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Mind over matter? | Art meets sport in chess-boxing

  • Sport originally conceived as piece of performance art
  • Sport attracting fans from creative backgrounds
  • Investors invited to take part in a game of chess-boxing to win stake in the company

In a previous life, the head of Chess Boxing Global, Iepe Rubingh, was a performance artist. One of his displays involved getting in a boxing ring with a fellow pugilist and challenging him to alternate rounds of boxing and chess, with just a few seconds’ rest between each round. The idea came from a 1990s comic book by French artist Enki Bilal – the first documentation, Rubingh believes, of a bizarre hybrid sport known as chess-boxing.

Fast forward to the modern day and Rubingh has switched careers from performance artist to sports promoter. Four years ago, from his base in Berlin, this Dutchman launched a chess-boxing promotion called Chess Boxing Global. It currently has two leagues – a series of low-key amateur events called Intellectual Fight Club, and a series of much higher-profile professional events called Intellectual Fight Night.

To the uninitiated, chess-boxing looks very bizarre indeed, like some TV comedy show sketch about eccentric sportsmen. Two opponents, dressed in boxing garb and in a similar weight category, alternate short rounds of chess with short rounds of boxing, with just a minute’s rest between each round. There are up to 11 rounds contested in all. Winners are declared through knockout or the judge’s decision in the boxing, or by checkmate or by a time penalty in the chess.

“It’s a rare blend of contrasting skills,” states the league’s website. “The athlete combines a powerful body with a sharp mind, and rises above mindless muscle. In the ring, the fighter is fuelled by testosterone, adrenalin and skill. Three minutes later, he changes battlegrounds. The contender has only seconds to restrain his fighting instinct and move into the silent logic of his mind. It is the only sport in which the heart, mind and body perform in total harmony. This is the ultimate battle.”

Brains and brawn

Owing to the mix of brawn and brains, it’s strangely intriguing to watch. Already Rubingh has built up quite a fan base for his Berlin shows. In October the city’s Columbia Halle will host the next Intellectual Fight Night, with up to 2,500 tickets available, ranging from €30 ($32) for standing up to €150 for VIP seats. Throughout the year there will also be several of his amateur Intellectual Fight Club events with tickets starting at just €20, with all spectators standing.

And the sport is growing internationally, albeit slowly. Rubingh is president of his sport’s international governing body, the World Chess Boxing Organisation, which currently has 11 affiliated nations. Fights have been staged in all of them.

The fan demographic for chess-boxing is radically different to that of either boxing or chess as individual sports. “We have a unique target group. It is not based on 50 per cent boxing and 50 per cent chess,” Rubingh explains. “It seems like it's a completely new community: 21 to 45-year-olds. Lots of students. It’s 65-per-cent male, 45-per-cent female, which, for a fighting sport, is quite a lot of women.”

He sees many of his fans hailing from creative backgrounds. For that reason, he feels they are coming to chess-boxing for more of a cultural experience than a strictly sporting one.

“We’ve created a fighting sport for a cultural and intellectual group of people,” he adds. “The creative class – that's a real buzz word in marketing right now.”

Niche

Since they are so well educated, Rubingh points out that his fans are “immune to normal advertising”. He adds: “With a niche sport like this, you can really fill up your own brand, but it takes a bit of time. If a brand sits on chess-boxing for the next two to four years they can really fill their brand with coolness and credibility. They can be smart, tough, and redefine masculinity with chess-boxing. This sport is all about being a strong man but with a modern touch.”

So far, Rubingh has attracted a handful of sponsors, including mobile media company Inovisco, software company Acquia and boxing brand Ben Lee. Advising him part-time is Sven Muller, a sponsorship specialist who works at sports and entertainment company Lagardère.

Rubingh realises he needs to be clever if he is to attract investment to such a niche sport. In 2013 he raised €174,000 when Enki Bilal – the artist whose comic book first inspired the sport – agreed to donate the sale price of one of his paintings at a chess-boxing match in Paris. Inovisco has helped him promote his Intellectual Fight Club events in Berlin through guerrilla marketing that involved spraying chalk adverts onto the city’s pavements.

He says he has three rules when it comes to potential sponsors. Firstly he must be “excited” about them. Secondly it must be a natural fit with his sport. “So, we’re not just going to place logos in the ring, for example,” he adds. Thirdly it has to be a sustainable relationship. “We might ask sponsors to help build our chess-boxing ring, for example, or to help us develop our software.”

