CHESS IS FOR CHUMPS
Updated: Mar 11
The Art of Progression In Brazilian Jiu Jitsu
- Image Credit: Hinano Pascua Insta: @hinanosjourney -
For as long as I’ve been training Jiu Jitsu, I’ve been exposed to the metaphors that instructors and students alike use to describe the art to both one another, and to laymen.
One of the most common of these comparisons being that "Jiu Jitsu is Human Chess".
These comparisons are by no means wrong, in fact they are largely compelling, usually falling along the lines of the following:
> The Notion of Hierarchy.
In the game of chess, and the art of Jiu Jitsu, lives a notion of hierarchy. From the ranks of the pieces, to the available positions, not to mention the pieces themselves (which in Jiu Jitsu would be the available techniques) for the user to implement from their set position. When we take the game of chess, it is clear from the outset that some pieces are worth more than others, some are more likely to win you the game, and there is strategy to employ regarding the determination of when it would be best to trade one piece for another, with the sacrifice exposing a later advantage. This can be similarly said for Jiu Jitsu, where certain positions established, and submissions employed, are considered better than others, with the higher ranked pieces being granted a greater freedom on the board.
> The Concept of ‘Developing Material’.
In Chess, the player is deemed to be ‘developing material’ when they move their pieces on the board, and subsequently reinforce them with other pieces, this practice allows them to keep their protected pieces on the board, whilst their opponent’s pieces are slowly stripped away. This concept most certainly holds true for Jiu Jitsu, in that with every action, every movement, the practitioner seeks to progress, whilst simultaneously preventing their opponent from recovering the ground that they have lost by reinforcing their position with redundancy, so that even if there is something clawed back by the opponent, there are equal repercussions for said movements.
> Attacking with Chains and/or Foresight.
If a player is able to comprehend what their opponent will do on the board, they are then able to foresee and create chained sequences that will allow them to sacrifice pieces or positions now, for the greater advantage later in the game. In Jiu Jitsu there is a similar depth to the game the further into the art you swim. Over time, skilled fighters not only see the opportunity for attacks, but also for sacrifices, for chains of movement they can implement to reach a better advantage than sheer force of will would allow. This can be anything, from chaining submissions together, causing their opponent to build panic with each escape attempt, or by simply sacrificing a position they’re not comfortable in in search of a position that they consider more malleable to their style of play.
> The Gambit.
As mentioned previously, a chess player will often make a temporary sacrifice with the intent of gaining a more appreciable advantage. Similarly, a good Jiu Jitsu practitioner will make the same sacrifices in order to gain a distinct advantage over their opponent. A good example of this is Eduardo Telles’ turtle guard, where he has developed a number of sweeps based on what many would consider a poor position, due to it exposing the back, he has created the opportunity for greater positional gains through his initial positional sacrifice. While gambits are less common in Jiu Jitsu, if high-level matches are watched closely, there are no doubt momentary glimpses of these sacrifices in the name of improved position.
> The Endgame.
As the number of pieces on the board starts to decline during a chess match, a skilled player will see a smorgasbord of strategies start to develop around isolating the king. This kind of gameplay is often intricate and intense where the player doesn’t want to run out of time, or wind up stalemated, in pursuit of the king. Similarly, if you’re trying to finish an opponent in a Jiu Jitsu match, you need to learn how to play the endgame. Knowing which grips to take, and how to chain attacks together to conclude a match by submission against a similarly good practitioner can be difficult, due to most practitioners learning to survive even the worst positions first, and against someone who isn’t able to seal the deal can be enough to run out the clock, or worse, bide their time and counter-strike.
With the above being said, I put it to you that whilst there is a strong case for these comparisons, it doesn’t speak to the heart of the sport, as it relies on something that isn’t always available.
Whilst sparring and competing are often cited as core aspects of the sport, I posit that they are often mischaracterised as the ‘most’ important, as they are not. On their own, neither sparring, nor competing, will make you a great practitioner. They are merely individual components of a rounded game, as without effort outside of these matches, there can be no real progression. Not to mention that constantly pitting oneself against another individual is also a ruinous road to travel, as it prompts the practitioner to keep looking, and gives too much value to the wins and losses that come with such searching.
This comparison to chess seems to discount a great many experiences of practitioners within the sport, so much so that I feel it unfair to hold it as the standard of merit. It tells a person who has no desire to compete that they are less than, it speaks to the meek and the weak that the sport is not for them, as they find themselves unable to succeed in open sparring, or intimidated at competition.
