Jane Pojawa

An unassuming low gray building on Sunset Boulevard is marked only by an address, 7574. The windows are dark and it has an aura of urban decay about it. The entrance is in the back, but that information is only for those who have been to the Fortune Gym before. No sign advertises its presence to the uninitiated.

The gym itself is a bastion of austere masculinity. Clean, no frills. The brick walls support several photographs of boxers and a sign which reads “Rule number 9: No coaching or talking to another’s fighter or client.” Justin Fortune, a former heavy weight contender from Australia, takes a no-bullshit approach to running a gym, and there are no fancy exercise machines in here, no yoga classes, no wheatgrass juice bar.

Fortune Gym trains boxers. That’s it. Several men do variations on push-ups with free weights, punch heavy bags or speed bags and spar. Talking is minimal; concentration is key to the program. Boxing is a mental sport where anticipation of an opponent’s likely moves, and calculated response, and the art of the psych-out are factors frequently as decisive to victory in the ring as physical conditioning.

Chess is a game that uses the same mental skills in a completely different way. And it is here, at the Fortune Gym, that these two exercises converged at the Los Angeles Chessboxing Club’s first exhibition bout on Feb. 27.

The contenders are Andrew ‘The Fightin’ Philanthropist’ McGregor, better known for his work in citizen journalism in the world’s conflict zones and Germany’s David Pfeifer, a writer and representative of the World Chess Boxing Organisation.

McGregor, the founder of the Los Angeles Chessboxing Club, has had problems finding opponents. At nearly 6 foot 10 and weighing 280 pounds, he is simply much larger than most chessboxers, who tend to be middle-weights. Pfeifer, from Berlin, is shorter, stockier, but is a more experienced boxer. He is in Los Angeles to cover a story on celebrity rehab in Malibu, and was persuaded to fight McGregor to promote the sport in America. This is the first chessboxing match in America, although it is catching on quickly in Europe.

In the left corner of the gym is a boxing ring. A worn blue tarp covers the floor. It gets a lot of use. Slightly in front of the ring and to the right is a makeshift table with a portable chess board on it. The “board” is actually a printed piece of vinyl, and the plastic pieces are also cheap and nondescript. Chessboxing is not about pretty. It is about matching wits and strength with a worthy opponent, and its amateur qualities are what elevate it to an actual sport and not just a nerdy joke.

“The Don King model of boxing has forced all but professional fighters out of the sport,” says McGregor, “and you can play chess with a computer. The human element is lacking. But anyone can learn chessboxing.” Anyone who can play chess and doesn’t mind being hit in the face, but it is a well-taken point.

Competitive boxing bypassed amateur competition years ago, and few athletes play chess. Chessboxing gives amateur athletes an opportunity to excel where professionals cannot, and it is a democratic leveling of the playing field, where the non-specialist is at an advantage.

Kung-Fu Fighting

The genesis of chessboxing can be traced to the Taiwanese martial arts classic “Shuang Ma Lian Huan” aka “Ninja Checkmate” and, more commonly, “The Mystery of Chess Boxing” a film directed by Joseph Kuo (1979.)

A geriatric murderer (played by Mark Long) with the moniker “the Ghost-Faced Killer,” long steel-gray hair whipping the wind, does not resemble a ghost, nor does he kill people who do. His hallmark feature is the unnaturally long eyebrows that seem poised to colonize his forehead, common enough in arch-villains. He is deceptively sprightly despite his supposedly advanced age. If his elderly victims, for whom he has held a long-standing grudge, don’t scream “Ghost-Faced Killer!” upon his arrival, he does it himself. His master fighting style is the Five Elements – and no one knows which of them the Ghost-Faced Killer will use to bring their life to a swift and comical end. Perhaps it doesn’t matter because each of the elements looks the same.

In a parallel story, each of the elements looks the same because the “elements” all wear matching white pajamas and Beatle hair cuts. They are generic Kung Fu students, but one young man, Lee Yi Min, stands apart. He too wears the pajamas and sports a Paul McCartney, but he is motivated by a desire to avenge his father’s five-element death, at the hands of, surprisingly enough: the Ghost-Faced Killer. As the new student at Kung-Fu school, he endures Cinderella-type degradation with Karate Kid-style “paint-the-fence/wax-on wax-off” aplomb and scores unlikely apprenticeships with a cook and a chess master (Simon Yuen and Jack Long, respectively).

Once the pawn has crossed the line, he has to stay – there is no way back.

The stilted dialogue punctuates comedic martial arts scenes. The discipline of mastering chess is merely an allegory for mastering non-martial arts impulses. About halfway through the movie, the young apprentice had had enough, “I want to learn Kung-Fu!” he complains.

The chess master responds, “Well, in fact you are already learning. The first virtue is to be calm. Calm must be the basis of Kung-Fu. It’s a mental discipline. And playing chess will teach you to achieve calmness of mind. I have never discovered a better way.”

They are actually playing go, not chess in the Western sense, but the message is clear from this interchange: “To master this game you have to be, like I said, very calm, but also quick of wit, sharp of eye, fast of mind, slow of tongue, quick to see.”

“How’s this? You’re in check!”

“Hmmm. At dawn, you start training.”

And with that, the sport of chessboxing began to evolve, but before it became a sport, it became a song.

