Stamatakis: Chess Boxing and the art of novel combinations

By Nick Stamatakis

Boy stirs a cup of homemade soda water with a stick. Boy leaves stick in the cup. Boy leaves cup… Boy stirs a cup of homemade soda water with a stick. Boy leaves stick in the cup. Boy leaves cup outside on a cold evening. Boy tries to pull the stick out the next day, but finds the stick is stuck.

Boy has invented the Popsicle.

It’s funny to think that such an obvious treat was actually created by accident. It seems inevitable that someone would discover that a stick and frozen soda water are a great combination. But we’ll never know for sure.

This brings us to another random combination that future generations may someday see as obvious: Chess Boxing.

No, not chest boxing, which would simply combine chest-based maneuvers into the familiar sport, or chess boxes, which provide a surface for chess games. I’m talking about Chess Boxing.

If you aren’t familiar with the sport, it’s only been around since the early ’90s and has yet to enjoy any popularity outside its European homeland (with the exception of Wu-Tang Clan music videos). The activity is exactly what it sounds like: a four-minute round of chess followed by a three-minute boxing round, with each alternating until somebody is knocked out, checkmated, declared victor by the judges or dismissed for exceeding the 12-minute time window for making chess moves.

The sport features a combination as novel as the Popsicle, except its creation was purposeful. In the Popsicle’s case, the result was a convenient way to enjoy a frozen, sweet treat. For Chess Boxing, the result was a sport that challenges the athlete to exercise both brain and brawn — and more importantly, to quickly switch back and forth between them.

Both also reflect the times in which they were created. Created in 1905, the Popsicle in many ways embodies the amazing new conveniences the world experienced at the turn of the century. Through industrialization and the rise of the middle class, more people than ever had leisure time, and the Popsicle helped fill part of the void.

Similarly, Chess Boxing reflects today’s fast-paced, multitasking culture. This column was written from several locations over the course of a week, interspersed delicately between exercising, eating, sleeping and a — ahem — St. Patrick’s Day weekend. How better to harness the modern energy in all of us than through a sport like Chess Boxing?

It remains to be seen whether the activity will ever be popular in the United States. ESPN’s Rick Reilly characterized it as “one of the world’s dumbest sports,” so it may just be too weird for our culture’s taste. But its mere existence demonstrates how disparate things can be combined in novel ways to capture the spirit of a time.

The value of unexpected combinations extends beyond sports and food. In health care, the combined and unexpected contributions of economists, engineers and doctors are helping to drive innovation in hospital administration, according to Dr. Mark Roberts, the chairman of the Department of Health Policy and Management at the Graduate School of Public Health. During a presentation in early March, he noted that while the combinations aren’t as coincidental as adding a stick to frozen soda water, the integration of disparate fields has produced some of the most interesting ideas he’s encountered in his career.

We shouldn’t be afraid of experimentation. Popsicles, Chess Boxing and even hospital administration all demonstrate that it’s the coincidental or intentional combination of different things that creates value.

To encourage this experimentation, there are many changes, big and small, that our community can implement. An easy, on-campus suggestion would be to end restrictions on the use of public spaces. The prohibition of skateboarding on Posvar and ball playing on Schenley Plaza might be preventing the next Chess Boxing from being born. Even if the probability of this is minimal, why place an artificial upper limit on creativity?

This is where a defense of liberal arts education could go, but that column has been written many times before. What instead must be encouraged is a liberal arts mindset. Having students take separate classes in Lucky Charms and pecan ice cream is nice, but what we really need to do is make students want to put them together.

At the very least, Pitt students should create a Chess Boxing Club. The worst thing that could happen is failure. And in the best case scenario, well, we all become really good at Chess Boxing and embrace the shifting, spontaneous nature of the modern world.

Contact Nick at [email protected]