This is not Jiu Jitsu. At least not the whole. Perhaps at one point in time it had been, maybe, but not now, not today.
Instead, I wish to submit a counter analogy to you, a concept imparted to me by a generous black belt I met on my travels, Rexie Barnum – Alliance Jiu Jitsu-Waipahu-Hawaii, which I have been expounding upon in my head ever since.
Jiu Jitsu isn’t Chess. Sparring is Chess. Competing is Chess. Jiu Jitsu is Chess on the Micro-Level.
At the Macro level, Jiu Jitsu is Golf.
At its core, Jiu Jitsu is about you. It poses you, the practitioner questions, to which you must find an answer, or at the very least, a response. It places the responsibility for progression, both through the ranking system, and in sparring or competition matches, squarely on the shoulders of the practitioner by acknowledging that they are their only opponent, that their only goal is to be better than they were, and it is only by acknowledging and understanding this that a person can truly grow, and excel, in the sport.
This isn’t to say that similar comparisons cannot be made with golf as it did with chess. As the same comparisons line up similarly with this new analogy, but shift the focus away from a single problem at hand, and direct the attention inward.
There is a similar notion of hierarchy, the same positional advantages and disadvantages exist, and the same tools, only now, rather than multiple pieces on a board to attack a practitioner with identical pieces and goals, the practitioner is simply presented with a choice of instrument, the only goal being the hole, their opponent is the ball, and it is now the practitioner’s responsibility to use the tools they have at their disposal to manipulate the ball well enough to reach their target in the fewest moves possible.
Only now, the hole/target can be anything.
The endgame is no longer to finish a match or sparring session with a submission, but to achieve whatever it is the practitioner wishes to improve about their own Jiu Jitsu. Be it a finish, a transition, a takedown, or even just survival, everything is on the table.
The practitioner will still need to develop material, and employ foresight and chained moves in order to progress through the fairway, only now it’s done through the selection of the right tool for the situation in which they find themselves. Do they use an Iron to drive forward, or a chipper to move their target to a more favourable position, sacrificing a stroke for the opportunity of a more advantageous shot at their goal on the next stroke. A miscalculation will result in hitting a hazard, or the rough, likely costing them many strokes, and preventing them from accomplishing their goal.
However, if their goal remains the same across multiple holes, or even the same holes, over time, the number of strokes needed to sink the hole reduces. It veers away from a question of whether they’ll be able to sink the ball, to when, to how. The practitioner uses their wits, pitting themselves against who they were when they previously attempted a specific hole, the ball itself is inconsequential, one of thousands. It is here that the practitioner is able to see their progress, to measure their ability, and to truly understand their growth over time.
Personally, this is my largest gripe with using chess as the analogy for the sport, as there is no accounting for the level of growth and expertise that either the practitioner or opponent gains with every match, as they will grow at a similar rate, and will be unable to see their gains, which can often lead to a feelings of stagnation or worse, a feeling of deteriorating skill which presents itself when a partner experiences a significant jump in ability, or the practitioner is injured, or life gets in the way of training.
By comparing ourselves to those around us, and to those we compete against, we seek only to hinder our own progress, as we unintentionally start to monitor those around us and ask ‘why?’
Why were they promoted when I haven’t been?
Why aren’t I being offered the same opportunities as they are?
Why are they able to so easily control and finish that person, when I struggle to survive against them?
Golf asks that a practitioner only concern themselves with what is within their control, and there is only one thing that is undeniably under their control, themselves.
The differences between Chess and Golf as analogies, are the same as the differences between a fighter and a martial artist. Both types of practitioner train. But for the martial artist, it’s about the hours put in, it’s about their personal growth, it’s about the people around them. For the fighter, it’s all about the win.
For a fighter, failure is not an option. Losses matter. But a martial artist knows this to be untrue, as failure is not only an option, but the option most readily available. They know they can quite any time they want, and whatever pain they’re experiencing will go away (back and knee pain not included), better still, they can simply restart. A loss means nothing but experience. There is no emotion or ego attached.
This isn’t me shitting on fighters either, as like I said before, these analogies are opposing sides of the same coin. One to be used for the journey, the other for what’s directly ahead. For a competitor, being a fighter is necessary if they wish to be successful, but the only true way for them to succeed consistently is by flipping the coin, from Micro to Macro, from your opponent to yourself.
So whether you’re a hobbyist, a casual, or a competitor, understand that whilst there is most definitely a place for chess, in Jiu Jitsu, chess is on it’s own is not enough, as when it comes to the big picture of a practitioner’s progress -
Jiu Jitsu is Golf.