Da Mystery of Chessboxin’

When I’m not capturing rooks, I’m throwing right hooks; today, I want to box AND play chess. Is that too much for a guy to ask? Launching a series of combinations, my best chance to gain ground on my 6’6” opponent is by pummeling him in the boxing ring. Keeping with a steady jab-jab-right, I know when we go to the board – he easily could steer me into checkmate. Chessboxing is that perfect marriage of playing a board game and punching someone in the head. (Sounds great for those stressful family outings.) I’m here at the Gotham Gym in Manhattan – flexing both brain and arm muscles – to take part in the worldwide sensation.  The sport is basically just like it sounds: chess + boxing = chessboxing. 

“Chessboxing is a contest that alternates between chess and boxing,” explains Jarrett Gaymon- the CEO and founder of New York City Chessboxing. Further explanation: “Chessboxing is eleven rounds. You have a chess round for four minutes – with a minute rest. Then there’s a boxing round for three minutes – with a minute rest. And so on – for eleven rounds – at which point the winner is decided by judges if there isn’t a checkmate or knockout.”

Because it’s brains mixed with brawn, chessboxing clubs attract a wide cross-section of participants; ranging from mathematicians, bankers, and nuclear submarine commanders –  to professionally trained boxers and MMA fighters. Jarrett is an engineering student at CUNY – who served in the Iraq War. He started the club after reading an Internet article about the sport: “I was really intrigued because I’ve been an avid chess player since my last few months in the military and I’ve always been interested in boxing,” he says. “I watched my uncle train in boxing when I was a little kid and he showed me a few punches to keep the bullies off me.”  

Jarrett contacted the World Chessboxing Organization to get the club off the ground. “The overall goal of New York City Chessboxing is to be one of the pioneering clubs of the US Chessboxing League. And we have the immediate goal of putting on an event by the end of this summer – 2013.” Down the road, Jarrett would love to see chessboxing introduced in after school programs. “We really believe it would be a good training method for trouble adolescents to give them a competitive outlet to express their frustration and competitive aspirations.”

“Is it better to excel in chess or boxing for chessboxing?” I ask.

“The emphasis on the sport is more focused on chess – than boxing,” says Jarrett. “First off, there’s an extra chess round. Also, the chess rounds are longer than the boxing rounds. Further, if you can really stave off a knockout in the boxing rounds – then you can concentrate in achieving checkmate in chess.” Jarrett clearly defines himself as stronger in chess than boxing: “I’m green when it comes to boxing,” he says with a smile. “But in chess, I’m a relatively strong player. I’m trying to get my boxing skills to somewhat match my chess skills.”

“Great!” I exclaim. “Let’s fight!”

Punch

PUNCHING TIME

Inside the boxing ring, sweat flies as I clobber Jarrett with as many combinations as possible. (I should have hidden chess pieces in my boxing gloves – to land much harder punches.) The sporting hybrid makes sense as we maneuver off the ropes. Boxing evokes a physical chess game; it’s not arbitrary like having checkers paired with Kendo (Japanese stick fighting). Both involve attacking while utilizing a combination of offense and defense.

My strategy is to tire Jarrett out so when we hit the chessboard – he can’t function to capacity. Or better yet – I’ll just knock him out so he won’t even make it to the next chess round. Jarrett drops his guard as I land a few hooks to the ribs. He winces. Victory is soon mine…

Saved by the bell…

We quickly remove our gloves (wearing boxing gloves make it extremely hard to move chess pieces) and lift the chess table into the center of the ring. Jarrett explains his strategy:  “I want to be able to focus on outplaying my opponent in chess and stave off knockout or loss of points in the boxing rounds.”

Check

Still huffing and puffing, I’m amped up on an adrenaline from the boxing round. Jarrett whips off his opening move and then quickly hits the speed clock. The transition is purely schizophrenic; boxing is all about aggressive intensity, chess is all about calm. I make frenzied moves to keep with Jarrett’s Zen-like, rapid pace. Still manic from three minutes of throwing punches – the lack of oxygen to my brain makes it difficult to remember the lessons learnt while playing numerous hours of online chess. Trouble focusing and settling into the patient flow of chess after sparing. Jarrett takes pieces right and left; quickly clearing the board. Three hastier moves – still trying to catch my breath. Then: “Checkmate!”

Moments later, we’re back in the ring; I’m rapidly throwing punches at my chess opponent. (Did Viswanathan Anand and Boris Gelfand throw punches after the 2012 World Chess Championship?) Pow-pow-pow! I’m pissed off:

“THAT’S WHAT YOU GET FOR CHECKMATING ME!”

