HHCF Philosophy: A Technical Flow: Chess and Jiu Jitsu

A Technical Flow: Chess and Jiu Jitsu

By: Adisa Banjoko

On the mat I battle cats, the same way I’ll take your back/  A strategized a plan of attack- Kalhi  A Technical Flow


   [tsook-tsvahng] A noun
In chess a situation in which a player is limited to moves that cost pieces or have a damaging positional effect.

For many years people have discussed the connections between chess and martial arts. I’ve been a casual student of chess and jiu jitsu for a while and I have seen many overlapping themes. My earliest memory of the correlation is watching Rickson and Royler Gracie play chess before one of Rickson’s matches in the movie Choke. In recent years we have seen the emergence of the Checkmat team (known for being very aggressive and strategic in competition) and recently an instagram photo of champions Roger and Kyra Gracie playing chess in their gi’s popped up on the net. If that was not enough, jiu jitsu clothing brand CTRL Industries has dropped a limited edition set of gi’s named after chess pieces. “The Rook” and “The Knight” have gained a lot of internet buzz among jiu jitsu players online. Little by little the connections seem deeper and more authentic.

In his book Black Belt Techniques, Jean Jacques Machado wrote “As in a game of chess, you don’t simply concentrate on taking one piece; all your moves contribute to an overall plan. An advanced student already has engraved in his mind a set of positions, along with the natural reactions that these positions will induce in his opponent.”  

I train at Heroes Martial Arts in San Jose, CA. Its a very cool school. I don’t say that from a place of arrogance. We have some tough dudes there. Some world champions, some national champions and some unknown, ridiculously rugged folks on that mat.

Our head instructor Alan “Gumby” Marques is pretty amazing. He’s a quiet dude. Very deep intellectually and technically. He never says or does anything more than he needs to. I don’t say that lightly, to suggest he’s lazy.

On the contrary he’s got a serious work ethic. One so big that when his instructor Ralph “The Pitbull” Gracie handed him a black belt...it was the one on Ralphs waist, that he handed to Gumby.

On your first day of class at Heroes, you’ll be taught the essence of what Gumby thinks jiu jitsu is about, and life: Safety, Position, Finish.

That’s it. Sounds so simple but it's so complex.

Essentially Gumby feels your first job in any conflict is safety. Get yourself safe from whatever is coming at you. After that, do what you must to improve your position. It can be a quick substantial movement, or it can be in incremental inches. Once you have achieved the best possible position, end the conflict by finishing them. In jiu jitsu, it would be a submission hold ( a choke, armlock, wristlock, kneelock, footlock etc.). On the chessboard, its checkmate in 5, 4, 3, 2, 1.

Gumby believes that this method is what’s best on the mat, in the boardroom, on the chessboard etc. No matter your conflict, you can use the “filter” of safety, position, finish to assess, re-evaluate and elevate your situation with great clarity of mind and purpose. Its so beautiful, I believe it shines brightly in the shadow of military minds like Sun Tzu and Machiavelli.

So much of what we learn about jiu jitsu is related to the chess theme known as Zug zwang. I first learned of this going through the Chessmaster game in the Josh Waitzkin academy. For those unfamiliar with the term, Zugzwang means to put your opponent in positions that force them to make positionally or materially worse position again and again until there is nothing left.

In jiu jitsu, one of the most ideal positions is called The Mount. I’m not really sure who “discovered” the immense value this position, but Carlos and Helio Gracie (founders of the Gracie Jiu Jitsu system) created an entire methodology  based on its importance.  From this position you are pinning your opponent with your hips, and arms (kind of like the skirmishes you might have gotten into with your older brother or sister. Once there you can change the pressure on the chest and the belly. You can threaten the neck with chokes or torque the shoulder. Or, you can just smother your opponent with clean movements until panic sets in and they move right into another position called The Back Mount which essentially assured almost no effective defensive responses. At that point a choke called “The Lion Killer” is applied and the match is over.

This video of Helio Gracie’s grandsons Rener and Ralek Gracie is a clear illustration of zugzwang elements within the jiu jitsu methodology.

I caught up with Josh Waitzkin,  the American chess icon and Black Belt in jiu jitsu under Marcelo Garcia . I asked him about zugzwang. He told me “A lot of heavy guard passes play on this principle. Fabio Gurgel [legendary BJJ fighter and coach] embodies it hugely. In chess, the dynamics of "opposition" with king and pawn vs king are the easiest way to help people understand it. Adding  “King  and pawn vs pawn positions are mutual zugzwang.”

