Chessboxing in London’s East End

by ChessBase
9/12/2008 – The UK’s first chessboxing extravaganza kicked off on a sultry summer’s night on 15 August in the East End of London. Famous for Jack the Ripper, Pearly Kings and Queens, and 1960’s gangsters, the area is now the hub of a vibrant night scene. Rajko Vujatovic gives his inside account as chess arbiter on the night, whilst Tim Woolgar offers a unique first hand report of his debut chessboxing bout.

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Chessboxing in London’s East End

Report by Rajko Vujatovic and Tim Woolgar

Any chessplayers coming to spectate knew they were in for something different when they entered the door of Bethnal Green Working Men’s club to be warmly greeted by a colourfully robed transvestite cloakroom attendant. From then on, they went upstairs to a dark atmospheric hall with ring centre-stage and a cinema screen behind, which partially obscured the giant glittered heart at the back of the stage, an indicator of the other types of events popular at this hippest of London venues.

Jack the Ripper was never caught. Here we think we might’ve tracked him down, causing mischief with a spray can in an East End alley close to where he committed many gruesome murders.

The last few tickets available on the night were quickly snapped up to complete the 150 strong capacity crowd, leaving the doormen having to turn away the disappointed and the curious. There will be another opportunity soon – the next fights will be at the same venue on Thursday 30 October 2008.

Backstage Crew in consultation at the pre-match rehearsal. The teenager on the left is the UK’s best (only?) junior chessboxer, and is our big hope for chessboxing gold at the 2016 Olympics.

The Master of Ceremonies is in fine form to whip up the crowd

Attention then focuses on the beautiful wooden board

Happy punters! Awaiting the action on the right is Phil Crocker, author of the classic Kingpin article “How to Write a Chess Book and Make Loads of Dosh”.

Rajko Vujatovic – chessboxing chess arbiter for the night

In the first bout the experienced chessboxer Sascha Wandkowsky bravely held his own in the ring against the much taller rookie Hubert van Melick, and checkmated the Dutchman with a king hunt in round seven.

Eyes glued on the board, Sascha Wandkowsky, left, and Hubert van Melick, right

After the chess round comes the boxing

Lidl Richard, “straight from the German supermarket”, provided energertic entertainment between bouts; he was also DJ at the post-fight disco and is the other half of Hot Breath. Note the display board where van Melick’s Kg5 was mated by Wandkowsky’s h6 pawn.

Then came the sensational heavyweight card…

Red Corner: Stewart Telford, age 38, height 6 ft, weight 95 kg, reach 76 inches. Amateur record: 5 wins 5 losses. Unrated at chess.
Blue Corner: Tim Woolgar, age 35, height 6 ft 2 inches, weight 92 kg, reach 77 inches. Amateur record 1/1 (at middleweight). Unrated at chess.

Round one

Woolgar: We sat down to the chess and he played a very solid opening with the white pieces.  Straightaway I knew… it was not going to be a quick win on the board.

White: Stewart Telford
Black: Tim Woolgar
Time Control: 12 minutes per player for all moves
Notes by Rajko Vujatovic

1. e4 e5. “COME ON HARRY POTTER!!” shouts an entire row of fans. With the beer in full flow, one can see how muggles can mistake the teenage wizard for anyone with spectacles and a smart haircut. 2. Nf3 d6. The Philidor Defence is a good choice for chessboxing. Black's opening is a little passive but he will not be quickly checkmated!! 3. Nc3 Nf6 4.d3. White also plays safe, not wanting to commit himself by advancing the pawn 2 squares. With neither contestant having a chess rating or games in Chessbase, it’s impossible to know what you’re up against! 4...Be6 5.Bg5 g6. “TAKE HIS QUEEN!!” screamed a lady in the audience.

