Chess boxing catching on in India

Image caption, There are 300-odd chess boxers in India

Chess boxing, a hybrid sport combining the mental workout of chess with the physical challenge of boxing, is catching on in India, reports Shamik Bag.

Wearing boxing wraps around their palms and seated on a bench inside a gym in the eastern Indian city of Calcutta, two players match moves while huddled over a chessboard.

Caught between the mind and muscle, the recently-introduced game of chess boxing is seeing an early surge of interest in India. The game involves alternate rounds of chess and boxing.

In less than two years of its launch, 10 state-level associations organising championships have come up, while seven more states have shown interest in the sport.

While bigger states like Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh have formed state-level teams, smaller north-eastern states like Tripura and Manipur are also represented.

Of about 300 registered chess boxers in India, 195 and 245 players participated in the two national-level tournaments held in 2013.

'Leading nation'

The figures are indicative enough for Iepe Rubingh, president of the Berlin-based World Chess Boxing Organisation (WCBO), to report in an email to the Calcutta-based Chess Boxing Organisation of India (CBOI) on India's potential to become "one of the leading nations in chess boxing".

Globally, 13 countries, including the US, Germany, Russia, the UK and France, play the game. Newer entrants like Iran, China and India have bolstered its profile further.

Twenty-seven-year-old Shailesh Tripathi from Mumbai became the first-ever Indian participant at the World Chessboxing Championship held in Moscow on 28 November. He put up a good fight at the competition.

Tripathi, who has been a boxer for a decade and a chess player since his college days, says "the limits of body and brain are assessed at a global arena".

Image caption, Chess boxing is being played in 10 states in India

"It is this combination that attracted me to the sport. If promoted well, chess boxing can gain immense popularity in India," he adds.

To popularise the sport in India is the job of CBOI and its founder, Montu Das.

Having been involved as a player in high-combat games, including kick boxing, since his childhood, Das was introduced to chess boxing through an online video and subsequently, the WCBO website.

He was captivated by a game where the 11 competing rounds are split between six alternating rounds of chess and five three-minute rounds of boxing.

At any stage, a checkmate or a knockout can decide the winner, besides other criteria.

Happy compromise

As a sport, chess boxing is still in its infancy.

First conceptualised in 1992 by French cartoonist Enki Bilal in a graphic novel, it was reformatted for "modern times" by Mr Rubingh who felt having shorter-timed alternating rounds of chess and boxing would make the game more appealing for spectators. Mr Rubingh himself was a participant in the first WCBO tournament at Amsterdam in 2003.

Chess boxing, according to the current Indian national champion in the senior 75-80kg category, Anurag Mathur, is balanced wonderfully between the mind and body.

A former engineering student from Calcutta's Jadavpur University, he believes it takes some of the "mindless machismo out of boxing and the staidness out of chess".

Mathur trains at the south Calcutta gym owned by Das. The same address also doubles as the India headquarters of the game, where young hopefuls like 22-year-old Mousumi Bar, silver medallist in the women's category in the first national tournament, practice their punch and marshal their minds.

She became a kick boxer against the wishes of her parents so chess boxing has been a happy compromise for all involved.

"My parents are happy that it isn't an all-out combat game," says Bar. "As a kick boxer, they would worry that an injury might hamper my marriage prospects."

About 30% of registered chess boxers in India are women, informs Das.

Image caption, A third of the chess boxers in India are women

Ever since Das introduced the sport in India, his native city and state - Calcutta and West Bengal respectively - have seen multiple neighbourhood chess boxing clubs open up which have contributed about a third of CBOI's total membership.

While it is reported that WCBO is lobbying for the game to be included as an Olympic sport, Das, on his part, is canvassing for official recognition from the Indian government's ministry of youth affairs and sports.

So far, he says he has spent 250,000 rupees ($4,000; £2,443) in organising tournaments and promoting the game.

At his gym, young chess boxers are aspiring to make it big, even if it takes much more than the sweat carried from the boxing ring to drip onto chessboards.

Shamik Bag is a Calcutta-based journalist

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