Rubingh eventually moved to Berlin, where he established himself as the artist Iepe, a performance-artist prankster. But he never forgot Bilal’s powerful images.
One day in 2002, during a conversation with art friends about their mutual hobby of boxing, it suddenly occurred to Rubingh that one could appropriate Bilal’s concept and stage a match that combined both boxing and chess. They all agreed it couldn’t be a performance-art stunt. The two sports had to fuse together in such a way that either could decide the outcome.
Rubingh and his friends practiced the concept among themselves and mapped out a general rule book. A match begins with a four-minute round of chess, after which the chess table is removed from the ring, and fighters put on gloves and wale on each other for three minutes. The bout alternates between the two sports for 11 rounds, with one minute of rest between each. A win is determined by either a knockout in the ring or a checkmate on the board.
The Platoon cultural development center in Berlin staged the world’s first chess-boxing match in 2003, between Iepe the Joker and his friend, Luis the Lawyer. In addition to the traditional boxing announcer and ring girls, a chess expert provided play-by-play commentary, and the audience followed each chess move on video screens throughout the club.
Rubingh emerged victorious by checkmate, and shortly thereafter, he set about founding the World Chess Boxing Organization. When the WCBO’s first-ever world championship was staged a few months later at a sold-out concert hall in Amsterdam, between the same competitors, he won that also, as Luis the Lawyer ran out of time during the final chess round.
Publicity came naturally to Rubingh; as Iepe, he had already engineered massive art pranks that had stopped traffic in the streets of both Berlin and Tokyo. Promoting chess boxing was not going to pose a problem for him.
“Chess boxing is extreme physical stress combined with a huge mental test,” he told media at the time. “The adrenaline after boxing inhibits your ability to think, making the chess harder. Few people can still think straight after a right hook to the head. You need to be able to pull off that champion chess move while blood is pouring from your nose.”
The WCBO motto, “Fighting is done in the ring and wars are waged on the board,” spread throughout Europe’s chess and boxing networks, and more bouts soon followed. Chess-boxing clubs quickly began popping up in other countries, from Germany to England to Siberia.
In 2006, an ESPN broadcast about the odd sport caught the eye of David Depto, an engineer living in San Francisco. In the news segment, the WCBO said it was looking for American opponents to fight the German champion.
Depto had been a boxer for years, and he was no slouch at chess. So he sent the WCBO some information, and about six months later, the organization responded, asking for videos of his past fights. They also requested that he play chess with them online. He passed the test, and none other than the sport’s founder, Iepe Rubingh, flew out to California to meet him.
“We did some workouts together, ran some wind sprints through a park, played a few rounds of chess,” Depto says. “He liked what he saw, and so I got the fight.”
Depto was already in top physical shape, so he focused on working with a chess coach on a strategy that would mesh with his aggressive boxing style — and he prepared himself to be the first American to compete in chess boxing, which he had never even seen in person.
“I knew going in that I probably [wasn’t] going to be the strongest chess player,” he remembers. “But I’m also one of the more experienced fighters. Therefore, I wanted to develop a chess strategy, develop some moves to force the game to slow down. My goal was to go into the ring, get some shots, go for the knockout.”