With Tobey Maguire doing the podcast rounds for his new movie Pawn Sacrifice, Bobby Fischer is reentering the public conversation. Well, maybe not the general public conversation. Chess isn’t the sexy Cold War sport that it used to be, but a few of us probably remember winding our way through the dusty stacks of a public library to find a hidden backroom where dozens of young children quietly hunched over chessboards.
Bobby Fischer was something of a hero at the time (and that legacy has been tarnished by his mental unhinging). Searching for Bobby Fischer, a film about child chess prodigy Josh Waitzkin—now a Marcelo Garcia black belt—was just hitting VHS and my brothers and I were giddy with chess fever. I, unfortunately, was never particularly good. My older brother never held back when we played, and I didn’t fare much better against children my age in the dingy corner of a Pennsylvania library.
I took to studying. I would sneak into my brother’s room to borrow his copy of Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess and worked through the exercises in secret in the hopes that I could launch a surprise comeback.
That never worked, but some twenty years later I am thinking about that book again because of jiu-jitsu, and it has helped me to better understand how I train and how I can help my students.
Start at the End
In his book, Fischer begins by teaching endgame. Most of the pieces are removed from the board, leaving you to figure out how you could achieve checkmate with the handful of pieces available. The first big chunk of instruction is done this way. Fischer walks you through a variety of endgame scenarios and challenges you to find the right solution.
The logic goes that working backward from the end is not only more efficient, it’s more effective. If you start from the beginning, with every piece on the board, you can get overwhelmed by all of the different ways you can start. The problem becomes that you don’t know where you are trying to go, so no matter how you start, you almost always end up getting lost. If you an endgame that you prefer, you can build your game in reverse to steer the conflict in that direction.
I stumbled across this idea in jiu-jitsu by accident. I was trying to learn to wrestle, and my wrestling coach recommended that I start with the single leg because of how I played my guard. My shot was garbage, but I could initiate the single leg from my butt scoot and from my half guard, so I started to get reps in on finishing the single leg long before I could successfully change levels and shoot into a single leg.
Knowing that I could finish the single leg once I had it actually made me more confident in my shot. Working backwards from the single leg made the limitless possibilities of the takedown game less intimidating. I wasn’t trying to decide between a few dozen throws and takedowns. I knew where I wanted to go—the single leg—so I built my standing game around techniques that would lead me down that funnel and nowhere else.
I am not a Genius
When I first came to this realization, I thought I had come up with something original, but not only was Bobby Fischer talking about it decades before I was derping around a jiu-jitsu gym, but according to Tim Ferriss in his book 4-Hour Chef this is one of the reasons that Dave Camarillo has a small obsession with armbars. When he works with students, he teaches them the overall endgame of jiu-jitsu—getting the submission—and works backward from there. If you like armbars, these are the kind of throws that are ideal, this is the kind of guard you should play, and here’s how you should play your top positioning. If your endgame is a guillotine, that overall strategy could be radically different.
If you are working on a new jiu-jitsu skill, you could apply this approach to make that process easier. Start at the end, and work your way backward, the Bobby Fischer way.
But skip the part where you get weirdly paranoid about vast conspiracies. Stick to the jiu-jitsu.
(Photo credit to Evonne on Flickr.)