Human Combat Chess Is Back with Duels, Banter, and Fun

Human Combat Chess 2017 poster

Jenn Jensen

It’s back! Human Combat Chess from Six Elements Theatre is returning to the stage—which is to say chess board—to once again battle for a championship title. After a grueling season it comes down to two teams: the Legion and the Celts.

Last year I was introduced to Midwest Combat Chess League’s Human Combat Chess via the 2016 All-Star Tournament, which was not only very entertaining but also educational. I had no idea Human Combat Chess even existed (and in fairness, off-stage it doesn’t), but the idea was very intriguing to me. This year I had the opportunity to observe and interview some of the player-actors ahead of their 2017 run of performances, which begin June 16.

Originally created as a senior project by University of Minnesota alumnus Mike Lubke, Human Combat Chess is a modern version of the Renaissance-era human chess that became an underground sporting event. It combines all the elements of chess with all the elements of stage combat. It’s old-school board game meets sporting event meets theater.

The game is played following the standard chess rules with a few additions. The king calls the moves. When two opposing pieces occupy the same space, they proceed to duel; the victorious piece remains while the other exits the board. Play continues until there is a clear winner. Pretty standard game of chess—but is it? There is crowd participation, with audience members cheering on their favorite players and team and even booing the officials when they don’t like the calls. There are sports announcers who give fictional background on the individual players as well comment, hilariously I may add, on play-by-play actions. Adding to the excitement, the chess pieces themselves participate in in-game banter.

Human Combat Chess comabt

Celts King, Johanna during rehearsals for Human Combat Chess. Jenn Jensen

So what should you expect in this year’s Human Combat Chess? Besides the excitement of the audience cheering and the charming banter between players, the teams are taking on new strategies. The Celts, lead by new king Johanna Gorman-Baer, will take on the Legion king, Mike Lubke. A little secret about these two is that they are the longest-standing members of the group, and this is the first time they will compete as opposing kings. Longtime fighters Wini Froelich (Celts queen) and Jei Kobett (current Legion rook and former king) are spearheading new strategies. Legion has added a group of rookies to rebuild the team with new energy; I had the chance to chat with some of those rookies, and it was fascinating for me to learn about their diverse backgrounds.

Players assemble on the board

The Celts during rehearsal. Jenn Jensen

Newcomer Dante Benjegerdes, king pawn for the Celts, is a theater major from Iowa who participated in the Carnage in the Corn stage-combat workshop in Des Moines. Human Combat Chess 2017 is his first Twin Cities event, and his weapons of choice are the rapier and dagger.

Another rookie, Addison, prefers the unarmed battle. The Legion queen has some background in martial arts and participated in one-acts during high school. Addison has also participated in open gyms (“jam sessions” for fighters) and the Brawl of America stage-combat workshop.

Kam Jones, Celts king rook pawn, has an extensive martial-arts background, but this is his first acting performance. He says it was a funny transition—stage combat requires an individual to safely “strike” without actually striking, whereas martial arts requires precision hits. His weapon of choice? Longsword.

Kam Jones practices

Celts king bishop pawn, Kam Jones, wielding a staff during rehearsal. Jenn Jensen

On the more experienced side, Legion king bishop Commarrah “Sci-Fi” Bashar has participated in Human Combat Chess before, but this year she is the analytical strategist for the team. Commarrah has formal theater training from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. When asked what she has gained, or hopes to gain, from the Human Combat Chess experience, she said, “I hoped to open back up and remember what I love about my art.” She added that the HCC group deliberately set out to have a safe space for actors.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the group also includes at least three former Renaissance Festival Human Combat Chess veterans: Legion members Fox Barrett, Anj Olsen, and Peter Buckholtz.

Players warm up on the board

Warmups and stretching are very important prior to any type of stage combat. Jenn Jensen

Whether you’re looking for a different theater experience or sporting event, Human Combat Chess 2017 is entertaining, exciting, and family friendly. Don’t miss the Celts and the Legion as they “Assume the Board!”

Shows run June 16, 17, 19, 23, 24, and 30 and July 1 at Christ Church Lutheran in Minneapolis. For more information  visit the Six Elements Theatre website or the Human Combat Chess Facebook event page and purchase tickets via Brown Paper Tickets.

Players reference their scripts

Team Legion during rehearsals. Jenn Jensen

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