The "Thinking 99 Moves Ahead" Myth

After being trounced by upper belts, beginners often make remarks like "You were setting me up the whole time" and "You were thinking 99 moves ahead." While those have a hint of truth to them, the reality is different, and understanding how high level grapplers actually operate will help you develop your game in a similar fashion.

This idea of setting elaborate traps is reinforced by the popular notion that BJJ black belts are like chess grandmasters who see the entire game from start to finish before ever moving a piece. But even chess grandmasters do not do this.

From the novice's perspective, it feels like every move you made was wrong and only led to worse and worse problems until you finally lost. So from your perspective, it was 99 moves (or whatever number) that all led to the finish.

Where this breaks down is that if at any point your prediction was wrong, then every prediction after it on the chain was wasted and you need to start over again. No one has the mental capacity to run all those simulations. Thankfully, this is not how it actually works.

Speaking for myself, and for every high-level grappler I've asked about this topic, what is really happening is:

  • You know what situation you're in.
  • You know the handful of techniques you like to do from there.
  • You know the likely responses and problems you can run into.
  • So you go for whatever move seems like the best bet and adapt as you go.

This is done mostly on automatic because we have been in those situations so many times and drilled our favorite moves enough to act without overthinking it. In a fast paced match, you don't have time to think this all through; you're acting on instinct and intuition developed through years of training.

Looking back on a match and mapping out all the potential forks in the flowchart gives you a crazy looking map like this:

What keeps this from being overwhelming is that you don't need to see the entire flowchart in your mind at all times. You just know what point you're at, you know what's likely to happen next, and you go for your favorite move and are ready to deal with common issues as you move down the chain.

From the perspective of the beginner looking back on what happened, it seems more like this:

Nelson has a fantastic way of explaining this using the concept of "funneling." The idea is to put your opponent into situations where whatever they do, you can drive them towards a desired goal, and limit their options as you approach it. You can read more about this in Build Your Funnels Into Your Jiu-Jitsu Game and see it in action in Nelson's takedowns and guard passing instructionals From Chile with Love.

 

When drawing flowcharts and decision trees, there is a tendency to make things look over-complicated. In reality, you need to be prepared for many things you never planned on to happen. That's when your skill takes over and gets you through it.

You could make a simplified grappling gameplan that looks like this:

Zooming in to one of those sections would reveal its sub-game, such as this for guard:

And each of those guards could be broken down even further into its grips, pass prevention, sweeps, and attacks.

To dig deeper into this topic, I recommend you read How to Fully Develop Your Grappling Gameplan and Building Your Gameplan Around Combo Attacks. Be sure to share your gameplan charts in the comments!


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