Canadian chessboxer Sean Mooney
The idea of chessboxing is obviously conflicting and confusing. It sounds like the ultimate mash-up of brains and brawn — which is why it came about in graphic novelist Enki Bilal’s book Froid Equateur (Cold Equator). In the book, Bilal uses this sport to find the strongest and smartest man in the post-apocalyptic world. I doubt he actually thought that one day this idea would start to morph into an actual, respectable sport.
“I first came across it while I was visiting my girlfriend in Toronto. I was flipping through The Globe and Mail and saw a photo of two guys, shirtless, sitting in a boxing ring playing chess — sweaty and one’s arm raised in victory. My brain couldn’t quite process what I was looking at,” explains Montrealer David Bitton, director of Chessboxing: The King’s Discipline, a documentary currently being filmed about the sport. “I’m naturally attracted to things like that, where I can’t really understand what I’m seeing. So I read the article, and it was about chessboxing in London, and immediately I thought: this is my next film.”
The sport was founded by Dutch performance artist Iepe Rubingh in Berlin in 2003, which is now home to the World Chess Boxing Organization. How it works is two opponents play up to 11 rounds switching between chess and boxing, stopping once someone is knocked out, checkmated, or the time runs out on their chess clock.
“I followed it for about a year, just online. And about eight or nine months after I discovered it, I saw that the inventor of the sport [Rubingh] was going to be retiring from fighting. [He] was going to do his last fight, and his first one in a long time — and he was going to pass on the torch to a younger generation of chessboxers. So I thought that would be a good starting point for the film,” says Bitton.
The film follows the growth of the sport and how different clubs have sprung up with different visions for where they want the sport to go, how they want to popularize it and present it to the public for the first time. Bitton follows Iepe Rubingh in Berlin, Tim Woolgar in London and Andrew McGregor in Los Angeles.
“Berlin, they want to present it as a very serious sport that can be of Olympic level. So, they want a fighter who would excel at both boxing and chess and have them compete and make a super, uber professional league in that kind of image. Whereas in London, they have more of a kind of night-out feel to them. The fighters are serious about it, they’re very skilled and they compete — but at the same time, the atmosphere is a lot more like a night of entertainment. There is a marked difference between the ways that they’re kind of putting the sport forward. And in L.A., it’s all charity focused. They want to do whatever they can to get the sport to be more popular, but with an emphasis on raising money for charity,” explains Bitton.
Since filming began in 2010, he has already seen growth within the chessboxing community. Initially there were only clubs in Berlin, London, L.A. and Siberia. Now ones have popped up in India, China, Iran, Australia and New York. “It definitely seems to be getting out there and spreading around. There’s a concerted effort by people in London, Berlin and L.A. to make it something bigger.”
Canada has a single chessboxer, Sean Mooney from Winnipeg, who fought and won a match at the Royal Albert Hall in London last August. But as of yet, there are no clubs in the country.
Bitton is now in the midst of attempting to raise funds for post-production using Kickstarter to reach his goal. At the moment it looks like he’ll be done editing in January, but depending on how the campaign goes, that date may shuffle. “I can make a very different film depending on how much we raise, and I have different ideas for what I want to do. But we can only do it if we get the right amount of money and I’m doing most of the work myself. Having less money just mean it’ll take longer.”
Bitton has overcome many obstacles in the process of bringing the story of chessboxing to film, including being mugged in St-Henri and having all of his gear stolen days before his initial shoot in Berlin. He also missed getting stabbed in Tottenham after filming with Tim Woolgar, by the skin of his teeth — a cab driver saved him, bringing new meaning to the idea that artists suffer for their work. ■
David Bitton’s Kickstarter campaign runs until July 17, to contribute to his effort head here.