Chess Boxing: Control Your Emotions

Chess boxing. (Image via

I recently attended the Science Online 2011 conference in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina. It was a great meeting, and I made lots of new friends and had a ton of fun while I was there. I learned so many new things that it will take several posts to share them with all of you. One fun aspect of the conference was live-Tweeting, which I’d never done before. Together, scientists, librarians and science writers using the #scio11 hashtag reached the 1 centiBieber threshold.

One Bieber


See, Justin Bieber accounts for 3% of all Twitter traffic, or about 3 million Tweets per day. In Twitter parlance, a “hashtag” is a way of identifying the subject of a particular tweet. On Saturday Jan 15, the #scio11 hashtag had a volume of 0.03% of Twitter traffic, or about 1 centiBieber. My single tweet promoting this post will be 0.01 milliBieber or 10 nanoBiebers.

But one of the neatest things I learned was about a sport I’d not heard of before: chess boxing. I thought it was a joke at first, but Andrea Kuszewski, one of the coolest people on Earth, posted up a complete explanation in her guest blog for Scientific American. In it, she suggests that maybe more chess boxing would result in less of a chance of violence as we saw in Tucson on January 8.

Chess boxing (video here and here) is a sport that, you guessed it, combines chess and boxing. Participants engage in five three-minute boxing rounds sandwiched between six four-minute rounds of speed chess. A win is attained by either a knockout, a checkmate, or points.

The Nikopol Trilogy (Image via

Chess boxing is a sport “invented” in the science-fiction graphic novel Froid Equator (“Equator Cold“), by Enki Bilal.

The key to chess boxing is emotion regulation. It’s challenging, because you have to set aside the emotions that necessarily occur when someone is trying to beat the crap out of you, and focus on a game that requires a lot of brainpower and concentration. Anyone who has ever tried to make a presentation or take a test after having a fight with a spouse, or almost getting involved in an automobile accident, can attest to the difficulty of emotion regulation.

Kuszewski argues, and I agree, that lack of emotion regulation may play a large role in the behavior of violent criminals. Perhaps what is needed in our society is more skill in emotion regulation. Maybe what we need is Little League Chess Boxing, or a Golden Gloves Chess Club as an after-school activity.

This is not the first time that psychiatrists have speculated that emotion regulation plays a key role in controlling violent behavior. David Garabedian was a worker who applied lawn chemicals, some of which may or may not have triggered violent behavior. On March 29, 1983, Garabedian was urinating on the side of Eileen F. Muldoon’s house (Commonwealth of Massachusetts v. Garabedian, 399 Mass. 304) when she discovered him. Understandably upset, the customer confronted Garabedian whereupon he killed her by strangling her with the drawstring of his hoodie and then pummeled her face with rocks.

At his trial, psychiatrist David Bear surmised that Garabedian’s violent behavior was triggered by the exposure to lawn chemicals (some of which are anti-cholinesterases, a kind of nerve agent which has been shown to spark violent behavior in some research animals). Further, Bear speculated that Garabedian, who was a quiet and reserved man before and after the incident, was unable to control the chemically induced flood of violent emotion because he lacked experience in regulating violent behavior, since it was the first time for him to feel such emotions—he had “no prior history of aggression or violence.” The jury was unconvinced, and convicted Garabedian of first-degree murder.

Could emotion regulation be the key to reducing violent behavior? Kuszewski thinks so. Perhaps we should require all those wanting to purchase weapons to complete a chess boxing certification first.

About Monotreme

Monotreme is an unabashedly liberal dog lover, writer, and former scientist who now teaches at a University in an almost-square state out West somewhere. |
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37 Responses to Chess Boxing: Control Your Emotions

  1. Mr. Universe says:

    Colour me skeptical

  2. shortchain says:

    I’m with Mr. U. It’s not exactly unfathomable that a “sport” that combines boredom and the possibility of brain damage isn’t taking the world by storm.

  3. Bart DePalma says:


    That was one outstanding post. The concept of emotion regulation is very familiar to any leader in sports or the military.

    If you can keep your head when all about you
    Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
    If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
    But make allowance for their doubting too

    Rudyard Kipling

  4. Monotreme says:


    Thanks. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts v Garabedian case is an interesting and complex one. I just cited the appeals court ruling because that’s all I had online, but with access to WestLaw you may be able to delve into it further if you’re so inclined.

