“It was a lot of fun,” Depto recalls. “When I got into the ring, and they were playing the national anthem, it was overwhelming, representing the U.S. in this new sport.”
But the American wasn’t able to fully relax and land his punches. Then, Stoldt checkmated him in the seventh round.
Depto returned to Germany the next year and fought another bout in Cologne, against Swedish contender Konrad Rikardson. This time, Depto was more prepared. He won by a knockout punch in the second round.
“I got the feeling they were a little disappointed,” he says. “It went one round of chess, one round of boxing, and it was over.”
Depto was unable to compete in the championship that year, and he has been plagued with injuries ever since. But he’s had time to reflect on his career in chess boxing.
“I don’t think there’s been a ton of strategy yet,” he admits. “But because of the alternating rounds, there’s more opportunity for physical rest than just boxing. So the fighters are going to be much more recovered, fresh to go every round. Very few guys win with one-punch power. Most people win on the chessboard.”
McGregor agrees that the sport has not fully developed yet, but he says it’s incredibly addictive. The adrenaline rush of getting smacked in the face, then sitting down and trying to focus on the chess while trembling and sweating and dripping blood, creates an entirely new experience.
“I always want to win on the chessboard, because it’s more [impressive],” he says, laughing. “If you can orchestrate a checkmate when somebody’s trying to kill you, that’s pretty sick!”
Although the sport is new, says McGregor, regional differences have already become apparent. European cultures are often more fluent than Americans in chess, and Russians are particularly good at it. Fighters will wear headphones during the chess round to block out the crowd noise. Many competitors are professional boxers, and they refuse to use headgear in order to keep the experience more purely pugilistic.
In establishing a club in Los Angeles, McGregor realized he’d have to adapt the sport for U.S. sensibilities. It needed to have a modicum of safety. “For the American stuff, that’s not going to work,” he says. “People are not going to sign on to that.”
So he instituted amateur rules, with headgear strongly encouraged. After his club’s two bouts this year, McGregor says, the number of inquiries increased. “Lots of interest from men and women [in their 30s and] in grad school,” he says.
Getting in shape and having fun is one thing. But does this hybrid sport have any future as a legitimate revenue stream? Depto thinks that’s the missing link right now.
“For this thing to grow, there has to be sponsorship,” he says. “They can sell tickets to cover the events, but there’s not much money yet. Other guys who think the idea is novel are starting it in their own gyms. That’s been their growth model so far.”
And indeed, compared with boxing or chess, the absence of money in chess boxing is palpable. Matches display a refreshing lack of logos in the ring and around the venue. According to Depto, who traveled to Germany twice for fights, winning purses were “several hundred euros,” and boxers’ travel expenses were paid. But nobody appears to be chess boxing professionally as a primary source of income.
“There is no chess boxer — so far — who makes a living out of the sport,” says the WCBO’s David Pfeifer. “Most of us are working in different jobs. The WCBO does offer cash to the fighters who participate in championships. [But] it’s more of a thank-you for their hard work and preparation.”
For others who just love the sport itself, like McGregor, hurling a ton of marketing at chess boxing would turn it into another dodgeball league — all logo and no heart. To him, the grassroots origins of chess boxing and the physical and mental acuity it takes to compete are what make the sport special.
“I want to do it because it’s awesome — people can benefit from it,” he says. “People should learn how to defend themselves, but this is self-defense in a healthy fashion.”
He adds, “I think it’s going to blow up. I think it will become like snowboarding over the next 10 years.”