Iepe Rubingh, 1974 – 2020

by Frederic Friedel
5/11/2020 – He was one of the more interesting personalities in and around chess – but not just there. "Iepe the Joker" was a Dutch artist, entrepreneur, innovator and storyteller. For us his most relevant enterprises was chess boxing, which he initiated and popularized in a way nobody foresaw. On Sunday he was found dead in his bed – how and why we do not yet know. Frederic Friedel has written a obituary with description of his interactions with a dear friend.

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Around twenty years ago I was contacted by a young Dutch artist who said he had an idea he wanted to discuss with me. "Can I come around and we can talk?" he suggested. When I agreed he rang my doorbell five minutes later. He had taken the subway to the the part of Hamburg where I live and called when he arrived.

It was a very pleasant. My visitor was Iepe Rubingh, and I spent the first five minutes learning to pronounce his name. We settled on Ee-puh [phonetic: 'ipə] and that's the way it stayed for a decade. Iepe introduced himself as an artist, entrepreneur, innovator and storyteller, and he had come to discuss an idea he had: chess boxing.

Chess what? I was mystified, but listened to the explanation of the genesis of his idea, and the planned details of its execution. I will not try to repeat what he told me, because a few years later Iepe told it in an interview with TOA15 Studio, and you can listen to his description in this YouTube video. Listen to it, get to know the man!

Just briefly: Iepe's proposal was to take an idea he had found in a science fiction graphic novel, published in 1992 by Yugoslavian-French cartoonist and storyteller Enki Bilal, Froid Équateur. Iepe had brought it along and we looked at it together. Chess boxing was a big story part of the story, and Iepe Rubingh proposed turning it into reality.

The reason Iepe had come from Berlin, where he lived, to Hamburg, was to get advice from the editor of news page chessbase.com, someone with great experience on chess players, chess events, and the chess public in general. And I gave him my wise advice: forget it, nutty idea, it'll never become popular. It turned out that my advice and prediction had been: bad, bad, bad. But: in spite of my negativity Iepe and I remained friends, and he came over to visit whenever he was in Hamburg.

Then in November 2007 I got a call from Iepe, inviting me to come see a chess boxing event in Berlin. The intrepid ChessBase news team (specifically: Fred 'n Pascal Simone) decided to take the plunge and attended a full chessboxing night, a fight for the world light heavyweight title. The event took place Tape, one of the most popular clubs in the city.

How many people could be interested in this quixotic hybrid sport? In a sophisticated town like Berlin? The event started at 8 p.m., and when we arrived we saw a line reaching all the way around the club. Although we had invitations it was almost impossible to get into the hall. It was only after our invitation had been examined by some very suspicious guards that we were allowed to pass. In the end a fair number of people had to be turned away, because the hall was full to the maximum capacity allowed by the fire department.

The audience collects in the hall. We had seats in the third row.

The guests in the front rows got fizzy drinks with LED ice cubes

Lots of celebrities, like this one , whom I did not know. But Pascal said he was faaa-mous...

The start of an undercard fight in the light heavyweight division

The fight was between Marc Breuer from Cologne, 35 years old, 81 kg (178,6 pounds), with an Elo rating of 1972 and Sascha Wandkowski, 28 years old and 79 kg (174,2 pounds), with an Elo rating of 1850. During the chess the contestants wear headphones to shield them from the din of the audience and the commentary by a strong chess player.

The boxing part – four minutes of chess are interspersed with three minutes of boxing

If you think this is all a show take a look at Marc Breuer's left eye...

... and his position in the game

You probably do not want to see what Marc looked like when the referee finally intervened – click here at your own risk – but please do not send outraged letters if you do. You were warned.

A very, very noisy rock interlude between the fights

The main event, the fight between America's David Depto and German Frank Stoldt

Again, this is the real thing, not some kind of show for a naive audience

In the end the title went to German Champion "Anti Terror" Frank Stoldt


ESPN report on Chessboxing. Interesting: in the end
Lennox Lewis talks about the prospect of entering the circuit

In 2003 Iepe founded the World Chess Boxing Organisation (WCBO) and the new sport became particularly popular in Germany, the United Kingdom, India, and Russia. But well-received matches were also staged in the US, Holland, Lithuania, Belarus, Italy and Spain. The number of spectators always exceed that of chess matches and tournaments – often by very large margins.

In 2009, brainstorming with Iepe, we came up with an idea to make a women's section in chess boxing. Iepe lived in Berlin and made contact with our friend, singer and actress Vaile, who is an avid chess player.

First encounter between Iepe and Vaile (who yesterday informed us of his passing). After the chess game Vaile unfortunately declined to face Iepe in the ring.

We also reached out to Garry Kasparov, Magnus Carlsen, and Vladimir Kramnik (above with World Champion Vitali Klitchko). I tried to convince them that all they had to was destroy the opponent in under twelve moves, to avoid being destroyed themselves in 25 seconds. Nobody took up on the offer.