  5. mclever says:

    While I fully understand and recognize why “chess boxing” hasn’t caught on as a widespread sport, the concept of emotion regulation is very compelling. Impulse control and emotion regulation are what teens usually are struggling with as they come to terms with their hormones. The first time someone experiences intense emotion, the results are unpredictable.

    Chess-boxing is an extreme example, but almost any sport can help teach emotion regulation. Quarterback’s amnesia–the ability to get upset about your mistake, then immediately put it behind you to concentrate on executing the next play to perfection. One error in baseball, no big deal, but if you get emotional and make a cavalcade of errors, you’ll be out of a job at shortstop pretty quick. In most cases, whoever swings second is the one who gets called for the foul, so when your opponent does something to upset you, take the high road or your coach gets pissed and you’re on the bench. I’m sure you can all think of more examples.

    Perhaps, rather than chess-boxing, there would be more to gain from simply requiring everyone to participate in sports while in school. Might also help with that obesity epidemic…

  6. filistro says:

    When I hear “emotional regulation” I think of the famous “marshmallow experiment” at Stanford in the 60’s, where little kids are left alone in a room with a marshmallow and told they can have another one if they don’t eat the first one until the therapist comes back. They are then watched with a hidden camera and their struggles to resist temptation, recorded on camera, are both painful and hilarious to watch. (One little girl in the original experiment actually crawled under the table and hid her face in her arms so as not to be exposed to the sight or scent of the marshmallow.)

    However, it’s not just a fun way to torture kids. The first studies were sufficiently long ago taht researchers have been able to determine significant lifelong differences between the children who were able to achieve delayed gratification, and those who lacked that self-discipline.

    Years later when the children graduated from high school, the differences between the two groups were dramatic: the resisters were more positive, self-motivating, persistent in the face of difficulties, and able to delay gratification in pursuit of their goals. They had the habits of successful people which resulted in more successful marriages, higher incomes, greater career satisfaction, better health, and more fulfilling lives than most of the population.

    Those having grabbed the marshmallow were more troubled, stubborn and indecisive, mistrustful, less self-confident, and still could not put off gratification. They had trouble subordinating immediate impulses to achieve long-range goals. When it was time to study for the big test, they tended to get distracted into doing activities that brought instant gratifciation This impulse followed them throughout their lives and resulted in unsucessful marriages, low job satisfaction and income, bad health, and frustrating lives.

  7. Jonathon says:

    Well, I just “shot” off an email in which I used “bullets” to outline my points. These violent references made me see “red” which then made me think of Native Americans and how white people slaugtered them, and I was just enraged. I know exactly how Jared Laughner must have felt after seeing Sarah Palin’s “crosshairs”.

    We need to regulate what Bill Gates puts in his software.

  8. mclever says:


    Looking at that study with some hindsight, I wonder how many of those children who struggled with impulse control also suffered from undiagnosed ADD. If so, then that would explain much of their difficulty later in life, too. Back then, symptoms of ADD were usually “treated” by simply punishing misbehavior, which actually did little except reinforce the person’s perception of themselves as “bad” or incapable. Especially when many ADD sufferers *know* that they don’t want to do whatever they can’t stop themselves from doing, so they think they must be inherently “bad”…

    Of course, ADD can be successfully treated. Not just with medication but with behavior control exercises and counseling to teach ADD sufferers how to recognize and monitor their impulsive reactions and hyper-focusing tendencies. Impulse control is a necessary trait for success in our society, but the hyper-focusing ability and intuitive leaps that some ADD people make can also be valuable if channeled properly.

  9. Bartbuster says:

    Apparently some wingnuts have a Pavlovian response to the word “regulate”.

  10. filistro says:

    @mclever… Impulse control is a necessary trait for success in our society, but the hyper-focusing ability and intuitive leaps that some ADD people make can also be valuable if channeled properly.

    How odd… I was just thinking exactly the same thing.

    Those early experiments were in the 60’s and the test subjects were 4-year-olds, so they’d be 50 by now. Apparently the breakdown was roughly into thirds… one group grabbed the marshmallow right away, one resisted for a while and then yielded bit by bit (licking, then nibbling, then thinking “oh, what the hell” and gobbling the remains.) The last group of superhuman children resisted as long as “15 or 20 minutes.”

