Leah Baxter, the hero of my new novel Chessboxer is an international chess master and also something of an athlete. She can run a five-minute mile. She can jab a punchbag seventy-four times in thirty seconds. She can jump a skipping rope a hundred times before screwing up.
I wish I had half of Leah’s athleticism and hand-eye coordination. I would love to be able to jump rope even ten times before screwing up. As it turns out I can jump rope precisely zero times before screwing up.
It’s Saturday morning and I have come to Islington boxing club, to spend some time flailing ingloriously with a skipping rope. Experienced chessboxer Matt ‘Crazy Arms’ Read skips effortlessly at my side, encouraging me with kindly advice. ‘Jump up just before the rope reaches your shins,’ he says. ‘You’ll get the hang of it soon.’ And later (since I show no sign of getting the hang of it), ‘Put both handles in one hand and just twirl the rope by your side.’
As well as being embarrassed by my lack of coordination, I am also somewhat starstruck. The fifteen other skippers in this gym are the best-known chessboxers in the UK – Gavin ‘Grievous Bodily Farmer’ Paterson, Cameron ‘The Hurt Locker’ Little, Roger ‘Cannonball’ Baxter, names I’ve become very familiar with these last five years.
After an eternity of entanglement, I get to play some chess. This is the essence of chessboxing training – moving from high-intensity cardio work to blitz chess and back again. But with my heart still pumping from my fumbled attempts to skip, I can’t remember any decent lines for white in the French Defence Advance Variation. I’m making it up as I go along, and soon I am haemorrhaging pawns.
‘You thought you’d be meeting Leah, didn’t you?’ I whisper.
‘It’s fine,’ Matt chuckles. ‘At least you write a damn good game.’
I’m pleased by the compliment because I always wanted Chessboxer to be read and enjoyed by people who know their chess, as well as by those who’ve never picked up a knight in their life. In writing first-person POV from Leah’s perspective, the challenge was to shoehorn myself into the shoes of a chess master and convey in writing the intense drama of high-level chess. If Crazy Arms enjoyed the book, I must have done something right.
Gavin calls time on the chess round and we move on to boxing – or in my case, a beginners lesson with boxing coach Zowie Campbell. ‘Stand at forty-five degrees,’ he says. ‘Hands up to your face. Elbows tight to your rib cage. Bend your knees. Now take a step forward and drag your right foot behind.’ It turns out that even the most basic punch, the jab, has a dozen separate components. ‘Twist your right foot as you throw the jab,’ says Zowie, demonstrating. ‘Pretend you’re stubbing out a cigarette butt on the ground…twist-twist.’
As the lesson progresses, I am struck not just by the complexity of basic boxing technique, but also by the poetry of it. As Iron Mike scowls down at us from a poster on the wall, Zowie takes us through a drill that would not sound out of place in a Hilaire Belloc poem: Step forward, jab, jab, uppercut, jab…step forward, jab, jab, left hook, back.
Also getting his first taste of boxing today is Matthew Lunn, an accomplished chess player and commentator. After our lesson, I make the mistake of challenging Matthew to a game. He lets me play white, gives me a huge time advantage on the clocks, and then mercilessly steamrollers me, delivering checkmate before I’ve even castled.
Gavin calls the switch and it’s time for the punching bags to get a battering of their own. ‘Bend your knees, not your neck,’ Cannonball calls over to me. ‘And stop sticking your arse out. Watch Matt and Cameron if you want to see good technique from tall people.’
The English word ‘agony’ comes from the Greek word agon, meaning ‘contest’. The final contest of the morning – the last delicious agony – is two laps around Elthorne Park and a sprint up Hazelville Hill. ‘Keep your gloves on,’ grins Gavin, ‘and I’ll be shouting at you to keep your guard up all the way.’
For lap, read lumber. For sprint, read stagger. I’m so grateful to Gavin and Matt for their willingness to induct an out-of-condition author into the mystery of chessboxing, but this final uphill sprint is killing me, and I can’t help thinking of the scene in Chessboxer where Leah encounters her gym equipment nemesis: Jacob’s ladder. ‘After three minutes, my muscles are burning,’ she says. ‘After ten minutes, I no longer know my own name. After fifteen minutes I want nothing more than to crawl into a deep dark ditch and die.’
In her often quoted book ‘On Boxing’ (1987), Joyce Carol Oates wrote this: ‘The punishment a person must endure to become even a moderately good boxer is inconceivable.’ Inconceivable, perhaps, but I do feel as if I’ve had a glimpse.
Chessboxer comes out on Thursday 3 October 2019, published by Andersen Press.
London Chessboxing’s next event Oktoberfist takes place on Saturday 5 October 2019.
I chatted with Gavin and the two Matts for this episode of their excellent Chessboxing podcast.
Chessboxing training happens every Saturday morning at Islington Boxing Club.