Friday, June 19, 2009

Department of A Likely Story: The Great Chessboxing Swindle

If you want to get chess into the news, get into a fight. It's Man Bites Dog as applied to chess: news defined not as what happens, but as what hardly ever happens.

Hence, perhaps, the success of chessboxing, which provides the chess-as-fight story on a plate. When I say "success", I mean "success in getting yourself written about" as opposed to anything else. In that field at least, it's doing really very well. The BBC, for instance, can hardly keep its hands off it: most recently in a piece by Mike Bushell for a progamme that used to be called Breakfast News but is now called Breakfast.

Other recent articles (among the many that Google will locate for you) include one in free-paper-cum-Tube-litter Metro and some perhaps surprising comments from Marina Hyde in the Guardian, referring to
the continuing success of chessboxing
the burgeoning success of chessboxing.
What this "success" actually amounts to is less than clear to this particular writer, although "persuading journalists to repeat unlikely claims" has not been the least obvious aspect. As witness, for instance, the claim in Metro that
chessboxing's really popular with women
which strikes me as longer on assertion than on evidence. Or promoter Tim Woolgar's claim - Metro again - that
2016 is a more realistic target
- a target, that is, for getting chessboxing in the Olympics. That claim, just a few weeks later had been revised to
we're being realistic about it, so we're not going for 2012 or even 2016
which may be the only invocation - or indeed indication - of "realism" I've seen connected with the whole chessboxing business. Not all that realistic, though, since - as nobody seems to have put to Mr Woolgar - there is not the slightest indication that chessboxing will ever be considered for the Olympics. Why would there be?

As far as I can see, the reputation - practically the myth - of chessboxing rests on a tiny number of events in a small number of countries. Or as far as the UK is concerned:
  • one chessboxing club in Islington
  • a couple of shows in Bethnal Green
  • a rather larger number of articles by journalists rather too quick to believe what they're told and what they've seen in other journalists' articles.
But that's how hype works, isn't it? Once one media outlet is talking about something, the others follow for fear of missing out. And nobody wants to be caught talking it down.

Other salient points seem to me to include these:
  • there are no professional chessboxers in the UK
  • there are no strong chessplayers training to be chessboxers in the UK
  • no strong chessplayer has ever taken part in a chessboxing bout in the UK.
As far as I've been able to discover, the strongest player to actually take part in a bout has been Matthew Read, a player a little below average club strength but, as it happens, manager of the London Chess Centre (proprietor Malcolm Pein) and veteran of a single chessboxing contest - which he won - at a Bethnal Green event (chess commentary provided by Malcolm Pein).

Might that change in the future? There are a couple of useful players among the members of the club (that's the club, of course) but none actually seem to be doing so much as preparing for a bout, let alone taking it up professionally. As for players of master strength, the club informed me that one promising young British International Master
is built like an ox and said he'll come to the club to try out chessboxing
which claim induced me to ask the player directly. His reply referred to himself as "of slight build" and said straightforwardly:
I am not a chessboxer and have no intention to try it.
Well I never.

Now as it happens, despite my title, I don't think Mr Woolgar and his colleagues are frauds. I do think however that they're making a lot of unlikely claims on the basis of not very much - and the reason that they're able to do so is that by and large, journalists do not know very much about chess (any more than they know about science) and therefore do not normally know what is, and what is not, believable. With the result that so much rubbish is broadcast and printed.

But it is, perhaps, a little worse than that, because it must be obvious to many people that the main reason chessboxing is receiving coverage is that it's a freak show. That it mostly seeks to make a joke out of chess, as do all the chess-and-fighting stories that preceded it, and a tawdry joke at that.

Because if this is not true, it is hard to explain why a news service that makes no mention in its online coverage of the country's national chess league, nor its national chess championship, nor even of the world championship while that event is taking place - presumably because of perceived lack of public interest - finds it necessary to cover every single event in an activity which has scarcely any competitions, scarcely any clubs and scarcely any followers.

Like hurricanes in Hertford, Hereford and Hampshire, chessboxing hardly ever happens. But that's the point. That's what news is. That's man bites dog.

Good night.


ejh said...

In fairness to Marina Hyde, who I contacted about her article, I should add that she says she didn't use the quoted phrases "entirely seriously": however, she did think that "the 'sport' is growing in popularity".

Jonathan B said...

I am rather cross that you have received an email from Marina Hyde but I have not.

Anonymous said...

I have to admit that I am quite tempted to give it a bash, excuse the pun. Just got to get rid of the beer belly and get down to my local boxing club!!

Jonathan B said...

There was a guy who used to play regularly for Southampton University (although his precise connection to the university was always a bit of a myster) back in the early 90s. He was reputed to be a fairly hardcore martial arts expert.

Bob Noyce was his name. He was 190/200 or there abouts as I recall. He might be knocking on a bit now though.

Chris Morgan said...

From what I hear the Ukrainian Klitschko brothers, who both hold versions of the World Heavyweight Boxing Championship, are pretty handy chess players, so if there were to be a genuine World Chess Boxing Champion, I guess it would be one of them.

