If you think about it, all sports are meaningless. We invest them with meaning in order to feel good about ourselves. Why would you spend a day trying to knock a dimpled ball into a tiny hole far away, or kick a larger one between two posts while eleven others try to prevent you from doing this? Sport is so much in our DNA that we fail to notice its essentially surrealistic character. It is both silly and significant, a pointless exercise pregnant with meaning.
The philosopher Bernard Suits saw it as “the voluntary effort to overcome unnecessary obstacles.” Rules are arbitrary, following them is mandatory. Is boxing a sport by Suits’s or any other definition? Simon Barnes once said: “In most sports, injury is something going horribly wrong. In boxing, it’s something going horribly right.” Yet, according to Garry Kasparov, it is chess that is “the most violent sport there is.”
Is chess a sport? It is if we decide it is. It will be an Olympic sport once the International Olympic Committee decides it is. Don’t forget tug-of-war was for many years in the Olympics.
If boxing is one end of the scale marked “brawn” and chess is at the other, marked “brain”, then surely a combination of the two ought to be the perfect sport? Enthusiasts of chessboxing probably believe it is. Invented less than a decade and a half ago, the sport involves 11 alternating rounds of chess and boxing; it is fascinating, as I discovered on Youtube recently.
Do the competitors suddenly see four kings and eight knights on the board when they sit down at it after a series of punches to the head? Possibly.
Perhaps boxing and chess have more in common than we imagine. It is the classic mano-a-mano combat with nothing to mediate the confrontation like clubs or sticks. But how many boxers play chess or vice versa?
You’d be surprised. The remarkable Klitschko brothers, Vitali and Wladmir from Ukraine, world heavyweight champions both, are chess players too. Vitali, a PhD in Sports Science, is the Mayor of Kiev, while his brother taught maths in a Swiss University. Not relevant here, but what a cv!
Lennox Lewis liked to prepare for his bouts by playing chess, while Filipino Manny Pacquiao sponsors a major chess tournament in his country and once held Grandmaster Eugene Torre to a draw. Nicola Adams, an Olympic gold winner, is a chess player too.
What of traffic in the other direction? The Dutch world chess champion Max Euwe (later FIDE President) was an amateur boxer although it is unclear if he was a European champion as some claim.
I imagine the superior boxer who aims for a knockout is more likely to win at chessboxing than a chess player who might run out of time. If chessboxing is here, can other combination sports be far behind? Each less than the sum of its parts? Bridgewrestling, for instance. Or tabletennisjudo. What of chessshooting, the only sport with three successive ‘s’s in its name?
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