    No doubt that last group has achieved success in life… but (like you) I wonder how much of our art, music and laughter in the past few decades came from the lusty, impulsive instant grabbers.

  11. filistro says:

    @bb.. Apparently some wingnuts have a Pavlovian response to the word “regulate”.


    The day is young, but that’s definitely the Post of the Day thus far. 🙂

  12. filistro says:

    If you can keep your head when all about you
    Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
    If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
    But make allowance for their doubting too

    I love those lines, Bart. To me they are a perfect description of Barack Obama.

  13. dcpetterson says:

    The emotional control of chess boxing sounds a lot like restraining oneself when commenting on a political blog.

  14. Mr. Universe says:

    We could turn golf into a contact sport. Make it a lot more interesting, I suppose.

  15. NotImpressed says:

    Actually, there’s a nonviolent way to do this as well. Achieves the same goals of encouraging impulse control in the face of extreme emotional provocation, and requiring concentration even while intensely distracted. Ever play strip chess? How tempted are you to take that piece, even though it will cost you dearly later….

  16. filistro says:

    @Mr U.. We could turn golf into a contact sport.

    You should see my Ladies Afternoon Curling League.

    A group of angry middle-aged women women on ice, most with highly competitive instincts and poor impulse control, all armed with rocks AND brooms.

    It’s a tribute to hot rum (and bad aim) that anybody survives 😉

  17. filistro says:

    @DC… The emotional control of chess boxing sounds a lot like restraining oneself when commenting on a political blog.

    Oh c’mon DC.. just eat the marshmallow! (You KNOW you want to ;-))

  18. Number Seven says:

    Not only did I eat the marshmellow, I put mines on Mr. U’s golf course 😉

  19. Dwight says:

    As a admirer of the sport of biathlon, a far more physically (cardiovascular) based version of this concept, I’m briefly intrigued by the concept. However not being big on the brain damage from getting your head pummeled, I am extremely skeptical of this approach. 🙂

    You can teach and practice this in far less physically damaging ways. 🙂

    — — — — —

    My understanding is that impulse control for delayed gratification is related to anger management (what chessboxing and the murder case mentioned appear to be about), but not exactly the same thing. The corner stone of anger management is stopping your brain from reaching the point where your anger (be it fear or dislike based) where you no longer have executive control to moderate impulses. Learning impulse control is training your executive control to make the right choice when it is there.

    This does get muddled in ADHD/ADD. ADHD particularly is where the normal state is that executive control is effectively NOT present during short periods of time. ADHD/ADD medication opens a window for the person to have exectutive control where it just didn’t exist before, all though it might look like it they basically are not making choices. Once the medication is in effect this person then needs to take the next step, making that choice, which is a skill. A skill that ADD/ADHD people are typically underdeveloped in because of how little they get to use it.

    P.S. The case sounds a bit like the defense team was arguing involuntary intoxication? I don’t know how “reasonable doubt” was explained to the jury in that regards but if I was on that jury I suspect I’d want more evidence than animal studies to justify completely losing it to the point of strangling someone.

  20. Dwight says:

    Oh, and waiting for the second marshmellow isn’t always the “right” choice. Sometimes “lalala, live for today” is the correct choice. So people that compulsively delay for the marshmellow aren’t in a whole lot better situation. 😉

  21. filistro says:

    @Dwight.. Sometimes “lalala, live for today” is the correct choice.

    That’s true. I suspect the significance doesn’t lie so much in whether they DO wait for the second marshmallow… it’s whether they CAN.

    I agree that simply wanting “more” for the sake of “having more” is not necessarily a marker of emotional strength that means these kids are going to grow up to be leaders. It can also simply be a function of greed, which means they’ll grow up to be Republicans . 😉

  22. filistro says:

    PS.. are you the Dwight who originally hails from a province near mine?

    If so, welcome!!!

    (Welcome anyhow, of course… but I’ve missed that Dwight a lot :-))

  23. Dwight says:

    Originally? I thought you were out on the Left Coast? I lived in Town of Cows east of the rockies for a long time but I’m originally from the “rectangular” province. 🙂

    Hrmmm, did I use my last initial before on 538???