I don’t take too kindly to losing at the board and Jarrett is feeling my wrath.

“Who’s calm now, mofo?” I scream – landing a hook-straight-hook combo. I corner Jarrett into the ropes, swinging wildly to the breadbasket. Victory is so close – I can smell it….

Five minutes later, Jarrett commands a second rapid checkmate of the day. Gasping for air, I can barely think clear – punch drunk while hitting the speed chess clock. Jarrett is clearly the George Foreman of checkmate.

“At Gotham Gym we train like fighters,” he says as we pack up the chess pieces and boxing gloves. 

Chessboxing is an exciting, innovative sport where everyone is a winner! (Except for the real ACTUAL winner that ACTUALLY wins the competition.) Need we say it: Chessboxing is a knockout! (Insert huge laughter here.)

On The Verge: Piano Gladiator ELEW & His Rockjazz

When a new genre of music is created, the world takes notice. And in Eric Lewis’ case, the music industry took more than notice; with the creation of his own style of rockjazz, he’s set the scene on fire in a controversial, stormy way that suits the man and the brand that he is. Merging rock guitar techniques with pop and ragtime, and putting it all on the piano, Lewis – known onstage as ELEW – has outraged the jazz world, while awing the pop/rock world – especially when he plucks and beats the heck out of the piano’s insides and shield. Outfitted with armor on his wrists, a suit, and a vivacity that defies merely sitting on a piano bench, but standing and rocking the entire time he plays, ELEW’s renditions of pop/rock anthems and original songs on his latest record introduce a sound we’ve never heard before. As ELEW prepares for his Friday, Nov. 9th show at Le Poisson Rouge, he shared what gets him high, his favorite distraction, and when he played for a legendary celeb.

You’ve said you’re a huge fan of comic books, and that you feel superhuman and supercharged when you get on stage. What are some pre-show rituals you’ve adopted that you’ll use for Friday’s show? 
My workout. I call it "the ninja run.” I run through the forests of Riverdale with my hand in front of myself, like a karate chop or shark fin. I take on the ninja mindset. Like characters in Mortal Combat who intersect physical performance with the supernatural, I try to make my mind as much a weapon as my body. Before I play, I focus on combining my passion with precision, and vice versa.  

In a day, how do you balance working out with practicing and performing?
If I’m not exercising, I’m practicing, and if I’m not doing that, I’m playing chess. Or watching Dexter. I used to practice the piano all the time, but now the game has shifted to a perceptual challenge of the mind, and sometimes it’s very exhausting and painful. The improvisation I learn from chess is similar to what I use in music. But in chess, I’m going against someone. In music, it’s subjective to the audience, and it’s ultimately a battle with myself. But there’s such an ecstasy to it. 

Is there anything else in your life that gives you that kind of ecstasy?
Women. I’m a hopeless romantic. Being an entrepreneur, too. I have so many ideas for what I want to do next, so the power of creating those ideas is euphoric.

You crawl into the piano, plucking the strings like a guitar and beating the wooden case like a drum. Do you actually play these instruments?
I do know how to play the drums, and I played the violin for a year as a kid, but when I noticed horn players putting different objects in horns to make different sounds. I started experimenting. The things I do aren’t new exactly, but how I do it is. My way of branding it is. Alexander Graham Bell didn’t invent the telephone, but he invented the way he branded it. With my music, you want to dance to what’s going on. Playing without a piano bench and wearing armor – no one’s ever done that. I love to move, and I really want to rock.

You toured with and opened for Josh Groban for most of last year. What’s the #1 lesson you learned from him?
To be elegant. Touring with him made me re-record my latest record. Hearing the elegance of his presentation, delivery, and repoire made me want to re-record my music with that kind of professionalism. He’s so in touch with his brand, style, what it is he’s adding to the music scene, and he knows how to nurture it and present it elegantly.

What’s your ideal vision of the future for ELEW?
I want to be legendary. Yanni, Herbie Hancock, and Elton John, all wrapped into one. Hard-hitting. I want to collaborate with Lil Wayne and dubstep artists, and be like John Carpenter was to Halloween – write the story and the music for my own horror film. I want to create a comic book movie, a music festival. And I’d like to improve my chess game.

You’ve cultivated a fanbase of celebrities like Hugh Jackman, Obama, and Leonardo DiCaprio. Tell me your favorite celebrity story.
Al Pacino asked me to perform at a party he was having at his house. I started playing a crazy rhythm people could dance to, and suddenly Al jumped on one side of the piano next to me and started to play. I put his fingers on some of the notes as if we were playing "Heart and Soul," and we started playing and rocking together. 

Al Pacino