How BJJ is like Chess: The Power of the Fork

Jiu-jitsu and chess are often compared to one another – usually in an attempt to justify the intellectual qualities of jiu-jitsu more than to demonstrate the physical qualities of chess.  But is this comparison apt?  In some very real ways jiu-jitsu and chess are completely different – but the metaphor is not completely without merit.


One concept that carries over from chess is the fork.

The fork is a simple concept in chess, but understanding and using it is crucial to winning.

Forking your opponent involves setting up an attack that has two or more targets.  In chess, your opponent only has the ability to defend one of the targets and you are guaranteed to be able to take the other.

The white knight has black’s king and queen in a fork.

This sort of attack is possible in jiu-jitsu, and using this strategy will greatly increase your chance of making your techniques work.

Bump Sweep / Kimura / Guillotine from Guard

A perfect example is the bump sweep/kimura/guillotine combination.  If your partner is leaning back in the guard they are exposed to the bump sweep.  If they base with their arm they are exposing themselves to a kimura.  If they push back into you they are allowing themselves to be guillotined.

Americana / Armbar/ Kimura from Side Control

There are several move combinations that function similarly.  If someone defends the americana by straightening their arm they are exposing themselves to a straight arm-bar.  If they attempt to escape the armlock by continuing to rotate their arm down, then they are in a position to be kimura’d.

A Flexible Metaphor

While in chess people talk about planning moves in advance, I believe this applies less directly to jiu-jitsu.  Its not that you are going for a hip-bump sweep and are planning on getting a guillotine or kimura.  Instead you are mentally flexible and rather than commit to a technique that is not working, you transition smoothly to whatever attack your partner has exposed themselves to.

The Metaphor Breaks Down

There are problems with comparing jiu-jitsu to chess.  In chess there are very strict rules and pieces are only allowed to move in certain ways.  While in jiu-jitsu some movements are constrained by anatomy (elbows and knees only bend one way), there are fewer limitations.

Chess has situations like this:

White has a black’s queen and king in a fork. Black is not allowed to move without getting his king out of danger.  This means that black cannot take white’s queen, even though their queen is in position to do so.

Jiu-jitsu does not have a parallel to ‘check‘ and so one could imagine a situation where your partner could ‘take your queen’ and leave their king exposed.  How can this be?  Well, jiu-jitsu does not have turn order.  Speed, strength and stamina play deciding roles in how much gets done from any given position.

The bump sweep / kimura / guillotine is a power combination, but it is not impossible for your opponent to prevent.  In order to initiate the sequence you have to first open your guard – depending on how your partner reacts your attack sequence could end before it even really gets started.  Does this mean you shouldn’t go for this sequence?  No!  By setting up a sequence that offers a high likelihood of forcing your opponent into a fork you are increasing your odds of success.  You just have to remember that jiu-jitsu is like chess, not the same as chess.

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