Along Santa Monica’s Ocean Front Walk sits a haven for geeks of the game of chess. The International Chess Park, comprising a giant chess set and dozens of regulation-play chess tables, draws people from all walks of life. Including men, who, three days a week, will stand between the 2- to 3-foot-tall chess pieces and physically beat the crap out of each other. Legally.
In the midst of this strange scuffle, a giant bearded man will suddenly blow a whistle, and the two opponents will dash over to a chess table, remove their gloves and sit down to continue a game of chess.
Spectators will stop and stare, some even snapping a few pictures. But what they don’t realize is that they are witnessing the birth of a brand-new sport in the U.S. — a unique mashup of boxing and chess.
The bearded man, 6-foot-9 photojournalist Andrew McGregor, runs the Los Angeles Chessboxing Club, the first group in North America sanctioned by the Berlin-based World Chess Boxing Organization (WCBO). He stages competitions, teaches classes at the Chess Park and even competes. He hopes to help spread the sport to the rest of America, promoting brains and brawn by making both boxing and chess more approachable.
But Santa Monica pedestrians don’t know any of that. They just keep their distance.
“I don’t think they truly get that we’re doing both,” McGregor says with a chuckle. “I haven’t actually been spoken to by anyone.”
McGregor’s interest in chess boxing began seven years ago when he was in Budapest and spotted a flyer advertising an upcoming bout. The subject was intriguing. He was already a chess geek at school — and unbeatable among his circle of friends — but he just shrugged and walked on. The concept stuck in his head, though, and over the next six months, he would occasionally Google the subject.
Then, in 2008, while McGregor was on assignment in Africa, a chess friend of his e-mailed him a Wikipedia link about chess boxing along with the note, “You could be their Muhammad Ali.”
He kept following the sport through various European websites, and after grad school, he tried his hand at boxing. Unfortunately, it was a difficult discipline to grasp, but after former heavyweight champion George Foreman answered McGregor’s e-mail and passed along encouragement, McGregor was more motivated than ever.
“I asked around the boxing community [to find out] where the best gym was in L.A. I basically went in there, with all these hard-core fighters around, and said, ‘Hi, I want to do chess boxing! One round of boxing, one round of chess.’ They were like, ‘What?’ and pointed me to a trainer. ‘He’ll train you, whatever.’ ”
McGregor persisted, though, regularly working out at the gym; his boxing improved, and eventually he was sparring with pros. By this time he was also communicating through Facebook with chess boxers in Europe, and he had launched a website for his new chess-boxing club, which eventually partnered with the WCBO.
Intrigued by the enthusiasm, WCBO representative David Pfeifer flew to Los Angeles in early 2010 and met with McGregor. After the two chatted, McGregor said, “Let’s do an event. You’re here.”
McGregor sent an e-mail out to his friends, the local media picked up on the story, and more than 70 people showed up to watch the L.A. debut of chess boxing. Final outcome? Andrew “the Fightin’ Philanthropist” McGregor, the fledgling who became a boxer because of an e-mail from George Foreman, actually checkmated the established German competitor, David “Dr. King Kong” Pfeifer. Now McGregor was thoroughly hooked.
Pfeifer then explained to McGregor more about the origins of chess boxing, and the American finally learned how the sport began. Chess dates back some 1,500 years, and boxing may have emerged as early as 3,000 B.C. But the combination of the two is only seven years old. The sport’s roots lie in modern Europe, and they are an unlikely synthesis of Yugoslavian comics, French apocalypse, Dutch performance art and lager-fueled German nightlife.