Lately, I’ve been reading a lot about the connection between chess and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. This analogy first made itself known to me over a year ago and I’ve always found it really interesting. Then I started thinking that it would be nice if I did some research on the topic.
So, I started playing chess.
I don’t have anyone to play with, or even a real set. Instead I’m messing about with the “Big Bang Chess” game that came with my iMac. It’s not exactly Deep Blue, which works out quite nicely, as I’m not exactly Garry Kasparov. At any rate, here’s what I have:
Chess, like BJJ, is a game of functionality.
The aim of chess is to put your opponent in checkmate. The aim of BJJ is to make your opponent submit. To that end, an incredible number of techniques and tactics have evolved over the years for each pastime. There is always someone trying to explore and to innovate, whether in chess or Jiu-Jitsu. A particular strategy will dominate until someone finds out how to break it down. If it doesn’t work, nobody does it.
Chess, like BJJ, requires a good amount of preparation.
As far as my own chess adventure, the first thing I realized was that in terms of chess, I haven’t really come a very long way from my days in the school chess club (this would be about 17 years ago, maybe 18). I got seriously mauled, by just about everyone. I would start playing with no game plan and I can remember everything I did being picked apart.
Take that last sentence on its own and you find it immediately applicable to grappling.
I’m not talking about taking notes on all your training partners to find ways to exploit their weaknesses, even though I have heard of that happening. I’m referring to things like making notes after classes and seminars. Actively work to fill up the holes in your game. Train smart, not paranoid.
I’ve also noticed that the more time I spend thinking about BJJ off the mats, the less time I spend thinking about it on the mats. A fair portion of my free time goes to thinking about random BJJ-related stuff. Things like possible escapes from bad positions, possible submissions I can attempt from a given position and so on.
Chess, like BJJ, can be really intimidating.
Anyway, 17 or 18 years later, I would routinely avoid “Big Bang Chess” in favour of something more my speed. “Big Bang Checkers” was very popular, as would have been “Big Bang Tic Tac Toe” – if every game didn’t end in a draw. That got old after a while. I was very kindly introduced to new levels of humility by “Big Bang Connect Four”, but maybe I’ll save that for another post.
Even in retrospect I’m not totally sure if I was intimidated by the game, or if I just wasn’t interested enough to try. Then I started thinking about all the guys I try to get to just try BJJ out. I managed to get one guy hooked but overall my success rate isn’t so hot. I know, diff’rent strokes for diff’rent folks, but almost nobody would agree to even try.
Instead, when I would try to tell people about how cool BJJ can be in the right environment, they would just lower the cone of silence on themselves.
Chess, like BJJ, challenges us to overcome panic.
Panic has always been a problem in BJJ. If it sets in, you’ve already lost. I almost never see this in training, though I now understand that in tournaments, it’s a very different thing. Before I started reading up on this, I wouldn’t really have thought that it would be a concern in chess as well. Then I came upon this (emphasis mine):
Chess; NO MATTER WHAT HAPPENS, DON'T PANIC
By Robert Byrne
Published Dec 20, 1981
It is all very human to become frantic and illogical when your chances are slipping away in a match, but it almost always results in disaster. The wild gamble, the variation you know to be unsound, instead of beguiling the opponent makes your defeat all the more probable.
The critical situation in a match should not be played differently from the normal way of going about winning any tournament game. Barring gross errors of the opponent - over which you have no control - the method must be to maneuver to obtain a favorable position and only then to work forcefully for victory. There are no rational shortcuts.
Note the date of the article. Note also the use of language.
Chess, like BJJ, is a game of position before submission.
In order to set up a checkmate or a submission, you need to have a good position. You need to account for all the ways that your opponent can escape or counter, and then eliminate all of them.
Of course, when you have the position you need to be able to submit. Spending half a game trying to immobilize your opponent’s queen doesn’t mean you win. Neither does completely pinning down the opposing king without being able to put it in check.
Chess, like BJJ, is a game of chaos.
You can’t control your opponent’s actions. You can lead your opponent towards a particular course of action, but you have no way to know that this action will in fact be taken.
I’ve heard both chess and BJJ referred to as “controlled chaos”, which is a bit misleading. If you can control chaos, then it’s not chaos any more. I think that both chess and BJJ are more about adapting to chaos than controlling it. Knowing when to push for a position or submission attempt, knowing when to tap, knowing when to go fast or slow, knowing when to bail out.
I’ll refrain from posting the lyrics to “The Gambler” by Kenny Rogers, but I pretty much just paraphrased it.
The only times when I could predict with any real accuracy how the computer would react were when I put its king in check, or when I threatened one of its more important pieces. And even in the latter case, there were occasions when the computer would sacrifice the piece to gain a positional advantage on me, which I just didn’t see coming.
In chess, like BJJ, there are people who just take it way too seriously.
Most people who train BJJ have at one point rolled with someone who just flips out on the mat. It’s always full steam ahead and usually you’re just concerned about getting hurt by this person. And this is just during a normal class. Enter a tournament and you’re almost sure to see one of these guys in action.
By the same token, Maurice Ashley (the first African-American Grand Master) has said,
A guy is trying to kill you in chess. He is trying to maim you intellectually. It is not some esoteric general exercise. It’s war! I’m trying to break YOU down. I’m trying to break down your pieces. I’m trying to break down your mind. I’m trying to break down your spirit – everything.
When guys lose at the highest level it’s brutal. You feel like you have totally prepared to come out. You have all these skills. Then a guy comes and takes your position and rips it apart. That’s personal.
There’s also Bobby Fischer, who infamously remarked,
I like the moment when I break a man’s ego.
Chess and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu can each be seen as either just a game or a life-and-death struggle of alpha male superiority. To each his own, I suppose.
Slight tangent: in the Maurice Ashley article he makes a very good point about how people who play chess in the park don't necessarily find success in tournaments. It's such a completely different atmosphere and casual or "street" players find it hard to adapt to the pressure of playing timed games.
Chess, like BJJ, is much more fun when it is played, rather than talked about.
I’m having fun with “Big Bang Chess”. Right now I have it on the highest difficulty setting, which doesn’t really mean that much except it takes longer to make decisions. I’m doing well enough by opening up my queen and white bishop (I usually play white), though I suspect I should try new openings before it gets stagnant.
There’s also a handy “undo” option for when I mess up.