Enter the Wu Tang Clan

In the early ’90s the Staten Island-based rappers including members RZA, GZA, Method Man, Raekwon, Ghostface Killah, Inspectah Deck, U-God, Masta Killa, and the late Ol’ Dirty Bastard formed what would become one of the most influential hip-hop groups of the last 20 years. And their primary influence was martial arts movies. Dennis Coles, aka Ghostface Killah, took his stage name from the movie and “Da Mystery of Chessboxin'” was released as a single from their first album “Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers),” which was released in 1993.

The game of chess is like a swordfight
You must think first, before you move
Toad style is immensely strong, and immune to nearly any weapon
When it’s properly used, it’s almost invincible

Although this dialogue is presented in “Da Mystery of Chessboxin'” as seminal wisdom for chessboxers, it actually comes from another martial arts movie, “The Five Deadly Venoms,” a 1978 classic from Hong Kong. No matter; in Europe, chessboxing was capturing the public’s attention in an entirely different way.

European Chessboxing

In 1991, the Finnish comedy “Uuno Turhapuro – herra Helsingin herra,” directed by Ere Kokkonen, features a protagonist who plays blindfold chess against one character using a hands-free telephone headset while boxing another. This film was almost universally panned.

Finally, out of this cultural miasma, chessboxing’s breakthrough moment arrived. French-Yugoslavian graphic novelist Enki Bilal invented a hybrid chess-boxing sport in his 1992 work, Froid Équateur, and yet “real” chessboxing would take another decade to develop.

That moment came in 2003. Inspired by Bilal’s conceptualization, Dutch performance artist Iepe Rubingh, whose primary cultural contribution up to that point was blocking off intersections in Tokyo and Berlin to cause traffic jams, envisioned a practical way – alternating rounds – to combine the two sports. Rubingh, who chessboxes under the name “Iepe the Joker,” launched the World Chessboxing Championship in Amsterdam in 2003, and founded the World Chess Boxing Organisation. It is his most successful foolie to date.

A Real Sport

Wu-Tang Clan founding member RZA (Robert Diggs) is a fan and advocate of the novelty sport, and has launched a new campaign “WuChess” to teach chess to inner-city youth alongside martial arts like ju-jitsu for “flexin’ ya mentals,” and non-violent conflict resolution. In a way, chessboxing has returned to its roots.

There are chessboxing clubs in Germany, Russia, England, Bulgaria and now – the United States. Specifically, Los Angeles.

Fighting is done in the ring and wars are waged on the board.

.is the tag line of the World Chess Boxing Organisation (WCBO), the body that governs the sport. It seems to be the case. The rules of chess and boxing apply and the structure it thus:

The match begins with a four-minute chess round. This is followed by three minutes of boxing, with rounds of chess and boxing alternating until the end. A match consists of up to 11 alternating rounds of boxing and chess (six four-minute rounds of chess, five three-minute rounds of boxing). There is a one-minute break between rounds – just enough time to get from the ring to the board, although some rings are set up with the board in the middle – ready for action. Speed chess is used, a form in which each player has a total of only 12 minutes for the whole game. Snap decisions and instinct dominate.

Competitors may win by a knockout, achieving a checkmate, by the judges’ decision, or if their opponent’s 12 minutes of chess time is exceeded. If a competitor fails to make a move during the chess round, he is issued a warning and he must move within the next 10 seconds. Repeated warnings may result in a disqualification.

I have taught you enough now to break his Kung-Fu, but bear his technique in mind. The five elements: fire, gold, wood, water, earth. The earth absorbs water. Wood can beat earth. Gold cuts wood. Earth absorbs gold. Once again! Alright. Just remember what I’ve taught you.

Pfeifer and McGregor square off. Sweat falls in mouse-sized drops. Trainers yell last minute instructions from the corners – “keep your hands up!” Nothing as esoteric as the commands of the Kung-Fu chess master.

McGregor, “the Fightin’ Philanthropist,” struggles to defeat Pfeifer’s elements, and launches an aggressive offense. It’s close. McGregor’s chi is strong, but perhaps not strong enough.

“I’m here to promote the sport,” says David Pfeifer, occasionally known also as “Dr. King Kong.” He believes that once people see a chessboxing match they’ll be hooked. Pfeifer’s easy smile never falters – it’s clear that he’s having a great time – even though he suffered an untimely defeat in the 5th round after inadvertently trapping his own king. He lost the “war” while winning the “fight.”

McGregor, now America’s undisputed heavyweight chessboxing champion, is eager to defend his title. The Los Angeles Chessboxing Club is actively recruiting new members in all weight classes. McGregor claims that he has never used toad style to defeat an opponent, but stated that he would not rule it out.

A “ChessBoxing 4 Charity Fundraiser” will be held at Les Deux Nightclub at 1638 N. Las Palmas, Hollywood on Thursday, Sept. 23 from 7 p.m. to 2 a.m. $15 presale, $20 at the door. Three bouts are planned, including two female chessboxers squaring off on the board and in the ring. All ticket proceeds go to the Tiziano Project to fund citizen journalism programs in conflict zones.

The Wide World of Chessboxing

 To learn more about this fast-growing amature sport, online resources are available. Training is ongoing at the Fortune Gym, contact Andrew Mc Gregor, founder of the Los Angeles Chessboxing Club, the only American club endorsed by the WCBO, for more information:
The Los Angeles Chessboxing Club:

 For international inquiries, contact the World Chess Boxing Organisation:

 WuTang members GZA and RZA (cousins Robert Diggs and Gary Grice) continue to support chess and chessboxing for inner-city youth. For more information visit