First Night: European Chess Boxing, Boston Dome, North London


Pawns, punches and a sport that mixes brain with brawn

Muhammad Ali's "phantom punch" may have been enough to floor Sonny Liston in the first round in 1965. But belligerents at an event in London last night might have done better to study chess genius Emanuel Lasker's masterclass of 1889.

The fights got under way with the slightly bemused audience urged: "Let's get reeeeaaaaady ... for chess boxing". (At least one person shouted out "to rumble," to their eternal embarrassment).

Gianluca "Il Dottore" Sirci was crowned European Heavyweight Chess Boxing champion, beating his opponent, British heavyweight Andy "The Rock" Costello in the ninth round (a chess round) after the British heavyweight resigned with a check-mate looming.

When the gloves were put on, The Rock landed more punches on the larger Italian. But it was Il Dottore's chess game that told and Costello was left needing a knockout which would never come.

Chess boxing was invented initially as a joke by Dutch artist Iepe Rubingh who was in attendance last night. The protagonists engage in four minutes of rapid chess before putting on their gloves and fighting for three minutes, a process they repeat for 11 rounds. Contestants can either win by beating their opponent at chess or by knocking him out.

Andy Costello has had three bouts before tonight, suffering two defeats – both down to disqualifications during the boxing rounds – and one victory thanks to a check-mate.

The 42-year-old professional cage-fighter said: "One disqualification was for a low blow against tonight's opponent and I really hoped to take revenge for that. The other was against Wolfram von Stauffenberg – the only surviving relative of the man who tried to assassinate Hitler. I fought him in Berlin so I never stood a chance."

The undercard saw Mexican Hector Gomez defeated by Dutchman Hubert van Melick in the ninth round (a chess round). Gomez showed the better moves in the early boxing rounds and landed a few hooks before van Melick could get a single jab in. But the Dutchman's superior chess game made the difference as his opponent's allotted time for his moves simply ran out, resulting in automatic defeat.

Tim Woolgar, who founded the The Chess Boxing Organisation in August 2008 to help promote what is is reputedly the fastest growing hybrid sport in Britain, explained that the group works with young people from its Islington club, teaching them to embrace both disciplines.

"A lot of them gain a confidence from it which they would not otherwise have had," he said. "If you get a guy to box, it teaches him self-respect. But if you get teach him something like chess as well, you teach him a whole new set of skills. And those are skills which can be put to practical use when it comes to finding jobs."

Last month, the organisation became a registered charity, and all proceeds from last night's event were donated to it. The club has 30 members of which around 10 are women. Tim Woolgar said: "This is about teaching people to engage their minds. Chess boxers need to maintain concentration at all times. You can imagine if you are being punched in the face, it would probably be quite difficult to maintain concentration enough to immediately start playing chess, but that's what we have to do. Participants have a great sense of achievement."

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