Melbourne Documentary Film Festival 2021 Review: ‘By Rook or Left Hook: The Story of Chessboxing’

by K at the Movies
By Rook or Left Hook

It’s hard to deny the title has some punch to it. The peculiar world of chessboxing, a sport determined to find the smartest toughest guy. The art of chessboxing is finding the balance between two polar opposite competitions; take the knight or win the fistfight. While it is a novel concept, is there enough to merit the attention of David Bitton’s documentary? I would say so.

Chessboxing From Concept to Combat

It turns out the dichotomy of brutal boxing and the intellectual sparing of chess has a rich history to indulge in. It is fascinating to watch this idea go from just that, to a piece of performance art, to a sanctioned and eventually legitimized sport. While I’m sure some could criticize this documentary for stuffing a lot of different angles or topics, it works on the premise of a pretty focused through-line. Glimpses of the sports origins and athletes/trainers are shown, but the doc primarily hones in on two factions of different promoters.

By Rook or Left Hook is heavily invested in the rivalry and possible camaraderie between Berliner Iepe Rubingh and Londoner Tim Woolgar. Rubingh is the artist responsible for hosting the first-ever chessboxing match and formed the WCBO (World Chessboxing Organization) shortly after. Tim, on the other hand, is an impulsive promoter, and while he’s riding off Iepe’s idea, he’s more adept at fostering community and keying into the rowdy showmanship of sports. With their two visions clashing more than chess and boxing, how does the sport prosper with these two different ideological figureheads?

A Rampant Rivalry Grows

By Rook or Left Hook takes a look at an underdog sport trying to find its audience. Think of a documentary on the XFL and most of the focus is on Vince McMahon. What is the right direction to find the best audience for the sport, and how do we get people to accept this as more than a dog and pony show? The film is at its best when it is leaning into the rivalries of nationalities and the two different organizers.

In that respect, the rivalry is frustrating as both of their visions uncompromised feel flawed and have their cons. Just team up! One of you is better at the business side and collecting sponsors and the other is better at fan engagement and hyping up events. The two are both instrumental to the growth and establishing the culture of chessboxing but with the division, the community feels maybe the sport can truly grow when the two promoters exit the picture.

In terms of the technical aspects, director David Bitton frames the talking heads in some visually unique and appealing backdrops. The film features some engaging segments, even if the presentation and editing can be a tad dry. Sometimes it feels as if the film is romanticizing its subjects. Yet, it doesn’t shy away from some of the harsh truths of the matter either. At the end of the day, I enjoyed watching this more than the Mayweather/Logan Paul fight. Until the WCBO starts dropping celebrity chessboxing matches, this is a fine introduction to a nice niche sport.

For more information on By Rook or Left Hook and other films playing at the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival, check out their website.

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Thank you for reading! Who would you challenge to enter the chessboxing ring with you? Comment down below!

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1 comment

Nick Kush July 20, 2021 - 10:13 am

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