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  • Writer's pictureSean Spencer

It's a Chess Match in There

Updated: Mar 22, 2019

Throughout my coaching experience I have used various metaphors and examples in order to ensure that my students understand the principles and techniques I am teaching them. I have come to realize the importance of explaining things in different ways because not everyone will understand concepts with ease. Sometimes it takes a few methods of showing or explaining something to a student and sometimes by the second or third attempt are finally able to grasp the point I am trying to get across. I will often compare the techniques I teach to other sports like baseball, football or basketball (one might be surprised at what these sports have in common). Recently, thanks to the teaching methods of a friend and fellow coach, I have been able to learn and successfully implement the use of certain analogies in explaining concepts to students. For example, we can liken punches and blocks in boxing to using a sword and shield. I have seen many people come to realize the importance in keeping ones hands up to defend against opponents' punches instead of dropping them after explaining how someone wouldn't lower their shield in a sword fight.

One of the more popular comparisons in the world of combat sports involves the game of chess. You may have heard at some point, "It's a chess match in there," or something to that effect. Those who don't know much about fighting may not see anything more than two individuals who are throwing punches at each other. Even I understood very little before I started training. In reality, the most important aspect of fighting is using tactics and strategy in order to beat an opponent, similar to games such as chess.

After some recent thinking and further research, it turns out there might be more similarities than than we realize when comparing the principles of boxing or mixed martial arts to those of chess. Aside from the fact that they are both one-on-one competitions, they both require thinking quickly, making decisions based on what one's opponent is doing, and setting oneself up for successful attacks while maintaining a good defensive position.

Now, I am not going to pretend I am some sort of expert when it comes to chess. I have a basic knowledge of the moves, do's and don'ts, and overall goal, but more advanced concepts, strategies and setups are way over my head. However, after some initial research, there seems to be basic principles and strategies many players follow, just as there are basics we use and rely on in boxing. In fact, we can look at a chess board and think of it like a boxing ring, visualizing these different concepts and situations one might find themselves in. Let's take a look at some examples.


In terms of defense chess is about keeping your king, as well as your high value pieces, safe. The game ends as a result of a checkmate, which means one's king is in line with an attacking piece without being able to move to safety, or without one's pieces being able to defend the king in any way. Other pieces, such as the queen, bishop and knight, offer great value regarding offensive and defensive techniques, and it is essential to prevent them from being captured.

In boxing we can think of protecting one's head and body, preventing opponents from being able to land any punches. Fights can result in devastating knockouts or technical knockouts, a figurative checkmate where a competitor cannot continue. There are 2 different ways to defend against punches: blocking and moving. Fighters can hold their hands up in a defensive guard to create a barrier between their own head and an opponent's punches, or avoid the punch altogether using head movement. These defensive maneuvers are identical in chess. A player, when in check, can either defend by moving a piece between the attacking piece and his own king, or move the king into another square, out of the way of the attacking piece.


We can think of all the punches in boxing and relate them to chess pieces. There are even just about as many pieces in chess as there are punches (9 pieces vs. 10 fundamental punches). I would say the Queen of punches would be the jab (arguably the most important punch in the sport), whereas all other punches can be compared to the bishop, knight, etc. From an alternative viewpoint, let's say that the jab is more like a pawn, setting up ways to attack with the better and more powerful punches (pieces). Either way we look at it, there are ways to set up one's pieces, and develop plans to execute attacks. One important thing to consider is that moving pieces around is useless without an overall goal. In boxing, anyone can throw punches. But it is about more than that. As fighters, we not only consider throwing punches in combinations, but how and when we throw them is critical. Setting up or finding open targets is a crucial aspect of the game, as well as throwing combinations without carelessly leaving oneself open to possibly to get hit by an opponent. One must consider offense and defense at all times.


