It’s Chess, but I’m not any moves ahead!

A small class last night was a lot of fun. I decided to answer questions instead of following my usual lesson plan, which I usually develop on the spot based on a move or move set we have been playing with. After a roll with one of my bigger fellows, he was certain that I am a kind of master chess player–10 moves ahead! I wish this were true.

I wish that I could say that I’m somehow a master chess player and that I could read what people are going to do and Matrix-like be able to casually brush aside entirely predictable attacks and defenses and that our goals in practicing Brazilian Jiu-jitsu were something akin to set mastery and some kind of Deep Blue data analysis. It isn’t. What jiu-jitsu is is lots of practice with a set of moves. Most of us don’t even use that many moves regularly, but have a particular fluency with a few.

Wrestling coaches will tell you a State Champ is a kid who has a well practiced response in each position. Just one is enough. In Judo they will tell you that 5000 repetitions of a throwing technique will make that technique a familiar enough tool in your box that you’ll have a kind of facility with it that makes it yours. This is in fact why boring repetition of these moves becomes so vital. If you take fencing you’re going to do thousands of reps of a lounging stab, one of the most common attacks, so that your move is fluid and dynamic. If you’re playing a guitar you’re going to learn your scales forward and back forcing your fingers up and down the neck in small pattern combinations (most great players only do a few!).

And so being good at jiu-jitsu is a kind of development of critical experience through repetition and dynamic sparring (Rolling). It’s not one or the other, it’s both. But how is it a good BJJ player is so effective? How are they so often able to regularly top a lesser experienced player? It’s not magic, it’s time and effort. I wish I could say I’m a great athlete. I’m not. What I am is a very experienced player. But even so, people surprise me. A visiting brown belt not long ago shocked me with a very unusual game. I could sweep him, but he played a terrific half game that he had tremendously invested in and I had no particular answers for. It was a humbling experience. But it was experience! Patience and toughness keep you learning.

Experience is everything in Brazilian Jiu-jitsu (and most skill-based endeavors), which is why you want to take it easy, especially in the beginning. Drop your fighter dreams and avoid injuries that keep you off the mat. Get on the mat every chance you get and give yourself patience and lots of durability (both physically and egotistically). In fact, approach your training like a kid. Just play. Just do it.

A question last night lead me into talking about how I play my open guard. It was an open ended question, folks were looking for more ways to invest in their game. I call it “testing” your partner. You have to keep a steady stream of checking your opponent’s balance, susceptibility to chokes or armbars going all the time. Half of your job from a defensive position, especially the guard, is checking your opponent’s (your partner playing opponent) vulnerability. Attacking is defense.

And even the master chess players aren’t thinking 10 moves ahead. Famously Fisher was said to be able to see three or four moves in advance. I don’t think it’s necessary in BJJ – the limited set of possible moves will become clear in time. BJJ allows a lot of resetting of position. Chess can’t really reset, Pawns only move one direction.

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