Tactics in BJJ: Are you playing checkers instead of chess?

The subject of BJJ and chess is one I have written about before.  I think the subject is worthy of further attention because the metaphor is such an alluring one – but pinching metaphors until they squeal is all too easy.

Recently my coach made a comment about a roll, saying that one person was playing chess while the other was playing checkers.  For the sake of science, discovery, curiosity, and pedantry, I’m going to attempt to unpack all that is contained within this statement.

Same board, different game

The chess/checkers connection is pretty obvious on the face of it.  Both games are played on the same board.  Jiu-jitsu doesn’t change when you get better, you’re still rolling around on the ground, and for the most part the techniques are the same – therefore the board is the same.

But, in checkers the pieces move very predictably.  Every piece can move in at most two directions, with some additional complexity coming from ‘kinged’ pieces and double jumping.  The rule that most greatly simplifies checkers is that

if a piece can be taken, it must be taken.”

While at an early stage in BJJ you may recognize that positions are complex and almost endlessly open ended, you might still be playing checkers if you think your partner must respond to your efforts in a certain way.

Intentional Mistakes

For example, white belts are often taught to avoid putting one hand through a closed guard.  This, they are told, is a great way to get triangled or armbarred.  However, to assume your partner will avoid doing this is incorrect.  At a low level you have to be open to the idea that your partner will make mistake.  At a high level you have to be aware of styles of passing that are built off of this apparent mistake.

You’ll find that your partner reaches into your closed guard, and in response you’ll open your legs to throw a triangle.  The next thing you realize is that they’ve completely wrapped your leg and are now stacking your knee to your nose.  Oops.

Your guard is about to be passed because you were playing checkers.  Your assumption that a certain technique wasn’t viable because you had a response in mind let you down.



Playing chess instead of checkers

If you took a chess-like view of the same situation you would probably still assume that your partner was making a mistake if they were inexperienced.  However, an experienced player is unlikely to make such an error.  Therefore, your response needs to anticipate what they want to do.  Instead of leaping for the triangle and hoping for the best, your best course of action is recognize that they are about to use a method of passing that relies on minimizing space.  Therefore you need to make space, opening your guard and jumping your feet to their hips, perhaps switching to butterfly guard.

Click to see this in a bit more detail at Youtube.Further, you know that they are going to try to lift the leg that they are going under – so shifting your hips and making that leg heavy will help.  But more than just responding defensively, you can switch to butterfly guard, while shifting your hips, and pummeling under and around their other arm, seeking an over-hook guard.

Of course, you should probably assume that your partner is playing chess too – so your ability to succeed at all of these elements will vary and is dependent on skill level, size difference, luck, barometric pressure, etc.  But at least by recognizing that there is a more complex game to play you give yourself a fighting chance!


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