Again, we can directly compare a boxing ring to a chessboard. Each is square, with four corners and four sides. One of the more important principles in boxing is to not get caught backed into a corner or onto the ropes. This limits the number of possible directions one can move in, and it is essential to be able to freely move in as many ways possible for defensive and offensive reasons. The best way to ensure this is to be in the center of the ring, with space to move in multiple directions. On the chess board, players also want to work towards an overall presence in the center, not backed into a corner or on the edge. This will only limit possibilities in terms of movement, both attacking and defending.

Sometimes while controlling the center, fighters can go even further and work toward pinning their opponents into the corner or against the ropes. There have been many pros in history that made their entire careers on this type of fighting (Julio Cesar Chavez, Marvin Hagler and Roberto Duran, to name a few). Being the aggressor not only gives the advantage of control, but makes it difficult for opponents to find a means of escape and overall defense. Think of backing up an opponent's king on the chess board. without anywhere to go, a checkmate is likely to be the result.


I always teach my advancing students certain concepts and strategies that involve taking advantage of opportunities against their opponents. One of the more important ideas involved open targets to throw punches at. Specifically, I'll tell fighters, "Find openings, and if you can't find any, create them." In a defensive guard, one can only cover up so much. There is no position that allows for any fighter to be completely safe, although a good defensive fighter is typically good at making things difficult for his/her opponents. In certain cases it will be necessary to create opportunities (or weaken an opponent).

Chess players also can apply this principal. There might be certain weaknesses in another player's defensive structure, allowing for successful attacks. These weaknesses might include either free squares to be occupied or certain pieces (such as pawns) to be captured. Sometimes, forcing an opponent to focus on defending a particular piece or area can allow for a subsequent method of attack, creating multiple weaknesses in overall defense.

There is a tactic in chess called Skewering, which involves two of your opponent's pieces that are in line with each other. It basically forces one piece of an opponent to move, opening up a line of sight to another piece, which can then be captured. Almost the same thing can be done in boxing, except the technique involves forcing an opponent to drop or move one or both hands, allowing for a specific target to be thrown at. It is important to remember that not all fighters are good at, or even attempt to perform strategies like this, but in my opinion, some of the most talented athletes, both past and present, were able to utilize these types of strategies to beat their opposition.


Let's again compare pawns in chess to jabs in boxing. Both are very important tools to be used, both offensively and defensively, but nobody will get anywhere with them alone.

A checkmate requires using multiple pieces, often attacking from different angles, to pull off. Pawns can get you there, but because of their limited capabilities, pieces with more versatility are also required. This doesn't diminish the importance of the pawn, but any successful plan needs to be put together using many tools.

Fighting is no different. As I previously mentioned, the jab is the most important punch in boxing. I'm sure there are people out there who disagree with that statement, but the reality is that just like a pawn in chess, a good plan is nothing without it. That being said, the jab alone is not going to get it done. Many strategies that a fighter wants to use are going to start with the jab, but will need to be followed up by other punches. Think of the jab as the setup, or the initiation of a sequence, followed by other attacks that are typically more devastating in terms of power and intensity. Often times, it is a bad idea to throw power punches at your opponent without setting them up first with jabs. Jabs are faster punches and can be used to distract or disorient an opponent, allowing for opportunities to follow up with more powerful shots


Fighting is a thinking man's sport. It requires planning, adjusting, coordinating, and reacting to opponent's moves, just like in strategical games such as chess. If someone wants to be successful in the ring, a certain level of strategy is required. Not necessarily every professional fighter cares about the principals discussed in this article, but most of the most notable fighters in history demonstrated some sort of technical excellence. For those interested in developing these skills, I recommend taking the time to learn some of the strategies used by the greats. Anyone can get in the ring and throw punches, but being able to perform and utilize the techniques I just covered is something else altogether. Any type of training you receive should include these types of tactics, as they will give you an edge over some of the opposition you will face. Some opponents will be much tougher than others, but learning these higher level strategies will only increase your chance of success in the ring. Technical knowledge takes time to acquire, but is paramount in fighting sports because after all, it's a chess match in there.


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