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King’s Fist to Bishop’s Nose

An odd hybrid sport sees chess aficionados duking it out

Author Craig Stephens

ILLUSTRATION BY PETER OUMANSKI

LOS ANGELES—The two players square off across a table. One, with a deft, calculated move, takes his opponent’s bishop. Moments later, he calls checkmate. Shortly after that, he punches his opponent in the face.

The origins of chessboxing —dubbed "the thinking man’s contact sport"—are murky. Some say it originated in London in the 1970s; others say it leaped from the imagination of French graphic novelist Enki Bilal. Either way, it’s a growing sport, with tournaments in Tokyo, Amsterdam, Berlin and Calcutta. There has even been talk of it becoming—maybe, one day— an Olympic event. Possibly.

The rules of the game are simple. Each contest consists of 11 rounds, alternating between board and ring; the person who racks up the most knockouts and checkmates wins. No biting, gouging or moving your rook diagonally allowed.

Tonight’s bout is taking place in a Los Angeles nightclub. Local software engineer Arlington Forbes, the player who earlier lost his bishop—and, moments later, his dignity in the ring—is attempting a comeback, attacking his foe with a flurry of jabs and hooks. It works: Round 6 goes to Forbes. Looking decidedly happier, the tech guy takes a swig of Gatorade and resumes his place at the table.

Forbes, who’s in his late 30s, has been chessboxing for about two years. He says he enjoys the sport for its "multitasking" aspect. As he speaks, his opponent—a 38-year-old medical student named John Richie—fixes him with a pretty impressive death stare. "I’m giving this my all," Forbes declares, squinting at the board, "although my superior chess skills aren’t helping right now."

Then, after seeing his king fall yet again, Forbes suffers another assault to his person, which is more than enough to ensure that he loses the bout.

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