  24. filistro says:

    Speaking of impulse control and “anger warring with reason”…

    I can now report from the depths of the jungle that there has been a massive upheaval, civil war and power grab at Free Republic. This rebellion has been simmering for a long time over the website’s heavy-handed tactics… for instance people are banned (even 10-year members) if they say something critical about Sarah Palin, or speak in support of Mitt Romney.

    (Those freedom-loving Teapers are apparently not all that fond of the “freedom to dissent”….)

    Anger finally reached a boiling point this week, and a couple of days ago a disaffected former Freeper started a competing website called “” After three days of operation it now boasts 475 registered members and is going strong. Back in Freeperville, the current fundraising drive has stalled out, with not enough contributions in the past few days to tick the fundraising meter above 78%. (They do a quarterly fundraiser in which they seek o raise $96,000. They claim to need… and have been collecting from the faithful… about half a million a year to run their website.)

    Free Republic has now lost almost all of its sane and semi-moderate voices, plus any vestige of control, and is descending into a seething toxic stew of hatred, overt racism, calls for violence, attacks on gays and incendiary mockery of government officials … all coupled with diatribes in support of the Tea Party and smarmy Christian-themed religiosity. It’s a fun place to visit. 🙂

    The significance to me… this is the first tremor in the earthquake I’ve been calling for… and it will soon strike the Republican Party. You cannot bring a group like the Tea Party into your house, pander to them and empower them, and then expect them to sit nicely and sip their tea with pinkies delicately raised.

    The Tea Party simply WILL NOT TOLERATE MODERATES. If they see any in their midst they will turn on them and rend them savagely. Keeping them in your house is like trying to domesticate a pack of hyenas. It will end in grief…. and it’s already started.

  25. filistro says:

    @Dwight… but I’m originally from the “rectangular” province

    Yes, it IS my old friend Dwight! (I remember a discussion about a scenic lake and drive-in movie in the dead-set middle of the rectangular province. ;-))

    I live (most of the time) just to the west of the rectangular province, in one of the most conservative regions of North America.


  26. Number Seven says:

    Interesting news about Freeper Land, Fili, thank you for sharing that.

  27. Monotreme says:


    Keeping them in your house is like trying to domesticate a pack of hyenas.

    Recent evidence suggests that canids were initially domesticated as food animals. Just sayin’.

  28. shortchain says:

    I’ve been waiting for somebody else to jump in, but I guess if you want something done you have to do it yourself.

    Control of the emotions is not all that is required in order to be successful in life. It is also necessary to be capable of concentration. The ability to concentrate is under attack, in our modern world — Oh, sorry, somebody just called, and I have to go take care of some stuff. I’ll come back later. Or not.

  29. filistro says:

    I’ve been pondering the physiology of chess boxing. It seems a very unnatural and probably harmful pursuit.

    Boxing is a staged physical attack. The body’s normal response to attack is a surge of adrenaline which facilitates a “flight or fight reflex.” Acting on adrenaline is the opposite of cool thinking and concentration. So in order to switch rapidly from one to the other, you are probably doing damage to a finely-honed physical balance… like those idiots in “competitive eating” who ignore the body’s natural surfeit mechanisms and stuff themselves with 86 hot dogs.

    In sum… I am not a fan.

  30. filistro says:

    (“Strip chess” on the other hand, adds a whole new dimension of meaning to “You’ve been pwned!” 🙂 )

  31. Mr. Universe says:

    Australian rules golf it is…with land mines!

  32. mclever says:

    Can I just say that “centiBieber” made me giggle?


  33. mclever says:


    I look forward to reading more of what you learned at the Science Online 2011 conference. You and Dr. Funguy always make me get my science geek on.


  34. Number Seven says:

    Strip chess???? What happens if you move a pawn to the opponents side and asked to be ‘queened’? Would the man have to put the womens clothing on??? And what would the woman have to do? Finish the rest of the game while sitting on a pedistal?

  35. Mr. Universe says:

    Mythbusters just did a correlation on being slapped and your judgement dropping/rising. Can’t remember the outcome.

  36. Pingback: Logarchism » The Papa State

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