This article originally appeared on VICE Netherlands.
Iepe Rubingh does a final check of the venue to make sure everything is ready. There's a small table inside a boxing ring, with a stool either side of it. The audience has their eyes glued to the doors, waiting for the athletes to emerge. Tonight, they're hoping to witness either a checkmate, a knockout or both – we are, after all, at a chess boxing match.
Like korfball and ball shooting (the Dutch word, "klootschieten", is more fun), chess boxing is another unique sport born in the Netherlands. Former performance artist Iepe Rubingh came up with the intriguing combination of brain and fist-fighting, before stepping into the ring himself for the world's very first match, in 2003.
Sixteen years on, Ignition Festival is hosting another match in the same venue, Amsterdam's iconic church-turned-concert hall, Paradiso.
Out in the hallway, Olegs Petrovsky from Latvia is almost ready, rinsing his mouth guard. He'll play a round of chess, followed by a round of boxing. If five rounds of both don't result in either a knockout or a checkmate, a panel of judges will decide on the winner.
"That first time was incredibly nerve-wracking," says Rubingh. "We had no idea how a match would actually play out. Aside from a year of extensive prep work through training, we didn't have much experience with either chess or boxing. The guys fighting today are a thousand times better."
That's probably because the sport has grown by about a thousandfold since that first match. About 3,500 people participate worldwide, with matches organised in Finland, India, Russia and Germany.
Petrovsky pulls up the hood of his robe and steps into the room. Daniil Soloviev, his Russian opponent, also enters the ring, taking his place on one of the stools. According to the announcer, the men will begin by flexing their chess muscles. The athletes wear noise-canceling headphones to increase their focus. They won't hear the announcer's scream of surprise at Soloviev’s risky moves.
The audience watches the game on a big screen, while the guys smack their pieces onto the board and hit the timer as soon as they’ve made their move. The crowd is going wild, but neither player hears a thing.
Kick-boxing legend Rem Bonjasky is seated next to the announcer, waiting to commentate on the boxing segment. "He's super smart," says Rubingh. "If he were an actual chess boxer, he might have been world champion."
The first round of boxing gets underway. You'd think most chess players eschew violence, but in chess boxing it's an essential element of the game – players punch each other in the gut and in the jaw. To compete in chess boxing, you need to have at least rudimentary knowledge of both, says Rubingh. "Otherwise, you’ll be on the ground in 12 seconds flat – or checkmated in the first round."
Petrovsky resumes his chess game with a fresh cut to the head. Rubingh explains that he would be feeling exhilarated. "All of your blood flows to your muscles, so you don’t have a lot of oxygen in your head. You’re thinking under a lot of pressure – it's like being an astronaut or a soldier." With ringing ears and a heart-rate of 160 beats per minute, the guys try to focus on the board in front of them.
The match goes five rounds without a knockout or checkmate. But Soloviev’s timer goes off during the final chess round – the Russian has run out of time, and so Petrovsky wins. The evening’s second match is between Denis Gurba (Russia) and Sakari Lähderinne (Finland). The Russian player is out for revenge, after the Finn won their most recent battle.
Chess pieces fly off the board, punches are thrown even faster. Then, toward the end of round three, Gurba has his opponent all but cornered on the chessboard. Just before he can seal the deal, the bell rings, signalling them to step back into the boxing ring.
After a well-placed hit to the jaw, Gurba slumps. He gets a standing eight count, and the roles suddenly seem reversed. But despite wobbling, Gurba somehow stays upright. He makes it to the end of the round and back onto his stool, where he checkmates Lähderinne.
Chess boxing might sound like a joke, but the atmosphere is electric and the athletes are impressive. The punches are also very real – my camera got whacked, and I left with a bloody eyebrow to rival Petrovsky’s.
Scroll down for more pictures of the event at Paradiso, organised by Ignition.