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Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Meet Canada’s first Chess Boxer: Sean Mooney

Alexandra Kosteniuk's Chess Blog for Daily Chess News and Trivia (c) 2013

Hi everyone, 

A man sits dazed in a chair at the centre of a boxing ring at London’s Royal Albert Hall, staring over a chessboard that is slanting away from him.

In his hand, wrapped for the fight he is also losing, is a pawn. Sweat gathers around his noise-cancelling headphones, which are blasting classical music so he can’t hear the announcer, a chess Grandmaster, prognosticating his impending defeat.

The pawn is buying time, precious seconds to recover before a blonde ring girl in a black one-piece signals the next round — boxing, this time.

Across from him is Sean Mooney, a man who’s been to the peak of Everest and back, a Cornell University product who failed to catch on in Major League Soccer but completed a triathlon with two weeks’ training on a bet.

He’s also Canada’s first chessboxer, about to win in his debut.

Bachelorhood in Britain has its perks, but on a Friday night in London, Mooney is far away from those temptations.

He’s training for a sport he’s punch-drunk in love with: Chessboxing. It’s exactly what it sounds like, alternating rounds of chess and boxing. Winners are decided by knockout, checkmate or if they run out of their allotted chess time. Six four-minute segments of chess and five three-minute boxing rounds make up a fight.

To train, Mooney, now 28, spent his Friday and Saturday nights in the 12 weeks leading up to the October bout taking chess lessons in the unlikeliest of places — a dingy gym with the sole purpose of training men to induce pain, especially to the head.

Chessboxing requires brawn and brains. One fighter is in Mensa.

“It’s kind of like people trying to break stereotypes,” Mooney says in a late-night phone interview from his London home. “It’s nerds trying to get back at the bullies who beat them up, and jocks trying to discard the dumb jock myth.”
On the sidelines with his omnipresent camera is Toronto filmmaker David Bitton, hard at work on Chessboxing: The King’s Discipline.
Since 2009, he’s been to the major hotspots of the sport: London, Berlin and Los Angeles. He has chronicled the sport’s growing pains, with distinct factions debating every element including whether chessboxing should be one word or two.

“Whenever I tell anyone about chessboxing, that’s never the end of the conversation,” Mooney says. “Everyone’s instantly like, ‘What is that? Tell me more, I need to know.’ . . . (It) locks people in instantly.”

That might be an overstatement. First impressions often tend to be along the lines of: “You’re not serious, are you?”

“You can see they’re really desperately trying not to smile because they don’t want to offend me,” said Andy Costello, a 220-pound mixed martial arts fighter who was “outed” as a chessboxer in front of Quinton (Rampage) Jackson.

Rampage didn’t poke fun. In fact, he also likes chess, Costello says. The same goes for boxing giants Lennox Lewis, Vitali Klitschko and Manny Pacquiao.

Costello’s son is another story: “He calls me a chessboxing clown.”

“As far as I’m concerned, (chessboxing) has two identities. . . . It’s a really legitimate attempt to test brains and brawn. At the same time, it’s so much fun to watch.”
The London club that hosted the October fight between Mooney and pawn-wielding Bryan Woon is trying to make a go of it. Other clubs, notably in Berlin, are more strict about enforcing rules that limit the field. Costello knows few fighters who meet the World Chess Boxing Organization’s listed requirements: at least 20 amateur bouts and a chess rating of 1,800.

This is, after all, a sport inspired by a 1992 graphic novel (Enki Bilal’s Froid Equateur), with the first fight held in 2003 in Amsterdam. More than a few beers were served the night the WCBO was formed.

David Depto, the only Mensa-certified fighter to throw his mug in the ring, says athletes are still learning the rhythm of chessboxing. The key, he says, is treating each boxing round like it’s the last. Wearing opponents down doesn’t work when there’s nearly six minutes of recovery time between rounds. He also tries to be the one to make the last chess move to buy time while his opponent waits, adrenaline pumping.

Bitton, meanwhile, has had a front-row seat.

“It’s the genesis of something new, which is exciting,” says the filmmaker, who will soon edit his documentary after raising $35,000 on Kickstarter.

Clubs are starting to pop up in China, and India recently held a tournament with 180 competitors. Costello says he’ll fight again, and Mooney has signed on for another bout in London, likely in the spring.

The future of the sport is unknown. For now, chessboxing is buying time, pawn in hand. (Article by Jeff Green)

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