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From comic book to the mat: chessboxing bout thrills French creator

AFP logoAFP 11/10/2019 AFP
a crowd of people watching television in a dark room: Over 11 three-minute rounds, competitors alternate brawn and brain © LUCAS BARIOULET Over 11 three-minute rounds, competitors alternate brawn and brain

French comic book writer Enki Bilal laps it up as he watches two proponents of his creation combine the cerebral nature of chess with the physicality of boxing in a "sporting" first.

Bilal watched spellbound as Paris's Cabaret Sauvage hosted France's first "bout" of competitive chessboxing Saturday, nearly three decades after he first depicted the concept in his work.

a group of people in a dark room: Enki Bilal, a comic book writer who depicted the idea 27 years ago, says chessboxing "blends all the human qualities, and there are precious few sports which do that" © LUCAS BARIOULET Enki Bilal, a comic book writer who depicted the idea 27 years ago, says chessboxing "blends all the human qualities, and there are precious few sports which do that"

A sellout crowd turned up to watch as the competitors alternated brawn and brain, three-minute rounds of boxing giving way to mini-chess bouts across a maximum 11 rounds, the whole thing ending either with a knockout -- or a checkmate.

a man sitting on a stage: The hybrid sport is taking off, with a dozen national federations and around 3,500 proponents © LUCAS BARIOULET The hybrid sport is taking off, with a dozen national federations and around 3,500 proponents

A DJ whips up the audience before the bare-chested protagonists, sweatshirts slung over their shoulders, enter the ring, escorted by their respective entourages.

To drown out the noise of the partisan crowd, the "fighters" put headphones on as they survey the chessboard.

"Move your pawn," reads one supportive banner in a crowd of mainly 30-something fans.

Shifting to not pulling punches, the rivals launch into battle, eschewing protective headgear.

After three minutes of sweaty, adrenaline-fuelled action they return to the chessboard for some more brainy manoeuvring.

"Passing from the violence of boxing to re-concentrating on chess is using the two most beautiful human capacities -- intelligence and physical force," Bilal told AFP, amused to see his concept leap from the pages of his comic books to become physical reality.

Bilal came up with the idea while writing his Froid Equateur (Cold Equator) trilogy in 1992. Ten years on, Dutchman Iepe Rubingh actually organised a maiden fight and an international federation was created.

Today, there are a dozen national federations with around 3,500 proponents.

"When Iepe read the comic book he saw the sport straight away. Boxing is a noble art, with its rules and codes, its elegance -- (it is) a form of beauty and, inexorably, strength, resistance and intelligence.

a man doing a trick on a stage: France's first competitive bout of chessboxing drew an enthralled crowd to Paris's Cabaret Sauvage © LUCAS BARIOULET France's first competitive bout of chessboxing drew an enthralled crowd to Paris's Cabaret Sauvage

"Chess is strategic, about mental (strength)," said Bilal, adding that he was thrilled to witness "the birth of chessboxing champions".

"Training for chess is also about mugging up on books. It's worse than music theory. They've come up with something modern, a sport which blends all the human qualities, and there are precious few sports which do that."

As for Saturday's card, the outcome was two technical knockouts and one checkmate. 

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