Chess Champion Talks Boxing

By Tom Donelson
Updated: February 26, 2005

NEW YORK, NY–Chess champion, also a boxing fan, recently lectured me on the similarity on Chess and boxing. He began by noting “There is no such thing as a certain answer in chess, also there no such thing as the best move.” How true is that in boxing? Most pundits, including yours truly, predicted Spinks to defeat Judah. Not only did Judah win but he also knocked Spinks out. Nor was this the first time the unexpected happened in boxing. In the De La Hoya-Hopkins fight, De La Hoya came out swinging and unleashing his lethal combinations but to no avail. Hopkins outsmarted both the pundits and De La Hoya.

Chess Champ tells me that in Chess, “There is the positional play, attacking play, open positions, semi open positions. All those positions can be achieved by different openings.” Hopkins merely positioned himself to counterattack the more aggressive De La Hoya. Instead of boxing, De La Hoya moved forward and into Hopkins trap. Hopkins merely positioned himself to better counter De La Hoya. In the ninth round, he checkmated De La Hoya. (In boxing terms, he knocked De La Hoya out.)

“Sometimes players change style as years go by…but chess like boxing requires both good defense and attack in order to keep the game going well,” Chess Champ told me. In his earlier career, Ali was a boxer and mover. He danced around the ring but as he got older, the legs no longer had the same spring to move. Against Foreman, Ali danced for the first round but he observed that Foreman cut off the ring effectively. It would be only a matter of time before Foreman would trap a tiring Ali, so Ali changed game plan. He played rope-a-dope and allowed Foreman to tire himself out. Ali used defense to slip some of the heavier punches and counter with sharp accurate punches. Ali showed both good defense and good offense. The final result was checkmate in the eighth round.

What is the difference between the top ten contender and the great fighters? “A master knows a good opening, can play form any position and play you good.. A grandmaster will also play like that, except instead of drawing the game, he will find or create small positional advantages and grind you down to a pulp,” Chess champ tells me.

The same is true in Boxing. Good fighters find a way to beat most fighters but never win the big one. Great fighters win the big fights. Ken Norton was a good fighter but in the big fights, he came up short against the great fighters like Ali, Foreman and Holmes. He could beat most of the better fighters but in the big moments, he fail to produced. When he needed to close the show in the 15th round in his third fight with Ali, he allowed Ali to dance around and steal the round. He felt he won but Ali knew never leave anything at the table. Foreman grinded Norton into the ground in less than two rounds. The Grand Masters defeated the Master.

“The beauty of chess is that there is no such thing as best move (most of the time), there is only the good move,” Chess champ reminds me. Mike Moorer danced and moved around George Foreman all night and was easily winning the fight going into the tenth round. You could argue that Moorer throughout most of the fight made many right moves. Until the end, when Foreman nailed Moorer with the perfect right hand. He made the right move at the right time to win the bout. Or maybe it was a case of a Grand master beating a master.

”Chess requires lots of calculations…if you have the feel the game you can go far,” Chess champ observed and in boxing, it is similar. Before every fight, each boxer must go through his strategy and calculate his game plan. Great boxers, however, have instinct for the sport. They know when to punch and when to move whereas lesser fighters make the wrong move at wrong time. Or lesser fighters hesitate when they should punch.

Bernard Hopkins knew when to move and when to punch when he defeated Howard Eastman for his 20th title defense. Eastman made a lot of moves but they rarely scored. Hopkins moved sparely but effectively. That is why he won. His instinct was superior to his opponent.

Chess champ tells me that he loves the sport of Chess for complexity and beauty and boxing is no different. Boxing is a sport that artistry in the ring is matched by its brutality. It is a sport that is both complex and simple. You hit the other guy before he hits you. That is the simple. The complex is how you do it. When to move and when to box, that is the complexity.