5 Ways Jiu-Jitsu Really Is Just Like “Human Chess”

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Very often, I hear jiu-jitsu compared to chess. I’ve heard it called “human chess” and seen a lot of references supporting these similarities. As an avid chess player (find me on chess.com as Efischer1000), the comparison is appealing as it takes two of my passions and theoretically makes them one. Here’s how the game of chess and the sport of jiu-jitsu are alike:

  1. The notion of hierarchy of position and pieces (techniques).  If one looks at the game of chess, it becomes apparent that some pieces are worth more than others, some pieces are more likely to win you the game than others, and sometimes it’s best to trade a piece for another piece because that transaction can give you an advantage. Similarly, certain positions and submissions in jiu-jitsu are considered better than others. The rear naked choke is often considered the most powerful submission because of how hard it can be to defend. Regardless of what you think the hierarchy is, it definitely exists both in jiu-jitsu as well as chess.
  2. The concept of “material.”  In chess, the goal is to develop material. This means moving pieces and then reinforcing them with other pieces, keeping yours on the board.  In jiu-jitsu, the goal is similar: you want to reinforce your grips and positions with redundancy, and you want to take another person’s defenses away. A great example of this is passing the guard. Initially, when someone establishes a full guard, you have to contend with their feet, their shins, their knees, their thighs, their hips, and their hands. As you start to pass the guard, you must bypass each of these to end up in a dominant position.
  3. Attack chains/foresight. If I’m able to foresee what an opponent will do on the chess board I can create chains that cause them to sacrifice pieces or position.  A great example of this is the classic “Queen’s Gambit” in which the player sacrifices a pawn for a turn or two in order to open up position and ultimately even the score with a better position. In jiu-jitsu, there’s similar depth of play. One of my favorite sequences is the cross-collar armbar-triangle combo — I present my opponent with the threat of a cross-collar choke, which they defend. I then attack their defending arm with an armbar, which they defend by pulling their arm back entering the triangle. This aspect makes jiu-jitsu very “chess-like.”
  4. The Gambit.  As mentioned in #3, sometimes a chess player will temporarily make a sacrifice with the intent of gaining an appreciable advantage. Similarly, good jiujiteiros may seemingly make temporary sacrifices in order to gain a distinct advantage. A great example of this is Eduardo Telles’ turtle guard.  Turtle guard, for all intents and purposes, is a terrible position because you are exposing your back, but Telles developed a series of sweeps based entirely upon this bad position. While gambits are less common in jiu-jitsu, if you watch closely, you can often see momentary sacrifices in the name of improvement of position.
  5. The endgame. As the number of pieces on the board starts to dwindle in a chess match, you see an entire set of strategies developed around trapping the king. A common situation will be a few pieces vying to trap the king and execute a checkmate. This sort of gameplay can be intricate, and you don’t want to run out of time or wind up stalemated. Similarly, if you’re trying to submit your opponent in a jiu-jitsu match, you need to learn how to play a jiu-jitsu endgame. A good practitioner can survive even the worst positions against someone who doesn’t know how to seal the deal, but high-level guys know which grips to take and how to chain attacks together to conclude a match by submission.

What are some similarities you’ve noticed between chess and jiu-jitsu?


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