Round 1 is chess – Telford on the right prefers to play one-handed

6.Be2 Bg7. “TAKE HIS ROOK!!” barked a heavily tattooed 20 stone man with whom I wouldn’t want to argue the legality of such a suggestion. 7.0-0 0-0. “CHECKMATE HIM HARRY!!” shouted a pin-striped stockbroker. As chess arbiter I was relieved that if the headphones weren’t fully effective in blocking the crowd’s heckles, they would fortunately be of limited assistance to the heroic pugilists hunched over the 64 squares in the ring’s centre. 8.Qd2 Nbd7. So far all solid moves by both competitors – they have clearly been working hard on chess opening principles. The pieces are out and the kings are safely castled away. Nobody has blundered a piece! HOORAAAH! The opening is about to transition to the middlegame, where each player will need to find a plan of attack. We still don’t know how good they really are…have they been spending five hours daily on the Playchess Internet server to sharpen up for the night?! Have they ploughed through ‘Tal’s Winning Chess Combinations’ to enhance their pattern recognition? Have they diligently studied John Watson’s ‘Chess Strategy in Action’? Have they? HAVE THEY?! Maybe they’re like Moneymaker, the poker player, who only ever played on the Internet before winning the World Series?! We shall have to wait and see… 9.Qe3. END OF ROUND 1. With military precision the backstage crew remove the chess equipment in preparation for the hard part…at least from a chessplayer’s perspective. Woolgar removes his spectacles.

The doctor in the background is on hand in case of a chessboard accident – indeed Telford’s ear was nearly sliced off with a tangled cord when the author of these lines attempted to ‘help’ him attach his headphones.

Round two

Woolgar: As the bell rings and we touch gloves it seems all hell breaks loose outside the ring – the crowd are really up for this. I was anticipating that my opponent, solidly built with a broad back and long arms, to rush me, looking for a quick win. Instead he played a canny game, waltzing around the outside and lining me up where the spotlights were blinding then coming in with lightning fast hooks to the temple. He caught me a couple of times and rocked me but I managed to respond with a perfect right uppercut which landed on his jaw and made him think. Crowd has gone wild. Spurred on by the noise we indulge in a bit of unscientific battering during which we both scored heavily and suffered in equal proportion. The close-packed crowd, just inches from the ring, may have been expecting something similar to a boxing “exhibition” from two chess players. Instead they were getting pure Raging Bull aggression live and in full-colour and they were loving it.

From the viewpoint of a novice boxer learning the basics, Telford’s game-plan looked completely bonkers. His left hand was by his face – as I’ve been taught, but his right hand was hanging down by his waist! Hey...shouldn’t he have BOTH hands protecting his head?!! Isn’t he leaving himself open to be punched hard in the face? Despite this funny defence, Telford was awesomely effective. Whenever the taller Woolgar tried to hit him, the stocky Telford powerfully thrust his body forward whilst swinging his right-hand with the coordination and reaction speed of a Formula 1 driver. It was amazing to watch. All I can say is this seems analogous to one of those hypermodern defences in chess, where you break the classical rules but you can only get away with it if you are very precise in how you counterattack. It’s what boxers call a counterpunching style. If a classical style boxer fights a counterpuncher, you have an exciting fight on your hands. However if two counterpunchers meet you might never get anything happening – just imagine if two Ulf Andersson’s met over the chessboard.

The cunning Woolgar likes to face the giant board when boxing, and analyse between punches

Round three

Woolgar: Next round of chess I played deliberately and carefully, not wanting to take any risks. I think we were both taking stock of the situation and catching our breath.

