Why Competitive Chess Is as Vicious as 10 Rounds in a Boxing Ring

Our writer was looking for a mellow pursuit to replace rec league hockey. Unfortunately the centuries old board game proved to be a lot more savage.

June 22, 2022 6:00 am
Chess pieces on a burning chess board
Chess can get nasty.
Zeferli via Getty

In my late forties, with father time beginning to gun for me, I decided to become a chess player. I wanted to line up a leisure activity for the day when my body would force me to quit banging into guys playing hockey, when my knees would tell me to stop chasing tennis balls across a hardcourt. Chess seemed like a pathway to staying nimble in my golden years. Didn’t Max von Sydow stave off the Grim Reaper with a game of chess?

I had no idea I was walking into an airplane propeller of brutality. Chess is merciless and nasty. The image of tweedy professors and genteel clergymen playing friendly chess while sipping snifters of brandy is deceptive. Chess is the one place where those guys have the opportunity to kick somebody’s ass and get away with it. The Netflix series The Queen’s Gambit pushed an old dramatic cliché: chess as a metaphor for the fine line between genius and madness.  But most players aren’t brilliant or nuts. They’re just hyper-aggressive, only in select cases pathological. The great, eventually insane Bobby Fischer said the greatest pleasure he experienced over the board was breaking an opponent’s ego. 

My first tutors were the old guys who played chess on Saturday mornings at what must be the world loudest public library, near my house. They unroll their silcone checkerboard mats, line up the pieces, and go at it. My personal Mr. Miyagi was Old Don, a retired high-school history teacher in his eighties.  He gave me books and tactical advice, but he never let me win. Over and over, I’d move mindlessly into a trap he’d set for suckers a thousand times, while he sat Yodalike, as if nothing was going on. Game after game, week after week, he’d get me in a choke hold and wait for me to tap out. There’s not much trash talk in adult chess. It’s unspoken. A condescending nod.  A look of pity. Old Don didn’t have to say a word when he lorded it over me. But he might as well have just given me a wedgie, or banged my wife.

I have competed physically all my life. I’ve hyperextended knees, and had my nose realigned in high-school wrestling. Boxing gloves and a 300-pound hockey defenseman have bruised my ribs. I broke two fingers on one play, in the end zone at a pick-up flag football game (dropped it!).  The aggression of chess pales to none of this. Chess is in-close fighting, elbows and knees, pushing and shoving. It’s pulling the guy’s jersey over his head and punching.  It’s a knife fight in a phone booth. You can’t hide.

There’s a ludicrous sport called chessboxing, popular in Germany and Russia, where players alternative between rounds of fighting and moves on the chessboard.  You lose by getting knocked out or checkmated. The participants tend to be world-class in neither. They just share the same dumb macho desire to dominate others physically and mentally. It’s no surprise that Wladimir Klitschko, who was the undefeated heavyweight boxing champion for a decade, plays chess. It’s is an even purer way than boxing to obliterate a guy. No referees, no judges’ decisions, just you and me, simple and free.

Certain moves in chess are particularly vicious: the fork, the skewer, the lethal “discovered check.”  All of them, in one move, threaten two of an opponent’s pieces at once.  If one of the threatened pieces is his king, he’s got to save the king, and the other piece is a goner. If that’s the queen, his throat has been slit. You learn painfully to avoid these daggers — and to set them up deceptively.  You disguise offense as defense — moving your queen seemingly to escape attack but really to line up your own killing move. You lay bait and lure opponents to the deathtraps, the way George Foreman, at age 45 in 1994, used a throwaway left hook in Round 10 to move heavyweight champ Michael Moorer toward Foreman’s booming right fist, which knocked Moorer out. You want to take my straying bishop with your queen?  Come at me bro. That’s right. That’s right where I want her.  Boom!

I entered a tournament at a social hall in New Jersey, for a $10 entry fee, and played in the bottom rung. Tournaments are endurance tests — games can last for hours. I won my first game, then played a 7-year-old named Chloe, who was weirdly intimidating in her pink Hello Kitty coat and hair band.  Early in the game, I blundered, and she took my queen, sternly, without even a smirk on her face.  After that I tightened up and played as dull as I could, sort of punishing both of us with tedium. She finally lost patience and made her own mistakes. Stupid kid. I survived to win. The mistakes make you stronger.  

To build my expertise, I solved chess puzzles and played online. In online chess, where hotheads from around the globe play anonymously, you do get juvenile taunts, typed in a chat window on the screen. “Jajajaja” a Brazilian punk, who captured my queen, cackled as he drew out his victory. A Russian, in his native tongue, called me a donkey dick (thanks, Google Translate).  “Need a lesson?”  one jerk typed after I’d botched an opening.  I shot back “What you got?” as I went into survival mode. “Let me learn from you,” I typed.  Minutes later, he blundered.  I pounced.  “Sumbitch,” he wrote, and resigned. “Good game,” I wrote.

One summer night, staying over in New York for work, I strolled past Union Square Park. It was hot, and the chess hustlers had boards and clocks on tables, taking small donations to play and humiliate NYU students. One of them was a big guy who resembled David Ortiz. He’d barely been paying attention to the games he won, focusing on a family-size tub of ice cream he was excavating. When the seat across his table opened up, and people looked around, I sat down. Two games of five-minute “blitz” chess for five dollars. You smack a piece down to a new spot and whack the top of the clock. Thunk-bang, thunk-bang. The first game made my head spin — I didn’t know I could lose so fast.  He scooped more vanilla. I didn’t even turn my head to see what the onlookers thought.

For game two, he moved as if invulnerable. I coiled into a tight defense. Pushed my pawns toward his front line. Pulled my queen back to a position that didn’t look threatening.  With the clock ticking down, I sacrificed a knight to open a path up for my rook up the left side of the board, where his king had castled. Suddenly my queen and rook had unstoppable pathways to a square beside his cornered king. It was over. He looked up from the board, put down the spoon, and reached to shake my hand in resignation. The assembled eggheads nodded their approval.  I tried not to look too proud or shocked, but I can’t promise I pulled it off.  

Win the Ultimate Formula 1® Crypto.com Miami Grand Prix Experience

Want the F1 experience of a lifetime? Here’s your chance to win tickets to see Turn 18 Grandstand, one of Ultimate Formula 1® Crypto.com Miami Grand Prix’s most premier grandstands!