Anonymous said...

Simon, please don't do it. A GM taking part might give this stupid nonsense some cred.

Jonathan B said...

Lots of boxers have claimed prowess at chess Chris -

Frank Bruno, Lennox Lewis, Terry Marsh come to mind ... and a thought that I'm not sure about that Joe Bugner might have too.

As for Psycho-Cowboy giving it a go - perhaps we should run a competition for suggestions as to who should be his opponent. I've got a few names myself

ejh said...

For what it's worth I'm pretty sure that sooner or later somebody who's reasonably good and reasonably young will have a go at this, for a bet or in order to be able to brag about it or just to see if they can do it. And fair enough. But those will be the reasons, not because they think they're going to make a living out of it, for some very obvious reasons. Or obvious to everybody except some journalists.

(re: JB's comments - I can, as it goes, think of at least one individual fitting my description above who I can imagine doing it and who I'd like to see doing it....)

Anonymous said...

I am good friends with Bob Noyce. He does not play much nowadays but apparently he was full contact Kickboxing British Champion, one thing I know for sure he is pretty handy. He is also about 200ECF.
Chris Baker is another one who would be a good bet, Black Belt at Karate and an IM.
Maybe we could have an IM/GM all play all? Anyway for those who are interested I am running a tournament, 26th-28th June. Check out .Cheers Psycho-Cowboy (forgotten my password hence the guest status. Also a bit drunk!! improving the beer belly...)

Comment Moderator said...

I remember at BUPCA one year old Noycie entertaining the Southampton University team over dinner by giving the details - at some length - of a fight with two guys he once managed to get into (and go on to win) that kicked off when he asked them the time.

Happy days.

ejh said...

Bob Noyce 189 (inactive).

Apparently asking people the time is an international thing - everybody's worked out that it's the way to find out, from their accents, whether the people you're considering giving a kicking to are from abroad/some other region/where the other team are from. A mate of mine nearly got a shoeing at the European Championships in 1990 beginning with being asked whatever "have you got the time, mate?" is in Italian.

Anonymous said...

I attended a ChessBoxing event at Bethnal Green Working Mens Club recently (btw: it had been advertised on Chessbase) out of curiousity and a love of almost all things chess (I enjoy boxing also but hadn't been to a live fight before). Apart from Malcolm Pein, whose instructive, witty and innuendo-laden chess commentary went down a storm with the fairly evenly male/female ratiod crowd, the only other 'serious' chess player I encountered was Adam Raoof. There were 4 bouts and a lot of the chess and boxing were not very good though still entertaining. The final bout, featured a Swede v a German, both rated over 1900 and both their chess and boxing was good and exciting. The place was crammed with people enjoying the event immensely.

James McDonnell

Jonathan B said...

Wasn't the Bethnal Green thing the one Morgan went to?

ejh said...

a lot of the chess and boxing were not very good though still entertaining

I think this is the crux: serious chessplayers aren't going to want to box in the middle of their games and serious boxers won't want to play chess. This is why the utter unlikelihood of chessboxing ever taking off as anything other than a freak show (and probably not even that) seems to me to be a statement of the obvious.

Re: the interest of women, Mr Read's comments in the Metro piece linked to appear to refer to people taking part, not spectators. (There are always a lot of women spectators at boxing matches.)

Jonathan B said...

a rather larger number of articles by journalists rather too quick to believe what they're told and what they've seen in other journalists' articles.

Talking of why there's so much chess boxing in the press compared to 'reality':-

Nick Davies' Flat Earth News may have something to tell us. He's researched the mainstream print news media and found much of it is just rehashed (or even unrehashed) press releases or news agency material.

ejh said...

Incidentally James and Adam weren't the only chessplayers at the event since I know some other people went to see Matthew Read.

I assume the bout James refers to is Wandkowsky - Rikardson: oddly, though Rikardson is credited with a rating of 1975 on a chessboxing listing he doesn't seem to appear on the FIDE list nor - if I am looking at what I think I am looking at - the Swedish rating list. Wandkowsky was reckoned to have a Elo of 1850 last year but unless I am mistaken he too fails to appear on the FIDE list and nor can I find him on the site of the German chess federation (though my German is minimal and better-educated readers are invited to do better).

Happily, Sebastian Bauersfeld appears to have a FIDE rating of 1901.

Chris Morgan said...

Seems to me you could be a very bad chess player, and still win at Chess Boxing if you were a big punching boxer. Just don't make many chess moves and knock the other guy out before your flag falls.

Morgan Daniels said...

Quite right, Chris. This is why my father suggested that one ought to have to make a certain number of moves in each round of chess -- perhaps eight or so in the first round and then half as many in following rounds.

ejh said...

To be honest I'd much rather see chessdrinking gaining in popularity (and I'm sure Morgan will concur).

Anonymous said...

I was there - Rikardson definitely played at 150+ level which is impressive given he had to box as well. For Wandowsky probably 1850 is about right although he did play the Grob...