Da Mysteries of Chessfixing.

It’s your move, but the lactic acid simmering in those thighs serves to distract from the board. And the longer you spend upright and stationary, the harder it is to focus. But wait. You spot a Long Knight to the left that will put your opponent in trouble; only problem is, a Bishop right in the middle of the board is going to interfere with your access. You judge it worth the risk, however, and roll in, your opponent pointing his 3000 lumens headlamp in your face and talking trash.

After almost an hour of circling, fronting, braking, weaving and scheming, your mind and body somehow manage one more time to unite, and power your front wheel smoothly past. Stopping dead, you bend to sweep up the bulky three pound piece on your left side.

It’s a series of four or five broadly separate actions which seem to proceed from each other but then intertwine in a flash, almost as one movement.

They have to.

Teetering but  stable, you  tweak the alignment of your handlebars to maintain position, then reach to deposit the huge black carved horse’s head on G8. It’s a move whose successful execution assumes the flexibility of a Yoga Instructor, the balance of a Tightrope Walker and the static strength of an Olympic Gymnast.

With the piece landed and check called, you exhaustedly yet buoyantly begin departure. But while you try to hop your bike onto an uncluttered exit line, the left pedal’s toe strap snaps. Before your shock even fully registers, you’re splayed under your machine, and the board looks like the site of a bad tempered concession.

Climbing back up amid toppled rooks and pawns that still swing slowly on their side like pendulums, heat rises off your back in the harsh-lit dark. You heave grey clouds of air. Game over.

“Bad Luck”, says your opponent. “I had a feeling that toe strap was going to go.”

Welcome to the often dirty, and thoroughly illegal, bike-mounted world of Chessfixing.

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Played under cover of darkness on giant outdoor boards in locked city parks, Chessfixing is the newest mash-up sport to rise from the ashes of the Urban Fixed Wheel Biking movement..

Described by one player as being “Like elite-level bike polo, but for a more cerebral crowd” incidents of play in city parks and squares on both sides of the Atlantic have been getting much word-of-mouth in 2012.

“There’s no other sport like it”, enthuses Girvan Vasquez, a stocky, freckled Argentinan in his early twenties who moved to Europe with his parents three years ago. Vasquez has been Chessfixing since late 2011.

“I had dabbled in Hardcourt, Ghetto Gym, Backward Circles, Urban Golf… you name it”, he says. “I just felt there was some element missing from them all.”

An avid Poker player and online Strategy Gamer, he had read forum rumours of boisterous nighttime chess gatherings with a difference in a neighbouring district west of his family home.

“The first night I jumped that railing into the Stadtpark (Wilmersdorf, Berlin -ed.) a circle definitely closed for me. You had these hardcore Chessfixers there pulling Figure 8′s when all they wanted to do was castle. But I won three in a row”

The short wheel base of his bike allied to its relatively light gear ratio made the underestimated Vasquez an initial surprise hit on the board, but these early wins were followed by a series of regular and painful drubbings. That is, until his chess game got markedly better.

Now, when visiting crews from other cities hit town to challenge Berlin’s best Chessfixers, Vasquez’ name is usually near the top of their list.

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Chessfixing draws players from both sides of the Chess – Fixed Wheel divide. In the few cities where a Chessfixing scene has sprung up, anecdotal evidence suggests that some local Grandmasters are learning rudimentary bike handling skills in order to take part. But the majority of players are cyclists with an already finely honed repertoire of “Fixie” tricks, now feverishly “cramming” a few basic opening replies in order that they can experience more sustained, game-improving “board-time”.

Most of the latter tend to be drawn from the ranks of retired Hardcourt Bike Polo players who gave up the sport in disillusionment around the time that Single-Speed-with-Freewheel became generally accepted as the most efficient type of bicycle to play on.

One Early-Adapter-Early-Rejector is Gianni Nordhus, who claims to have been on court when the first ever fixed-wheel-only chukkah of Bike Polo was played in the German capital, all the way back in 2004.

“At some point we had teams that were trying a little too hard to win, was the problem”, says Nordhus.

“Starting out there were nice people who practically slept with their pristine, super-quiet, vintage track frames and had an opinion about whether you could wear Assos with Rapha or not. Then two years on, it was suddenly all camouflage, broken teeth and freewheel. Well forgive me for saying ‘No thanks’.”

Nordhus points to the bizarre, some would say exaggerated, symbiosis of man and bike that typified early attempts to play elite Polo on track bikes.

He continued, “It’s like what they say about a dog walking on its hind legs. That was the ideology at the heart of Hardcourt, and as such, Hardcourt is now dead for me, and for many others. But its spirit lives on in the sport of Chessfixing.”

Certainly, the skill needed to move chess pieces around a giant board in the dark on a bicycle without conventional brakes is considerable. Combined with an ability to play chess to tournament standard, Chessfixing provides a mental and physical challenge to its players unlike any other in the world of Urban Hybrid Sport.

 

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Another recent convert to the charms of Chessfixing, lecturer in Aesthetics at the Freie Universität Berlin Jürgen Nguyen finds ways to appreciate the game on a host of levels.

“It’s a very Existentialist pastime” , he says. “The frustration of knowing how to finish off a game, yet not having the physical coordination to swoop in, grab that Queen and deposit her safely at E7 without your back wheel catching a Pawn on the way out can stir up all sorts of emotions in players.”

There are, he continues, two sides to this coin.

“Likewise, of course, one sees a lot of showboaters who could slalom through every piece on a full board but who don’t have an eye for even the most transparent pincer attack. Chessfixing is a great leveller.”

Chessfixers remain a fairly loose alliance of athletes and are yet to develop a set of universally agreed, nailed down rules, much less any On-Off-Board etiquette guidelines. Thus wherever it is played, gamesmanship and psychological warfare are both widespread. According to independent witnesses of games in Santiago de Chile over the summer, some bursts of play barely fell short of Anti Social Behaviour, if not outright Reckless Endangerment.

Toestrap-tampering and chain loosening are both common, Nordhus concedes, “but ultimately they’re tactics designed to bring out the finest possible Fixed Wheel handling skills in their victims, not to win a game of chess. It wouldn’t occur to most players, for example, to try reintroducing a Queen to the game on their opponent’s blind side or anything”

“The global Chessfixing community is,” he says “in the truest sense of the term, a Mutual Appreciation Society.”

“Fixmate” , a National Championships of Chessfixing, and the first of its kind in Europe, has been provisionally pencilled in for late spring 2013 in Brussels, Belgium.