I’m going to start off with a saying we’ve all been introduced to when it comes to beginning Jiu-Jitsu. It goes something like this – “Jiu Jitsu is like the game of chess. It’s based on strategy and various movements that can lead you to success.” Or something like that. If you’ve heard from someone or read somewhere that Jiu-Jitsu is like chess, you know what I’m referring to. I just found this, yet again, while listening to a podcast yesterday.
And it makes sense. I’ve never questioned that statement. I’ve easily drawn the parallels in my mind and connected the dots of how Jiu-Jitsu may be like the game of chess. One person makes one move, which causes the other person to react and make their own move, which causes the other person to react and…you see where I’m heading with this. For the average fellow (me being one of them), the idea is easily digestible.
There’s a problem though. And it’s a problem I only recently discovered (or more appropriately said, “considered”). And the problem is this – not only is Jiu-Jitsu similar to the game of chess in many respects, it’s also like the game of checkers, risk and for that matter, football. Each and every one of the games I just mentioned depend on the movements of others. They’re sequential and are won or lost based on the skill and shrewdness of their players. Now, if this is the case and if Jiu-Jitsu can easily be compared to many, many games out there, what makes us continually put our sport in the same room as chess?
After thinking about it for a while and after realizing that the comparison we’ve been making for years had become somewhat marginalized, I turned to the game of chess itself. I asked myself, “Jay, what do you know about the game of chess? Have you ever played chess beyond simply shuffling a few pieces around an unfamiliar board? What are some strategies used in the game of chess and what’s its history?” These questions didn’t bode well for me. I felt defeated when I came to the conclusion that my answers to the questions I had asked myself were nothing, no, I have no idea and again, I have no idea.
And worse yet, I couldn’t even answer the most basic question of all. “How do you play the game of chess?”
But for some reason, and even after admitting to myself that I don’t have even an ounce of knowledge concerning the game, somehow I’m still comfortable telling a white belt, or any belt for that matter, that Jiu-Jitsu is like the game of chess. Perhaps I’ve heard it too much and it simply won’t escape my mind. Or perhaps my gut is telling me something.
Have you ever heard of something called “Chess Theory?”
The game of chess is commonly divided into three phases: the opening, middlegame, and endgame. As to each of these phases, especially the opening and endgame, there is a large body of theory as how the game should be played. Those who write about chess theory, who are often but not necessarily also eminent players, are referred to as “theorists” or “theoreticians”. – Source: Wikipedia
I read a bit on chess theory this morning and began thinking about how in depth the game truly is. By simple awareness of there being a board, some pieces and game-play, I was merely scratching the surface of what others have committed their lives to. Chess is old. Chess is complex and chess is fascinating. I imagined standing before a crowd of advanced chess players proclaiming that, “My love – my game of Jiu-Jitsu is much like your own love – your game of chess…” only to be stopped mid-sentence, cut off, if you will, by one of the chess players and asked, “How so?”
“Ummm, uhhh, errr. Well, you see, we have moves that depend on the moves of others. We base our reactions on the reactions of our opponents.” I’d reply.
“Oh, you mean like tennis?” I’d get thrown back at me by the insulted aficionado.
I decided this morning that I can’t compare Jiu-Jitsu to chess any longer. Not until I either learn about Jiu-Jitsu, chess or both. Both would make sense if I were making a comparison. I couldn’t legitimately do something like this with limited information.
Upon further study, I discovered that there wasn’t a “first moment” for chess. It was more of an evolution into the modern game.
The origins of chess are not exactly clear, though most believe it evolved from earlier chess-like games played in India almost two thousand years ago.The game of chess we know today has been around since the 15th century where it became popular in Europe. – Source: Chess.com
I suppose that’s somewhat similar to the origins of the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu we see today. Read up on your history of BJJ here. You’ll see that our sport is a culmination of earlier adaptations of Judo and Japanese jiu-jitsu.
Fair enough. We have similar, if not fuzzy, histories of both activities. Modern Jiu-Jitsu’s history is more clear, but as for chess, things are a bit murky. But I’ll take that as a win for comparison’s sake.
Now, I’m not going to get into every single intricacy of both games here – I’m going to focus more on what I had originally intended to – the theory and game-play of both sports (if chess can be considered a sport). And then I’m going to talk about my disappointment in what I think should be the primary focus of Jiu-Jitsu – which actually is the primary focus of chess.
When we compare Jiu-Jitsu to chess, I think we’re mostly referring to how the games are played. The theories, the principles, the concepts and techniques of both games. It makes sense. Both games have all of those aspects, but only one game teaches and truly hones their students in to more of the upper level “academic” view of things – and that game is chess.
Websites that cover chess strategy and principle are all over the place. You can see some examples here:
And chess theory abounds:
The fact that such volume of theoretical and mathematical study is involved with the game of chess concerns me. As a new Jiu-Jitsu student, upon hearing the game I had chosen to undertake was similar to the game of chess, I became very interested in what was in store. I began my physical training in earnest, but also did a lot of studying in the internet. I watched video after video of technique after technique. And throughout the years, I seemed to have forgotten what sparked my interest in the game in the first place. The hard, cold, undeniable fact of what Jiu-Jitsu was supposed to be – a game for the smaller, weaker individual to use to either defend themselves or to dominate a partner. I think I may have felt that a “formula” or an “equation” was waiting for me in the future. Now that I look back, there has been little of that. What I’ve seen from virtually every corner of the world is merely technique and curriculum.
What I’m saying here isn’t meant to be critical of any instructor I’ve come across in the past few years. Actually, every one who’s taken the time to train me has been phenomenal. I’ve found them intelligent, interested and committed to what they were attempting to do – and that may have been to teach, the best way they knew how, a room full of what may have been considered at one time, bad kids. Of course, there were some good kids too, but the ones I’ve generally gravitated towards were the bad ones.
What I am being critical of here is the Jiu-Jitsu world at large. I did a search yesterday (and a few weeks ago) for “Jiu-Jitsu Theory” on Youtube and the results were pathetic. The only person I’ve seen who has bothered to dabble in this arena is Demian Maia. And after watching one of his videos, I brought what I learned into class to gather response – and the two students I helped that day still refer to the lesson. It was remarkable how easily absorbed the information was when it was applied with an overarching “theoretical” brush.
When I think of chess, I think about board setup and physical piece movement very little. Actually, I don’t think about them at all. Every time I’ve ever thought of the game, I pictured extremely intelligent individuals sitting opposed to one another – thinking. We’ve all seen the games of chess that have lasted days, if not weeks. Players disappear to consider and meditate, only to come back to move one piece and start all over again. This is the game I’ve been attracted to with Jiu-Jitsu and this is the game I’d like to see more focus on today. The “scientific” and “mathematical” side of it. I want constants laid out and I want to see principles be delved into. I want to learn theories that overarch all aspects of Jiu-Jitsu so even the greenest of players have something to grasp onto. Ideas they can rely on when they’re in a jam and concepts they can remember and study after they’ve lost yet another match. Failure shouldn’t be a word because if players are taught “truisms,” they’ve got something concrete.
After all, in algebra, “Pi” is still Pi, no matter if the student gets the question wrong.
To me, Jiu-Jitsu is not based on mat performance. It’s not a mere collection of techniques that, in time, will lead to a higher belt. To me, Jiu-Jitsu is an idea – it’s a swirling collage of talented individuals and techniques that have yet to be pasted together in any coherent way. Jiu-Jitsu is in its utter infancy – a thing that someone needs to take hold of and transform into that tangible something so many of us out there crave to study. An academic view that can be directly transferred to ability on the mat, no matter the size or skill of the player.