9...Re8. Improving the position of the rook. Woolgar has learnt to adopt grandmaster Jonathan Rowson's tip of "talking to his pieces" to ask them where they want to be. In training, the Londoner has demonstrated an ability to pick up abstract positional concepts; unusually his positional grasp is way ahead of his tactical play, although with practice that will undoubtedly catch up. So future opponents should watch out! 10.Qd2. This is the third consecutive move with the queen straddling the two chess rounds. A difference between the players is emerging – White is wasting time whilst Black constructively improves his position. Both chessboxers were profusely dripping sweat over the board rolling from their temples and the tips of their noses; possibly this was the cause of the temperamental sensory display, which was successfully tested earlier that evening but without sweat! 10...c6 11.Rfe1 d5. Woolgar takes control of the centre. 12.a3. White has difficulty formulating a plan and instead makes a waiting move. 12...d4. A critical point of the game, fixing the pawn structure in the centre with a queenside space advantage. 13.Na4? Telford understandably doesn't want to retreat the knight back to base camp, but makes a tactical misclaculation 13...Qc7? Woolgar fails to see it! 13...b5! traps the knight which has no good squares to move to. For the next few turns both players remain blissfully unaware of this possibility as their attention is focused on the other side of the board. Over any of the next few moves White should give the knight a retreat square with b4, whilst Black could win the knight with ...b5!

14.Bh4 Bg4 15.h3 Bxf3. The 150-strong crowd ROOOOOAAAAAARRS at the first capture!! The evening is the largest paying audience for a chess game in the UK since 2000, when Vladimir Kramnik defeated Gary Kasparov for the World Chess Championship in West London. Such roars would not have been allowed there – the grandmasters did not wear headphones. One cannot disagree that chessboxing is a great way of popularising chess; likewise it also brings boxing to a new audience, to appreciate it’s primarily about technique rather than brute strength. The sport is in its infancy, but its increasing profile will undoubtedly lead to a steadily increasing standard in both the chess and boxing. If we do some rough and ready maths, including inactive players there are 20,000 players with an Elo above 2200, 40,000 with an Elo above 2100. It’s fair to assume 20% are of fighting age. Quite a few must’ve learnt boxing skills, maybe during military service. When you consider the pool of chessplayers it’s inevitable the standard will rise as the sport catches the public imagination. Likewise, if the profile increases then top boxers will be motivated to try it out and work on their chess. 16.gxf3. End of round three.

Telford vs Woolgar: Hmmm….now where do I put my queen?

Round four

Woolgar: As we prepared to go out for the next round my cornerman, Bevis Allen, urged me to stay out of reach: “Make him miss, don't worry about hitting him, just make him miss!”  So that's what I did, with some ease – just stayed lightly out of reach and watched various fists whizzing past my jaw but not connecting. Technically it was probably the best round of the fight, but from an action point of view it was a fairly quiet round and a few shouts of “throw more punches!” and the like could be heard. Just at the end I landed with a flurry of blows which probably did little real damage but ensured that I carried the round. More chess followed in which he started to stall around a bit and I managed to consolidate my position and open up a significant space advantage. It ended with me winning a piece – to loud cheers.

Round five

16...Re6. Woolgar plays good positional moves, improving his pieces to more aggressive squares, but he unfortunately continues to miss the tactical point with ...b5! 17.Bg3 Nh5 18.Qb4 Bf8 19.Qd2 b5! AT LAST!!!!!! White's futile queen sortie has focused Woolgar's attention to queenside possibilities. 20.Nc3 dxc3. End of round five. Black enters the boxing knowing he is a piece up in the chess.

Round six

Woolgar: Bevis says “Great, you won the last (boxing) round, you've got him worried, now go out there and make him miss again. This time though, make him pay. Follow up and make him pay.” OK a simple plan and I'm feeling pretty good. A piece ahead and comfortable in the ring. In fact, too comfortable. Inexperience or a failure to switch off from the chess? I don't know. My concentration went. Suddenly I'm hearing the individual shouts from the audience, demanding blood in ways that can’t be repeated on a family website like I was distracted.  Absurdly I was thinking, “That's not the sort of thing I want to hear at my fight!” Although exactly what I was expecting, I have no idea. Some sort of sporting sound-track from an old Basil Rathbone movie perhaps: “Jolly good show! Oh I say what a corker!” and so on.