Coverage

It’s unlikely big-name sponsors will come on board until Chess Boxing Global secures a television deal. So far fights have been shown on social media, but the league has not yet generated a profit. Rubingh points to mixed martial arts’ Ultimate Fighting Championship as a model for his own future success.

Back in 2005 UFC produced a reality TV series called Ultimate Fighter, which followed the fortunes of real fighters as they trained and fought their way through the UFC. Rubingh believes a similar chess-boxing reality TV series will lure fans and sponsors to his sport. And he already has a star in mind: his top chess-boxer, Leonid Chernobaev from Russia. “Pound for pound he’s the best chess-boxer in the world,” Rubingh explains. “He’s unbeatable right now. So we’d make the series about Leonid against the world. We’d get a sponsor to put up $1m. Four other fighters would challenge him.” No sponsor has approached the table yet, but Rubingh remains optimistic.

Rubingh’s ultimate aim is to secure a pay-per-view broadcast deal for his bouts. “Our plan is to build the brand the way we want to before stepping in too soon to a media deal where we don’t have the control,” he stresses. “It's the hard way of doing it but, in the end, I think it will pay off.” Following that, he wants to sell franchises of his Intellectual Fight Club brand to promoters around the world.

Media model

This is not the same media model being pursued by Europe’s other chess-boxing governing body, the London-based World Chessboxing Association. 

Under the London Chessboxing brand, and run by Tim Woolgar, approximately 40 shows have been staged over the last eight years, mainly in London at historic venues such as York Hall, Chelsea Old Town Hall, Scala, Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club, and even the Royal Albert Hall. Woolgar says that he has never lost money on any shows he has staged.

VIDEO: A compilation from London Chessboxing

Woolgar recently streamed a show live on Twitch.tv, with 5,000 viewers watching live, and on the Metro UK Facebook page where, he says, “it picked up over 100,000 views over the course of the night”. Back in 2015, Snapchat approached Woolgar and hosted chess-boxing footage that was viewed by more than two million users.

Woolgar recently completed a deal that will lead to a chess-boxing highlights package being broadcast on UK Freeview channel Front Runner. “Eventually we hope it will be as-live footage of matches,” he says of the latter. “It’s hugely exciting. I’m currently working hard on producing the programme and securing sponsorship deals. The significance for us is that, for the first time, we will provide sponsors with full 360-degree exposure with live events.”

Learning curve

Currently Woolgar has only one major sponsor – a vitamin drink called No Hangover. “We are relative neophytes in the world of sports sponsorship, so we are moving along a steep learning curve,” he admits. “It can be challenging at times, but we do have a fantastic product and proven results so we are confident we’ll make the right deals in the end.”

Back in Berlin, Rubingh knows he needs to make stars of his chess-boxers if he wants the sport to grow. The aforementioned Chernobaev is his poster boy. Then there’s Oleg Petrovskis, an 18-year-old student from Latvia who has over 60 amateur fights under his belt and a very impressive Elo chess rating of 2,167, and professional boxer Maksim Bogancov, who is being trained by a chess grandmaster. In the female category, Rubingh points to rising Indian star Richa Sharma, a 25-year-old maths student from Kolkata and the current Indian chess-boxing champion.

Rubingh is still partial to the odd game of chess-boxing himself, and he says he’s in training both in the ring and on the board. He needs to be. As part of his chess-boxing investment plan, he has issued an open challenge to any investor who wants to take him on in an 11-round chess-boxing duel. One per cent of the value of his company will be at stake.

“If the investor beats me, he wins one per cent of my company for free,” Rubingh says excitedly. “If I win, though, he has to invest one per cent of the value of my company with his own money. I call it the ‘Blood and sweat equity fight’.”

No investor has accepted the challenge yet. If the fight ever takes place, Rubingh says he will retire from the sport straight afterwards.

“It’s difficult to stop in this sport, but that will be my last fight ever.”

EXTRA: Chess-boxing demographics

London Chessboxing carried out audience questionnaires at three chess-boxing events in 2015. They discovered their fans were:

30% management professionals
20% entrepreneurs
15% media/ marketing professionals
35% others

EXTRA: Worldwide appeal?

The Berlin-based Chess Boxing Global currently has affiliated organisations in 11 different countries, with an estimated 2,000 chess-boxing members:
Germany, India, Italy, USA, Finland, Russia, Mexico, Turkey, China, Iran, Switzerland.

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