Chessboxing: How A French Novelist Invented The Strangest Sport

More than 25 years after graphic novelist Enki Bilal invented a fictional sport that combines chess and boxing, it is now a very real — and growing — pastime.

Chessboxing bout in London
Chessboxing bout in London
Robin Richardot

PARIS — Thomas Cazeneuve's boxing club is like chessboxing itself: a work in progress. Next to the punching bags are the remains of a torn-down wall. But the Montpellier native pays it little mind as he does rep after rep with his jump rope.

The 26-year-old, who also works as a recruiter for the company Pay Job, is training for an upcoming trip to Turkey for the world championships of chessboxing, a peculiar sport that combines six rounds of chess and five of English-rules boxing.

Two adversaries begin in front of a chessboard, which is placed in the center of a ring. They wear ear muffs to block out any distracting noise, and for three minutes concentrate on the game in front of them. But when time expires, the board is removed, the fighters don boxing gloves, and then go at each other — again for three minutes. Afterwards it's back to the chess match, then back to slugging it out. And so on and so forth until a KO — or checkmate.

This odd mashup is the brainchild of Enki Bilal, a famous French artist who first brought the sport to life in one of his graphic novels, Froid Équateur (Cold Equator), published in 1992. Bilal's invention inspired the Dutch artist Iepe Rubingh to organize the first real-life chessboxing competition in 2003 before later starting an international federation for the sport.

2014 Chessboxing world cup in Berlin. — Photo: Stephanie Pilick/DPA/ZUMA

Today, there are approximately 3,500 chessboxers in the world and 10 different national federations, including one that was established in France in November 2018. As evidence of its growing popularity here, the country's first professional chessboxing match took place last month in the Parisian nightclub Cabaret Sauvage.

Thomas Cazeneuve has played a big role in the sport's development. But the story really begins with his dad, who introduced his son to chess at the tender age of just four. By 13, Cazeneuve was winning departmental and regional competitions, earning a reputation as a future star.

And so on and so forth until a KO — or checkmate.

A few years later, upon entering high school, he discovered boxing and other combat sports as well. Why? "I saw Rocky during summer vacation and I decided to give it a try," Cazeneuve recalls.

Of course, there's still the question of how it occurred to him to combine the two disciplines. This, again, is where Cazeneuve's father played a key role. After reading an article about chessboxing, he announced to his then 18-year-old son: "I've found the sport for you."

As fate would have it

Since then, Cazeneuve has had just one goal: to become the chessboxing world champion. The only problem was that, initially, there was no structure in place in France. Then, in 2015, he finally found someone to help his quest: Olivier Delabarre, the founder of a chessboxing club in Dieppe, on the English Channel. Together, they created a demonstration of the sport for a web-series sponsored by the Canal+ television network.

A big stroke of luck took Cazeneuve's career to the next level. As part of his business-school program, he had to find an internship abroad. "I got an offer to go to Stockholm, but I turned it down without even really knowing why," he explains. "I just had the feeling that wasn't where I was supposed to be."

He ended up in Berlin, which just happens to be home to the very first chessboxing club, founded in 2004. Coincidence? Cazeneuve decided to get involved, of course, and soon found himself playing against the club's top fighter. The Frenchman won — by checkmate — but what he didn't realize right away is that he'd just beaten none other than Iepe Rubingh.

The Dutch chessboxing pioneer decided to take Cazeneuve under his wing and organize matches for him. In April 2016, the French chessboxer competed in his first official fight, which he won by checkmate, as he has with seven of eight fights to date.

Imagine if I could win a gold medal!

From there Cazeneuve took his dreams of chessboxing glory to India, for the 2017 world championships. He made the trip by himself with money he'd collected through a fundraising campaign. One of the contributors, as it turned out, was Enki Bilal. "He called me to say how happy he was that a French person was participating in the sport," Cazeneuve recalls.

Despite coming down with food poisoning on the eve of the championship bout, the young French fighter won, taking home the first ever world chessboxing title in his category (under 66 kilos).

"Arriving back in France was just crazy," he says. The press took note of his accomplishment, and that gave the sport new visibility. That, in turn, inspired other people to take up chessboxing and to eventually form a French federation, headed by Guillaume Salançon.

Cazeneuve is happy to no longer be alone in his pursuit, but he knows that there's still a long road ahead for the sport. There are still only a handful of chessboxing clubs in France. Still, that doesn't stop him and his fellow French chessboxers from thinking big. Salançon, for one, doesn't see any reason why France couldn't eventually host a world championship. He and Cazeneuve are also hoping the sport will be included for the 2028 Olympic Games.

"I won't be that old," Cazeneuve says, making a quick calculation. "Wow, imagine if I could win a gold medal! But honestly, just participating in the Olympics would be amazing."

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The Food Truck, A Sign That The White And Wealthy Are Moving In

In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.

Balboa Park Spring Fling Food Truck festival

San Diego Food Trucks via Facebook
Pascale Joassart-Marcelli

SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.

What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?

But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.

An appetite for gentrification

I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.

In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.

This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.

Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.

Informal street vendors are casualties.

A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.

On paper, this all sounds great.

But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.

This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.

In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

A call for food justice

Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.

Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.

It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.

In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.

Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.

Upending an existing foodscape

In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.

San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"

But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.

Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.

All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.

So what happens when new competitors come to town?

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

Starting at a disadvantage

As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.

My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"

San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.

When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

Going up against the urban food machine

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.

I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.

When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.

Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.

It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.The Conversation


Pascale Joassart-Marcelli is a Professor of Geography and Director, Urban Studies and Food Studies Programs at San Diego State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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