So while I'm thinking about all this and wondering what it means I find myself once again in the spotlight and kerblammy! A straight right catches me flush in the face. My head snaps back and there's a cloud of sweat droplets framed for an instant like an explosive halo around me head. I fall back, crack, a left hook lands on my temple and I'm up against the ropes and clinging on like I've fallen in love. The ref calls on us to break it up and coming out of the clinch I whop him one on the jaw and get told off for it. Bad Timmy. Telford doesn't complain too much though but comes straight back at me and tries to finish me off – I have a massive swelling under my left eye and he goes for it with the intent of opening up a cut which would end proceedings right there. Another right hook which I duck and follow up with a one-two to the ribs and he backs off to his corner and covers up. I step back, pick my spot and land a right hook to his liver before backing off. Both licking our wounds we fight to the end of the round via a series of sudden lunging assaults and desperate defensive manouevres.

In the break the ref and the doctor are concerned about the swelling but as Bevis points out, it's under the eye and we convince them to let the fight continue.

The announcements for each round were not an unpopular feature of the evening. This delightful young lady also sings and dances, and is one half of spandex-clad pop duo Hot Breath. The GBCBO social calendar includes an eagerly awaited trip to see Hot Breath perform.

Another popular choice of costume, this time with a rainbow theme. Chess organisers all over the world should consider emulating this service – perhaps to announce the end of individual time controls?!

Round seven

Woolgar: Make no bones about it, I was hurt me and knew he'd come close to putting me on the canvas at least a couple of times. What followed was by far the toughest round for me and at times the board looked a completely alien concept. I had to force myself to make moves, sometimes almost without a conscious purpose simply to keep my opponent's clock ticking.  Both of us slowing down.

21.bxc3 a5 22.Qd1 Bh6 23.c4. End of round seven. And that's it!

Round eight

Woolgar: It's the eighth round now, and we are going out for our fourth session of boxing. As he forces my hands into the gloves Bevis tells me urgently: “Those hooks have got to be going over your head, GOT TO alright?” Alright. But easier said than done. By this point I'm thinking: if I can't dodge them – which I couldn't – I am just going to have to stop him throwing any more.

As the bell rang everything else was blotted out, the chess, the crowd the noise. It was just me and a raw desire to survive and attack. For the first time I managed to pin my opponent against the ropes with my back to the stage lights. I seized the moment to launch a blizzard of punches and had the satisfaction of feeling most of them strike something hard. He caught me again on the eye but I ignored it, backed up, steadied then launched into him again – fighting purely on instinct and giving it everything. He fought back but by now his punches began to lack bite and as much as I would have liked to avoid them, at least they weren't landing with the same force. I thought about all the miles I'd run to prepare myself for this and knew that I wasn't going to slow down. Not now. It was a good round for me and by the end he was looking like he had plenty to think about. I'd taken the best he had and I was still there punching at the bell. Crowd going mental at this stage. Still the swelling under my eye was looking bad, like a golf ball, and my corner was aware that there was every chance of the last round being called off.

Bevis, taking my gloves off, very purposeful:  “Right you've got him checkmate haven't you” 

Me: “Er, what?” 

Bevis: “You've got him haven't you?” 

“Well... I might have.”

“You HAVE got him, so checkmate him. DO IT!”

 And with these words ringing in my ears (along with a few church bells and tweety birds) I sat down and concentrated hard.

Round nine

23…Qb6. Setting a fiendish trap. 24.Rb1? Telford doesn't see it! 24...Nxg3! High drama at this point. Telford wanted to recapture with 25.fxg3 but the arbiter swoops in to stop the clock and demonstrate that this is an illegal move! UK Chessboxing rules have been deeply thought out and differ from FIDE blitz laws in several respects. One is that an illegal move doesn't forfeit the game, since there is an expectation that the paying public is entertained. On the flipside, the arbiter will not permit an illegal move to go unnoticed. A time penalty will be incurred on the second illegal move, whilst a third one will forfeit the game. Another UK ChessBoxing rule is that draw offers are not allowed unless the position is a dead draw – the game needs to be played out to its logical conclusion. You can't offer a draw half way through a boxing bout, so why should you do so in the chess game?!!  And before I get thousands of emails that was a rhetorical question…as a avid visitor to this website I know how much excitement is generated by the topic of draw offers!

