I learned to play chess when I was in the third grade. One afternoon when no cartoons were on television and I had finished my weekly allowance of comic books (Condorito y Barrabases) I went to my mom and told her I was bored. She took one look at me and told me how about I go read the encyclopedia. For once, I actually listened.
I went over to our living room and grabbed the first volume of Barsa Enciclopedia. I remember those red books vividly. They actually had been my dad’s when he was a child, so at this point they were probably 20 years old. As I flipped through the first few pages I found something that caught my eye. Ajedrez (Spanish for Chess; I bet you were wondering why I a third grader would skip the C Encyclopedia, but I didn’t; I started at the beginning with A). This was fascinating. There were different pieces that all moved in different patterns.
I was really drawn to it. I bothered my mom so much that the next day she bought me a small board. I was soon playing and even competing in small school tournaments.
This was my first encounter with strategy, and probably one of the most important ones. I have carried over some of the basic chess concepts I learned into other games and even my grappling. Since these ideas have helped my jiu-jitsu grow, I thought that they might help yours as well.
Here are my favorites:
Protect the king. In chess the game ends when your king is taken. A player announces “check” when he has an attack on your king and checkmate when there is no move available to escape or resolve the check. In BJJ, the match ends when you are submitted, so the most important thing is going to be not being submitted. As we progress in BJJ we realize all the little things that expose our king: leaving your neck open, putting an arm in and an arm out while passing and getting caught in triangle, sticking an arm a bit too far and getting armbarred. The list goes on. Remember that if you want to keep playing the game you need to prevent yourself from being submitted. Keep your king out of danger!
Control the center. In chess, this refers to developing your pieces so you control the center of the board. In grappling, it refers to controlling inside space. Tie-ups and gripping while standing control the space while standing. Spider guard or butterfly hooks with underhooks control the inside space from guard. You use these little advances in inside control to develop your attacks and build momentum for your offense.
Don't give pieces away. In chess, pieces are your resources. Losing them will eventually cost you the game as your opponent’s resource advantage grows to the point that it’s insurmountable. In grappling, resource management is about giving grips or positions that allow your opponent to control you. Every grip and position is a resource, and the farther beyond you fall—your opponent gets his grips, opens your guard, secures the underhook as he passes to side control—the more difficult it will be for you to recover. Your resources are precious, so fight to keep every pawn you can.
Use all your pieces. In chess is easy to fall in love with a particular piece, maybe you like the freedom of the knight or like gliding across the board with your bishops. But what do you do when this piece is taken away? Much like chess, in BJJ we may fall in love with a certain part of our game, specific takedowns or passes for example. What happens when our opponent takes that away from you? Are you able to switch gears and attack with a different game? If not, you are ignoring other pieces on your board.
- Set up double attacks. In chess, double attacks are called forks. This refers to when you move one of your pieces into a position where you can take two of your opponent pieces. In Spanish, these care called Horquillas, and if you do it with a lowly pawn is called a Calzoncillo (which means underwear; 9-year-old Nelson found this hilarious and current Nelson still does). Double attacks should be a big part of your BJJ game. The most basic example would be a cross collar choke into an armbar. With one grip, you can go two directions.
Thinking about jiu-jitsu in terms of chess concepts can help you to step back from the chaos of sparring and be more strategic about your grappling choices. You can do this with any strategy-heavy game really. Some teachers talk about boxing ideas and apply them to grappling, for example. I’ve also taken ideas from Magic the Gathering and applied them to grappling.
Any time you are doing something that involves outsmarting and outmaneuvering an opponent, there’s probably an insight into jiu-jitsu in there somewhere.
(Photo credit to Gabriel Saldana / https://flic.kr/p/cpLAJL)