How BJJ is like Chess: Rock Paper Scissors Edition

Jiu-jitsu is an athletic endeavor – but it is one that requires a great deal of thought in order to be good at it.  As I pointed out in my earlier How BJJ is like Chess article this leads to comparisons between jiu-jitsu and chess – sometimes reasonable comparisons…sometimes less reasonable.

One facet of jiu-jitsu that feels comparable to chess is the tit for tat nature of moves.  If someone is mounted on you, you can try the upa escape.  If they are able to post their leg to prevent themselves from being rolled you can take advantage of that space to do the shrimp escape.  If they pinch their knees tightly to prevent the shrimp escape their base is narrow and thus more easily toppled over with an upa escape.

So…does this sequence show that jiu-jitsu is like chess?  Or is it really just complicated rock paper scissors?

In my prior article I wrote about the fork – and I don’t believe this is an example of a fork.  While one can set up mount escapes in chained sequences like this, it is also completely possible for your partner to defend your upa escape and then immediately spin to s-mount.  The mount escape sequence is reactionary and your choice of technique is dependent upon your partner’s response.  A fork inherently narrows your partners choice down to a very small selection, each of which you are prepared for.

Rock Paper Scissors?

Instead, the mount escape sequence is like playing rock paper scissors without any turn order.

Me: Upa escape (rock)

Partner: Post leg (paper)

Me: Shrimp escape (scissors)

In this tidy example I escape because my partner did not react quickly enough to a changing mount environment.  An alternative roll could have gone like this:

Me: Upa escape (rock)

Partner: Post leg (paper)

Partner: Close knees (rock)

Partner: Move to high mount (rock/paper)

Because I let my partner make a series of moves before I was able to respond they defended my escape attempt, prevented my follow up escape, and then moved to a more advantageous position.  In order to escape high mount I must first get my hips back underneath their center of gravity, and only then will I be able to effectively implement the upa escape or shrimp escape.

The comparison to chess is fun, and encourages more complex thoughts about jiu-jitsu, but falls far short of the mark.  Rock paper scissors, presents an interesting, albeit equally flawed metaphor.

Escapes are not equal to Attacks

The biggest flaw with RPS is not the turn-based nature of it (which, like chess can be ameliorated by simply allowing players to take as many turns as they are able to) but is the assumption that escapes are equally powerful to attacks.  In chess any piece can ‘beat’ another piece.  In Rock Paper Scissors, rock always beats scissors.  Jiu-jitsu does not ascribe to these certainties, instead favoring first actions.

Functionally this means that attacks are almost always easier to execute than reactionary defenses to the attacks.

My coach likes to say

Any time you try an escape you are running a race against the attack…except its a forty yard dash and you start out five yards behind.”

-Sam Joseph

Basically your defense must be better than your partner’s attack in order to not be submitted.  If both of your techniques are equally proficient, the attacker will come out on top simply because they were in motion first!  Even if the attack is amateurish a late defense, even if technically sound, will not guarantee an escape.

Prevention as Defense

If you defend yourself from a triangle by never allowing your partner to close their legs, you aren’t giving your partner a head start!  The same goes for a collar choke where you never permit the second hand from getting a grip.  The difference is that these preventative measures ensure that your partner will not be able to throw an effective attack, instead of defending once that attack has already been initiated.

This of course is a critical blow against the Rock Paper Scissors model of jiu-jitsu game theory, and is another arrow in the quiver of the Chess model.  In chess one is capable of preventing attacks before they are initiated by moving pieces to more defensive positions or pinning attacking pieces.

Can one really ‘castle’ in jiu-jitsu?  Well…No.  But perhaps this chess metaphor still has some life to it.


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