25.Kg2 Nxe2 26.Rxe2. Black is now a comfortable two pieces up, and has the chess game in the bag. But does he need to survive another three minutes of boxing? 26...Rf6 27.Kf1? White is still shell-shocked by Woolgar's killer blow on move 24, like a body shot followed by a right hook to the head. 27...Rxf3 28.Re1?? Still shellshocked, this is now looking more like suicide chess. Telford might've just been able to hang on for another boxing round, but... 28...Qxf2!! mate.

For the second time in five moves White was oblivious to the long range diagonal threat of the black queen. White’s downhill cascade in fortune is somewhat a surprise compared to the rest of the game, but I think the answer lies in Jonathan Rowson's superb chess psychology book "The Seven Chess Deadly Sins". I suggest that because the emotions in chessboxing are hugely more powerful than those in chess, so the chance of a “neural hijacking” is far more likely!!

And after a thrilling contest the winner by checkmate in the ninth is…WOOLGARRRRRR!!!!

A neural hijacking occurs when you 'lose the plot', you 'don't know what came over you'.  It was researched by Dr Jospeh Le Doux in his book The Emotional Brain (1998). We can lose our rational faculties if we are swamped by emotion. From what I observed I think Stewart Telford might have experienced one of these after 24...Nxg3! His face and entire body expressed a state of shock and despair, he was emotionally ‘tipped over the edge’.

As polymath Rowson explains, “during an emotional avalanche a centre in the limbic brain proclaims an emergency, recruiting the rest of the brain to its urgent agenda…  This has a survival advantage in evolutionary terms because we react to danger before being consciously aware of it… our brains detect 'emergencies' without our consent and we experience a neural shortcut that allows the amyglada to take control of our response while the neocortex is still coming to a decision”. So now you know!!

This might also explain why Frank ‘Anti-Terror’ Stoldt shockingly blundered his queen to lose his light heavyweight world title in Berlin this summer. After the fight Woolgar himself felt he had a neural hijacking in round 7 after a difficult boxing round in the 6th. Fortunately for him, he managed to take things very slowly until he regained composure…so he probably didn’t really have one since he WAS in control but he did have one of those “Oh my lordy, what do I do now!” experiences.

Woolgar: And as he plays bad move after bad move I polish him off less than half-a-dozen moves. Checkmate! And it was over! Wild applause and cheering! Stewart Telford was a wily and tough opponent and there were times when it seemed to onlookers that the battle could have gone either way. In the end I felt the benefit of my training regime, which included a daily five mile run, two hours in the gym and an hour of chess. This helped me at the crucial time to recover quicker and maintain the clarity of focus that is so easily lost in the heat of battle.

 What a fantastic buzz, and I as the founder of the GBCBO took the opportunity to award myself the title of UK Heavyweight ChessBoxing champion on the spot.  Hopefully there will be no shortage of challengers over the coming months!

After the bouts were over the boxing ring turned into a dance floor until two a.m., where the dancers made creative use of the ropes. Unfortunately there is no video footage of the avant-garde interpretation of Night Fever that the dinner-suited author of these lines spontaneously performed with the leotard lady.

So an excellent evening was had by all! The next event on 30 October will be even better, but it will not be bigger – at least as regards the crowd. The big budget German chessboxing shows are brilliant and professionally organised, but I was pleasantly surprised that the London event had something else… a rawness that only comes with a smaller venue.

Links and References

ChessBase articles on boxing and chess

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