeated Microsoft CEO Bill Gates in nine moves. Gates had a 90-second timer, so the quick pace may have caused errors he usually would not have made, but it shows the level at which Carlsen is operating.
We won’t compare Mayweather’s intelligence to Gates’ but one would surmise that Gates’ intellectual and analytical achievements would lead him to be the stronger chess player. Still, Mayweather would have three months to strengthen his "game."
Mayweather's obvious strategy would be to delay his moves until the chess round ends and take down Carlsen in the ring, but chess boxing has strict rules against stalling. If an opponent or referee believes a competitor is intentionally letting the clock run out, the violator may face a time deduction or disqualification. Knowing Mayweather's strategy, the ref would be on the lookout for slow play, especially during early moves.
If Mayweather were to match Gates' performance, that should stretch enough time to make it past the chess round and dance into the boxing round.
What defines a sport? Sure, one may refer to an ambiguous dictionary.com entry, but the term is almost impossible to define. It's that undeniable rush – the physical and mental competition that is missing while watching a game or reality show.
Chess boxing may be one of the few competitions where one could take people with polar opposite skillsets, and it makes an interesting debate with a multitude of potential outcomes. Mayweather attempting to fend off a grandmaster. Carlsen attacking the boxing champion. The stakes are clear, and both athletes have their strategies in mind. If either makes a mistake, they will undoubtedly face the consequences. For this reason, there is no doubt chess boxing is a legitimate sport.
Verdict: Chess boxing is a sport.
Check back soon for more “Is This a Sport?”
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