Iepe continued to visit and call me. It became less and less about chess boxing – we talked more about our other common interests, of which there were many. Once he made me a great gift: a piece of the Berlin Wall, which he fought to partially preserve, as a historical memorial. I wrote about this on my biographical blog.

In 1999 "Iepe the Joker” staged a "guerrilla art performance" at an intersection in Berlin, bringing a main intersection to a standstill with 5000 meters of barrier tape. He was protesting the gentrification of the city. He did something similar in Tokio, for which he was arrested.

If you want to know more about this incredibly interesting man, just google "iepe rubingh" or "chess boxing". You will find hundreds of stories. Here are a few we published in past years:

Some previous stories on Chessboxing on our news page

2.12.2003 - Chess boxing: Kramnik vs Klitschko?
Is chess too boring for you? Those crafty Dutchies have found a way to finally resolve the impasse in the chess world. Put the players in a boxing ring, let them play for four minutes and then duke 'em up for a round with the gloves. Hmmm, Vladimir Kramnik loses badly to Vitaly Klitchko in the FIDE classical world chess boxing championship final? We are not joking.

27.6.2006 - Chessboxing on ESPN, Playboy and Maxim
This unusual sport, in which two competitors face each other in 11 alternating rounds, six of chess, five of boxing, is rapidly gaining popularity. You know that is the case when you see chessboxing on the front page of a leading sports web site, and as a major story in a number of men's magazines. Check out the ESPN video footage.

14.10.2007 - American fighter takes on German champ in Chessboxing
David “Double D” Depto and “Anti Terror” Frank Stoldt will meet for the World Championship in Chessboxing. Six rounds of speed chess and five rounds of boxing will take place alternatingly. In a maximum of eleven rounds, the decision will come either through K.O. or check mate. The match takes place on November 3rd 2007 in Berlin, Germany. Press announcement.

3.7.2008 - Chessboxing World Championship 2008 in Berlin
In October there is one between Anand and Kramnik in Bonn. But that will be peaceful compared to the World Championship that is scheduled in Berlin this weekend. There four minutes of chess are interspersed with three minutes of violent pugilistic activities. We bring you photos and videos – and we also found out what FIDE President Kirsan Ilyumzhinov thinks about this sport.

9.7.2008 - The Russians are coming – in chessboxing
Having enjoyed recent success in soccer, basketball and ice hockey, Russia is now also able to boast a world champion in the little-known sport of chessboxing. Russia's Nikolai Sazhin, a 19-year-old mathematics student from the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk, defeated light heavyweight defending champion Frank Stoldt, a 37-year-old policeman from Germany, to lift the world chess boxing title.

12.9.2008 - Chessboxing in London’s East End
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.

19.11.2008 - Chessboxing Triumph in London
This hybrid sport, with four-minute sessions of chess interspersed with three minutes of boxing, is the brainchild of Dutch event artist Iepe Rubingh. The match ends in checkmate or knockout. Chessboxing is fast becoming a world-wide phenomenon, overtaking chess in the number of spectators it can attract. The latest match took place in London. Pictorial report.

28.6.2009 - Swedish ChessBoxing Sensation in London
London hasn’t been this crazy about a Swede since the heady days of Bjorn Borg at Wimbledon. This was undoubtedly the best chessboxing night yet seen in the UK; there was a superlative headline bout between two of the world's leading chessboxers, controversy involving an illegal move, the flamboyant Red Kite, and an England vs Germany match. Pictorial report with annotated games.

27.2.2010 - New Chessboxing season starts in London
Top of the bill is a thrilling heavyweight encounter between Sergio “The Phoenix” Leveque from Italy and Dutchman, Hubert Van Melick. Chessboxing entails alternating sessions of four minutes at the chessboard and two in the boxing ring. You can win by checkmate or knockout. In two weeks the new season begins, with the first fights in London. Press release and videos.

5.4.2010 - Chessboxing Victory for Leveque and Lizarraga
Cementing its status as the epicentre of the chessboxing universe, London’s historic Boston Dome hosted three action-packed fights. Followed by a sell-out 500-strong crowd. It was the first of five UK chessboxing events planned for London in 2010, ably promoted by Tim Woolgar of the GBCBO, in partnership with the WCBO. Pictures by James Bartosik, report by Rajko Vujatovic.

2.6.2010 - London Chessboxing: 'The Rock' defeats 'The Phoenix'
With spectator numbers and gate receipts that would turn any chess organiser green with envy, with centers in Los Angeles, London, Berlin and Siberia, chess boxing is becoming a real success story. Recently in London a super-fit boxer managed to knock out his opponent just when he was about to be mated. You'll never guess whom director Iepe Rubingh has been trying to recruit.



Editor-in-Chief emeritus of the ChessBase News page. Studied Philosophy and Linguistics at the University of Hamburg and Oxford, graduating with a thesis on speech act theory and moral language. He started a university career but switched to science journalism, producing documentaries for German TV. In 1986 he co-founded ChessBase.

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