Mind and Body

I’ve been practicing Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) for over three years now. Even that I’m unsure of, the pandemic has wrecked all semblance of time in my brain, it may be closer to four and a half years now. Any way you slice it, I’ve been at it for awhile. There’s a common paradigm in Jiu Jitsu and other grappling sports comparing those sports to chess. After downloading the chess.com app, and playing countless games against friends and strangers from around the world, I can tell you, they are extremely similar: I’m awful at both.

To get it out of the way, no, chess is not a physical endeavor. My initial reason for getting into the sport of BJJ was a lack of formal ninja training when I was a boy, and to get some exercise that wasn’t running. However, no matter how skilled I become at BJJ, nor how strategically I approach it, a freak physical specimen does have the ability to demolish me.

However, chess and BJJ are both:

  • Individual vs Individual competition
  • Follow a strict set of guidelines and win conditions
  • Have a loose point system for understanding strategic ground coverage
  • Require risk vs reward calculations
  • Are fun as heck, with lots of content online
  • Since they aren’t life and death, I treat them as a game, I don’t care when I lose. I just learn.


After leaving formal education, sports and competition seemingly disappeared from my life. I participated in team sports from about 4 years old, until I was 24. I never competed in individual sports. The one time I ran track was on a relay team. I couldn’t even treat that as an individual sport.

BJJ is different from any of the team sports I trained in growing up. There’s no one else to rely on. There’s what you’ve trained. What you know. What you can do. What you can force the other person into. And what they’re doing at the time. The same is true in chess.

Win Conditions

In chess your objective is to capture the opponent’s king. To put him in a position where there is no where else to go.

In BJJ you wrestle until the other person taps. It’s the equivalent of yelling “Uncle.” The opponent physically has no where else to go.

I did put an “S” on “Condition” up there. Most BJJ sport competitions include a timer and a way to score points, which I’ll dive into in the next section. Interestingly enough, an opponent losing in chess can force a stalemate. Which, while not a win, is still an end-game scenario, which can overly frustrate the player who was winning and be a victorious escape for the player who was losing.


Certain positions and scenarios in BJJ score points. After establishing these positions, the referee will award the competitor points. As said above, some tournaments award wins and losses based on points. But even outside of competition, knowing that certain positions are “worth” more than others reflects on how I play the game. I want to maintain a guard, because it is a neutral position. I want to secure top positions of side control or mount, as they are more advantageous, both to secure a submission, and to give myself a break from the action.

Chess points are different. As far as I’m aware there is no way to win on “points” in chess. However, you’re always making a move to pressure your opponent in making a trade. You dare your opponent to take a pawn worth one point, so you can take a rook worth five. Or conversely, maybe you invoke a trade of a rook for a pawn, as it sets up your attack on your opponent’s king.

Risk vs Reward Calculations

I’ve already alluded to the fact that I’m not exactly amazing at either chess nor BJJ. But there are a lot of snap judgements about the risk and reward of certain actions. Your opponent might not react in a strategically sound way, and while it isn’t their optimal play, could still be the move to set you up for failure.

The prime example of this is escaping from mount. Mount is an advantageous position where the attacker is on top, straddling the defender. The defender has all the weight of the attacker on them. The appropriate escape for that defender is to capture the arm and block the leg on one side, arch their hips up and to a 45 degree angle over their head and the side they’ve captured the arm and leg, and roll the attacker on their back, in the guard position. My favorite way to escape the mount: give the attacker my arm for an arm bar submission, pull it out at the last second, and pray I can scramble to a better position before the attacker jumps on me again. Risky. Not very rewarding. Not the smartest play. I’ve since advanced my game.

Fun and Learning

I lose – a lot. A much younger me probably wouldn’t be able to take it. I’d have a lot of ego. I’d assume I should be winning more often. Instead, I go into BJJ rolls with the sole intent of learning something.

  • “I just told Thomas not to post his leg like that. If I pretend to scoop the leg to put him on his back, maybe I can do a snap down, and pull him to his stomach while he’s reacting.”
  • “Last time someone moved the pawn in front of their knight, I was mated quickly by the queen. I’ll have to try a different opening.”
  • “This white belt is brand new. I can give up my back and be in an incredibly unsafe position, and figure ways out of it, when there’s less risk as with a more advance player.”

And so forth, and so on. Every roll and every game can give me something to learn. I’ll often drive home from BJJ class, rewinding the rolls at the end of the night in my brain. In the same way I’ll click backwards through moves on the chess app to see where things went right, or things went wrong.

And who knows, maybe if I get good enough at chess, I’ll try chess boxing to really combine the physical and mental portions of my brain. Or I’ll just stick to grappling and an app during my free time.

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