BERLIN — Martin "Amok" Thomas is jabbing a right, but Frank "so-cool-he-doesn't-need-a-nickname" Stoldt is as elusive as a ribbon in the wind. He can't be hit.
The gloves come off, and the men hurry across the canvas to the chessboard. (You heard it right.) Amok took a couple of body shots, and he's breathing hard, but he'd better focus. That Stoldt, though, everyone in the gym knows he's this warrior-thinker, slamming the speed clock, cunningly moving his queen amid unraveling bandages and dripping sweat, daring Amok to leave him a sliver of opportunity.
Velcro rips. Amok slides back into his Everlast gloves, bites down on his mouthpiece, dances along the ropes. His king's in trouble, and his punches couldn't knock lint off a jacket. Stoldt floats toward him like a cloud of big hurt.
Such is the bewildering beauty of chessboxing, alternating rounds of four minutes of chess followed by two minutes of boxing. Victory is claimed in a number of ways, some of them tedious, but the most thrilling are by checkmate and knockout.
The sport's godfather, Iepe "the Joker" Rubingh, believes that chessboxing, like that contest in which frostbitten Scandinavians ski around with rifles, is destined for the Olympics.
"It has enormous potential," says the Joker, 31, a taut Dutchman with an undamaged chin and wire-rimmed glasses. "Chess and boxing are very different worlds. Chessboxers move around in both. It's extremely demanding, but extremely rewarding. It's all about control over your physical and mental being. The adrenalin rush in boxing must be lowered to concentrate on chess strategy."
Some will snicker. The Joker knows this. But he is not deterred.
Former world heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis is a devoted chess player. Ukrainian Vitali Klitschko, another heavyweight champ who recently retired, has a keen intellect and knows what to do when a queen sidles toward his king.
That's the kind of brawn and brain a clever marketing guy like the Joker thinks he can turn into success, not the novelty kind of success, but genuine prime-time, Caesars Palace spotlight success.
"I'd love to get them together," the Joker says of Lewis and Klitschko. "What do you think they want -- $30 million?"
Without marquee names, however, there is a potential drawback. Will people buy a beer and a hot dog and watch bare-chested smart guys in colorful satin shorts play chess? They will, the Joker believes, if the match coincides with the possibility of a knockout or spilled blood.
He has a question: "Is this story for the sports pages or another part of the newspaper?" Hard to tell, he is told.
The World Chess Boxing Organization, founded by the Joker and several business partners, held its first European tournament in Berlin in October. Five hundred fans showed up under dim lights as Bulgarian Tihomir "Tigertad" Titschko became the new champion.
Titschko peers over a chessboard like he's trying to deconstruct the theory of relativity, and he hits like a big man who just met the guy who stole his girlfriend. He defeated Andreas "D" Schneider, a German actor in dark trunks who punched well but succumbed in the ninth round to Titschko's blistering chess attack, described as "the Dragon variation of the Sicilian defense."
Chessboxers use words like "aesthetics" and "arduous." They ponder performance art, science, philosophy; they study grids, angles and buried meanings in obscure books. They know about black holes and Taoism.
The rules might be considered simple: Eleven rounds, six of chess and five of boxing. The first round is always chess. "That's because," says the Joker, "if you go down in boxing there is no chess." A one-minute pause between rounds allows opponents to slip on and off gloves and for the chessboard to be moved in and out of the ring. If all is equal on the chessboard and the boxing scorecard after the 11 rounds, according to the rules, "the opponent with the black pieces wins."
Players are required to wear headphones during the chess part of the match. "This is so no one in the audience can yell out, 'Hey, be careful of the knight on E-6,' " says the Joker, whose ring alias is a bit of history and a bit of Hollywood. "It's part court jester, who in the old days was allowed to make fun of the king without getting punished. It's a name responsible for entertainment. And everyone knows the Joker from 'Batman.' "
The inspiration for chessboxing came to the Joker in 2003 after he glimpsed some dark magical realism in a comic by Enki Bilal, a Yugoslav-born artist living in Paris. "It's a futuristic story, and there's a guy watching TV," says the Joker, "and on TV is a kind of chessboxing match."