Zen and the art of Diving Chess

February 17, 2021inPoker

Diving Chess is a real game. It’s the rules and gameplay of chess, but played at the bottom of a body of water – usually a swimming pool.

If you think that mixing diving and chess is a bit like putting orange juice on your cereal, or playing poker whilst skydiving, then you’re wrong. Diving Chess actually makes a lot of sense. I didn’t believe it myself at first, but then the game’s inventor, US Chess Master Etan Ilfeld, convinced me otherwise.

Combining the physical and mental

You’d be forgiven for thinking that Diving Chess sounds a little… Leftfield. When I first heard about the game, it seemed like an odd combination. Do players really dive underwater to take their move? How do the pieces stay on the board? And just what’s the point, anyway?

The first two questions are easy enough to answer. Yes, players really do dive underwater to take their move. Once they surface, it’s their opponent’s turn to take the plunge. The pieces and board are magnetic and specially weighted, so the pieces stay on just fine.

What’s the point? This third question required a little more digging, or (ahem) diving.

As I contemplated this obscure seeming game-sport, it became clear that Diving Chess seeks to engage both the body and mind. Players have to be smart, and they also have to be fit.

Etan Ilfeld was quick to highlight the importance of this physical element. “The idea was to combine the intellect of chess with something physical. And what I like about Diving Chess is that it’s a very fair playing field in that gender and body size doesn’t matter.”

Let’s look for a second to another manic-seeming chess variant. Boxing Chess, also a real sport, involves alternate rounds of chess and boxing. Winning conditions include checkmate and knockout. You can immediately see an obvious, albeit slightly awkward blend of the physical and mental. The problem with Boxing Chess is that opponents have to be matched on sex and body type, just like you would in any fight.

Diving Chess incorporates physical elements, arguably much more smoothly than Boxing Chess, yet it also succeeds in reducing the boundaries to competition. People of all ages, sexes and body sizes can play against each other in Diving Chess. All you have to be able to do is hold your breath underwater.

The natural timer

As Ilfeld unveiled more, it was quickly becoming clear that there was more to this apparent mish-mash of a sport than meets the eye. Not only does Diving Chess have that all important physical aspect – it also incorporates one of the key elements of chess in a natural way. The timer.

In competitive chess, players have a timer to make their moves, which adds an extra pressure to decision making. This time pressure can set apart the performance of top players, and make all the difference between a win or loss in an even contest.

“When the time pressure is on, that’s when you start to really see human error, because you just don’t have time to calculate every repercussion,” says Ilfed.

Here’s the magic. In Diving Chess, the timer is built into the game. It’s in the breath itself.

Players only have as long to make their move as they can hold their breath for underwater. If players fail to make their move during their dive, they get a warning. Twice in one game and it’s a forfeit. In Diving Chess, the lungs are your clock.

“The breath just seemed like a really good way to substitute the chess clock. It’s a good example of time pressure that’s naturally dictated,” says Ilfeld, “but if you’ve got a better lung capacity, potentially you can think longer.”

Zen and the art of Diving Chess

Due to the natural timer, Diving Chess plays at a fast pace more similar to Blitz Chess. It also requires you to hold your breath and be able to think underwater. The act of repeatedly diving to take your move can also be quite physically demanding. Strategic players will even rush their own move to give opponents less time to catch their breath.

And so Diving Chess is a matter not only of learning to become skilled at chess, but also of training your body, keeping your mind calm and focused, your breath steady and rhythmic, all while making the best move possible.

As Ilfeld points out, “Controlling one’s breath means being at one with our body.”

Diving Chess is a one-stop lesson in Zen. Breathe…

Find out more about Diving Chess…

If you want to learn more about Diving Chess, check out this link here. Diving Chess Championships are held annually at the Mind Sports Olympiad.

Unfortunately, Diving Chess doesn’t convert well to the online arena, where the Mind Sports Olympiad took place in 2020, so stay tuned for news of when the sport will return.

If you can’t wait, you can also purchase a Diving Chess board online. The board and pieces are magnetic and weighted to sit at the bottom of any still body of water. You don’t need diving equipment, and wet suits are optional.

About Etan Ilfeld: Etan Ilfeld is a US Chess Master and organizer of the Mind Sports Olympiad, an annual board game event and the venue for the Diving Chess Championships. The London-based entrepreneur is also owner of Watkins Books publishing house, founder of Repeater Books, and co-author of the recently published novella Duchamp Versus Einstein.


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