I wrote the last piece showing the similarities between chess and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ). A conversation with a brown belt after a roll compelled me to write this follow-up. I don’t think I’m being self-deprecating when I say I’ll never be a grandmaster at chess. I don’t have the time nor the energy into studying the game to the level of great chess masters like Magnus Carlson or Hikaru Nakamura. Likewise, I’m not going to put the time or training into being an ADCC champion grappler. But that doesn’t mean I don’t strive to get a little better at each of these games every day. It also doesn’t mean that I can’t have at least a slight perspective on the experience of learning these two arts.
In the Beginning, There is Discomfort
BJJ is uncomfortable. I’m not sure that changes as you gain experience. It’s still uncomfortable for me. Judging by the older purple belt who looked in pain and utterly fatigued when we were rolling last week, it’s uncomfortable even with greater experience, especially as age catches up with you.
But in the beginning of your BJJ journey, there is constant discomfort. Discomfort walking into a new gym. Discomfort with purchasing what looks like pajama pants and a short bathrobe. Discomfort with warm-ups; moving in ways your body isn’t used to. Discomfort with positions, moves, names, and basic scenarios. Most of all, there’s discomfort because another human is on top of you, utilizing all their weight to press you into a mat, and actively trying to put you in a position where blood will stop going to your brain, or a limb will be in a position where all the ligaments will tear. And even if you’re comfortable being on the brink of passing out, or having your shoulder ripped out of the socket, there is the discomfort in bringing yourself to trust that the other person won’t actually hurt you.
The discomfort in chess is much less physical; especially if you play online or on an app. In person you need to learn to set up the pieces. In an app, the game does this for you. Secondly, you need to learn how the pieces move. Finally, you need to learn the edge case movements, like castling, en passant, and stalemate.
The Beginning Strategy
Where this was really leading me though, was the difference between where I’ve found the beginning and intermediate stages of developing my BJJ and chess games.
In BJJ there is a very clear delineation between when you’re a beginner, and when you’re in the intermediate stages of the game, and that’s after earning your first belt. At my gym, you receive a stripe almost every six months. You’re rewarded with a new, blue belt when you earn your “fifth” stripe. So, we’re talking 2-2.5 years of classes. When you earn your blue belt you find a line was drawn between the beginners and the advanced class, and you’ve crossed that line.
In most BJJ rule sets, you’re not allowed to attack the legs of an opponent as a white belt. You focus on controlling the top half, and isolating arms or attacking the neck. There’s enough of a game in just those three areas of the body to make me flounder and think about my next move.
I think the line in chess is similar but much more ambiguous. No one gives you a new belt and says “Cool, now we’re going hard on you.” Or “Everyone gets two extra horsey pieces and a tower instead of pawns. The game just got a lot spicier!” But there is a delineation between knowing the rules and moving the pieces, and the point where you actually understand the game you’re getting into.
“It’s like A and B on the old Nintendo”
Paraphrasing, but this is something my BJJ coach frequently says. Every position has micro positions. If your opponent isn’t leaning forward, most likely, they’re leaning backward. If your A move is optimal for the former, use your B move now. In BJJ, especially in the beginning, you might only know one move. In the last post I went over how to escape from mount (You can go back and read the description of that move). While the first escape we’re taught, it isn’t applicable in every situation. You might need to resort to a leg hook escape or a power shrimp. Neither gets you back into a top position, instead, you escape to bottom of guard. But bottom of guard is a much more secure position than the bottom of the mount. As you learn more moves, the positions and scenarios you were stuck in before melt away, and more attacks open up.
The same is true for chess. The more you play, and the better you get, the more scenarios, strategies, and angles you see to progress the game. I move the king pawn forward as my white opening every time. I’m sure this opening has a name. I’m sure there are more steps to the opening. I don’t yet know them. But, after countless games with my young sons, I know I can see what they’re trying to do, or how to position my pieces to get out of my own way a lot better than they can. All I’m doing is giving myself more paths to success; more buttons on the “old Nintendo controller” as it was.
Stupid Pieces of Tape
I don’t know how ELO score is calculated. I know mine, for daily games, is somewhere above 600. This number gives you an approximate score of how well you play chess on an overall level. I think it is great.
The same can be said about the stupid pieces of tape you get on your belt for BJJ. They’re a signifier of your progression. They’re dumb. They fall off the belt in the wash. They don’t mean you’re going to beat someone with less rank than you. But they’re a sign to you and the rest of the world that you’ve been trying to learn something, and you’ve continued sticking with it. And as dumb as I think they are, I still can’t help but smile with pride when the coach awards me with one. Because in his eyes, I’ve learned something new. In my eyes, I haven’t yet quit.