Diving chess – yes, it’s a sport – takes the competition underwater

Diving chess – yes, it’s a sport – takes the competition underwater


Chess demands much mental effort, but rarely has it been accused of requiring athletic prowess. One variation, chess boxing, attempts to add this element to the game, but as the rules dictate participants alternate between the two from round to round, neither is fundamentally altered. Not so with Diving Chess, a new take on the age-old game that’s slowly building a following.

The brainchild of Etan Ilfeld, an Israeli-American who has called London home for the last nine years, Diving Chess requires the same skill set as chess, with the added element of H2O. Played in a pool, each player must make their move while submerged. The length of time they have to make the move is predicated upon how long they can remain underwater. Once the player surfaces they’ve either completed their move or, if forced to come up for air beforehand, they forfeit the game.

“I love chess and I’ve played chess competitively for some time – I represented the city of Herzliya in Israel’s National Chess League at one point – and there’s always been a debate around whether it’s a sport or not. I wanted to add that element while keeping the same sort of intellectual rigor that it already has,” Ilfeld told From The Grapevine about the motivation behindrrrrrrrrrrrrrr his inventing the game.

That “element” is the physical conditioning one must have to stay underwater for any length of time.

“It’s a bit like trying to run a marathon while playing a chess game because you’ve really got to handle your breathing and maintain a steady rhythm. It does change the strategy a bit,” Ilfeld explained. “In regular chess it doesn’t really matter in terms of your opponents time, but here, if you see an opponent running out of breath, you might want to make a quick move to force them to be submerged again and deal with their shortage of breath.”

Before Ilfeld could take the game live, he had to create a custom chess set to ensure it would stay settled at the bottom of the pool. He did this by outfitting a standard tournament chess set with magnets, both the pieces and the board, in addition to placing tiny weights into each chess piece.

Once he felt confident all the pieces were in place, he introduced it at the 2012 Mind Sports Olympiad, an annual board games festival held in London each year that he has been organizing since 2010. Dubbed the Diving Chess World Championship, it has become an annual event.

“The first time I tried it, I wasn’t sure how people would like it, but it’s become a phenomenal success,” Ilfeld said.

Etan Ilfeld (first row, middle) celebrates with other participants in this year’s Diving Chess World Championship. (Photo: YouTube/MOS)

There were 12 participants in this year’s event, all Brits, six of whom were regular players Ilfeld knows and six of whom were picked on a first-come, first serve basis. Despite a valiant effort, Ilfeld placed second – taking home a silver medal. So how did it feel to only be the second best at the game he invented?

“It’s not about me. I’m just delighted that people are having fun and enjoying the game,” he said with a laugh.