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Sparring with Shailesh Tripathi, India’s only professional chess boxer

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Compared to chess and boxing that are many centuries old, chess boxing — at a decade — is a rank amateur. Thankfully, its most accomplished contender in India isn’t. Heavyweight boxer ShaileshTripathi has been boxing for 10 years, and aggressively pursuing chess since the last two. He was also the only Indian to qualify for the World Chess Boxing Championship, held in Moscow, last year.

Chess boxing, like the name suggests, is the love child of the two opposing sports. A single match lasts 11 rounds (six for chess and five for boxing) in which you play three minutes of chess, take a minute’s break, and then box for three minutes with the same challenger. Either a knockout or a checkmate can decide the winner. If it sounds tough, imagine trying to moderate a book club in the middle of a fight club. But, Tripathi says, “This is what’s special about chess boxing. It tests your physical and mental strength.”

Tripathi picked up boxing when he was in college, but knew he would have a career only if he could compete at the state level. “The best players of Maharashtra were active in my weight category, so I really had to survive. To score a medal then was a big deal. When you beat four champions, you become self-motivated. Later I discovered it’s an Olympic sport, so it’s easier to get a job. Then, I felt if I can box, then I can chess box as well.” Tripathi knows chess is his weakness, but he also knows that “even if you’re a good player, I can still play you for about six minutes.”

The game is picking up across the world (even Iran has a team now). In India, most of the action is in Kolkata, thanks to the efforts of Montu Das, the head of Chess Boxing Organisation of India. At a championship held there last year, 180 fighters participated from 10 states. And, at the one held in Moscow, Tripathi lost to Belarusian Leonid Chernobaev only after a technical knockout. He says of the experience, “By the fifth round, my mind was blocked. It took me a few seconds to understand what my knight was doing. When I’m boxing, I may look okay, but my mind has been thrown off-kilter.” He still managed to last eight rounds and believes that “as compared to other countries, India’s performance was good”. But, for the game to become truly popular in the country, it needs more than just champions. Tripathi says, “Everyone thinks boxing is a violent game because we’re intentionally hitting someone. The upper and middle classes learn chess, not boxing. And, boxing is popular in the lower classes that have no exposure to chess. So, we need good boxers to pick up the game.”

Before I leave him, though, I do have one lingering question. Who would win if Mike Tyson fought against Garry Kasparov? The FAQ section on the website of World Chessboxing Association has the answer, “This is an impossible situation.”