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By Rook or Left Hook The Story of Chessboxing - Documentary Review (Melbourne Documentary Festival 2021)

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by Steven G (subscribe)
Too much tertiary education... Former performer/wrestler, teacher, scientist; Published author & Father... Want to be a writer if I grow up...
Event: -
The perfect mash-up of sports
Some time ago I put up an article of 10 obscure sports worth watching, and in that list was the sport of chessboxing. Now, I come at this sport from a weird angle. I first saw it on Wide World of Sports on Channel 9 sometime in the early 2000s (but I seem to remember a Wu Tang Clan song about it from the 90s). At this time, I had been in 2 boxing matches (lost one, drew one), and had high school chess experience (won none, drew many, lost many more), and so I thought I could put mediocrity to good use. There was nowhere in all of Australia that offered chessboxing, so it became a bizarre pipe dream.

Then, recently, I was offered a chance to watch an actual documentary on this great sport.

By Rook Or Left Hook: The Story Of Chessboxing (2021)
Written & Directed by David Bitton

So… the documentary. First, it is probably a little long – at 1 hour 43, it does drag at times. But it is from the man who gave us King of Kong, Ed Cunningham, which was an amazing look at rivalry gone toxic, so it is done with incredible love and with no punches pulled (sorry about that… but it probably won't be the last bad pun I use).

chess, boxing, documentary
What lies at the heart of chessboxing.

We meet Iepe, the artist/performance artist/practical joker who invented it as something of an art commentary or piece of performance art, based on a comic book. Suddenly it grew and took on a life of its own.

"If I have one criticism of chess, it's that you can't punch your opponent in the face. Until now!" – Stephen Colbert

In 2003, we had the first world championships and – voilà! – new sport. We look at its growth, especially in the UK and Germany. They talk about how it had to grow into a more spectator-friendly event, which happened in the UK. And then the 2008 Global Financial Crisis hit and chessboxing suffered like many other endeavours, but Tim Woolgar in the UK kept it going. This sets up our two protagonists – Iepe and Tim. Look, I am not going to give a blow-by-blow account of this documentary, as it is something that needs to be seen. This shows how much people can get done if they are passionate about it.

chess, boxing, documentary
The chess…

chess, boxing, documentary
…and the boxing.

The strategies used in the bouts are quite incredible to a sports nerd like me – survive the chess to punch him out, or win the chess in few moves so he doesn't get a chance to punch you out. It seems simple, but it is far from it. Training is intense. The money required to make it worldwide is huge. At least one marriage fails over the course of the time shown, and a child is born.

This was an interesting look at a very minor sport, showing that things can be as ruthless at the lower levels as they are at the higher echelons. The negotiations, petty politicking, money, sponsors, crowds – none of it changes, bottom to top. As an examination of how all sport in this modern world is essentially the same, no matter the passions of those involved, it was a little depressing, truth be told.

Having said all that, what the documentary lacked was the feel of major conflict. The conflict that existed – between Berlin and London, serious sport v showmanship, marketing v groundswell – felt very underplayed, and the ending felt like there was more to say. The final credits do say that one of the two main characters – Iepe – passed away in 2020, so maybe it was subdued in tribute to him. Maybe it was supposed to be more focused on these two intriguing characters and how much of their lives was put into this tiny, new sport – especially Tim – over the course of several years, but it did lack that kick.

For all that, however, it was quite an interesting documentary. It might be a touch niche, but I found it fascinating.

When? July 1 to July 31
Why? Melbourne Documentary Film Festival

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Why? Some topics need a documentary
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