Rey Diogo Black Belt Oliver Reich says he sees the connected themes of zugzwang and jiu jitsu as well. “When guard passing leads to positional control,  guiding their opponent  into chained submission attacks- its almost identical to zugzwang.”

Observe Henry Akins perspective on guard passing. The positional shutdown illustrated here screams zugzwang to me.

As much as I love chess, I’m nowhere near a master level of playing. I needed to talk to someone who could help me drill down a bit on the concept. I called Dr. Daaim Shabazz, founder of the chess news and culture  website The Chess Drum to ask him his thoughts on zugzwang.

“Seeing zugzwang emerge in a chess game takes quite a bit of understanding and experience” said Dr. Shabazz. “Many world-class players can see certain patterns emerging that restrict an opponent’s options. It may be capturing control of squares or restricting the opponents ability to execute their own plans. In jiu jitsu you have many of these scenarios where submissions are set up because the opponent no longer has any viable options to escape. “

“Thus it is not the submission itself that is the focus, but the way it is set up. In chess, it is similar. The process of restricting an opponent until they cannot move any pieces is an intricate one and one that totally demoralizes the other player. Usually when the player is suffocating, they will try to break free all of a sudden. In chess, as well as jiu jitsu, this is a mistake since that person leaves themselves exposed while trying a sudden tactic or escape. However, in chess it is also easy lose concentration and allow an opponent to escape from your vice grip and turn the tables. Sun Tzu taught that you should always provide an opening for an opponent so that they will not fight so ferociously. However, in zugzwang, the opening also leads to an immediate loss.”

To share a clearer idea of how this plays out positionally in chess, Dr. Shabazz gave a great example.

“I recall former World Champion Garry Kasparov playing the computer Deep Blue (developed by IBM) in 1996. In this game, Kasparov developed a lasting space advantage with a simple opening called the Reti. In those days, you could play positionally and watch the computers go astray because they lacked deep positional understanding. Slowly, but surely, Kasparov continued to grab more and more space from the computer. It is like being in a dominant position in a grappling sport. He then closed the position giving the computer fewer options, but appeared to give the computer a way out by sacrificing a pawn. However, this sacrifice gave Kasparov an even tighter grip on the position. In the final position, the Deep Blue team resigned since the computer had absolutely no moves, yet many pieces were still on the board! “


Of the many similarities between chess and martial arts, specifically jiu jitsu I find this to be the most profound. Zugzwang is always masking itself. On the board a seemingly silly blunder by your opponent incites you to quickly snatch up a knight- only to find the horror of a discovered check. Prepositioned pawns and bishops cut the board off, giving the king little room to breath. Its almost as if your opponent is saying “I am everywhere.” That discovered check soon walks the king slowly to the gallows- zugzwang.  

Daaim trains in Capoeira but his understanding of chess and jiu jitsu methodologies make him sound like a seasoned guy on the mat. “The ability to create a zugzwang takes positional understanding, knowledge of opponent’s tendencies and excellent planning. These skills are developed by a depth in the understanding of the middlegame where advantages are lost or gained. This is also where one’s wealth of experience comes in. Again zugzwang maneuvers are rare in chess and often occur in the endgame, but when they do occur in the middlegame, they are instructive since it usually shows complete mastery over an opponent.”

The first step in developing zugzwang is really just doing one move checkmate chess puzzles that help you see the reality of the situation for what it is. This is clearly a benefit of chess that helps martial artists as well as average citizens. Once the reality of the situation is clear, you can then observe and innovate on the potential future in the game,a jiu jitsu match or your life in general.

RZA from Wu-Tang Clan is one of Hip-Hop’s most talked about chess players. He writes about the many connections between chess and life in his book,The Wu-Manual. I’ve played him and lost twice. Most recently we played at the Rock The Bells tour when it came to The Bay Area. The thing I noticed about his game this: He sees a greater potential threat in your moves before you do. He slowly cuts them off. By the time you realize what could have happened, you’re immobile. Its almost like for him zugzwang is in play from the first move. Reminds me of rolling with my instructor, Gumby. Its impressive.

The clarity of mind that comes from doing one move checkmate puzzles is how I try to cultivate my eye for zugzwang. I get the most fun reading Eric Schillers One Move Checkmates or Play Like A Girl, by Jen Shahade.  A few times a year or so I test my “chessvision” with those books . Another great one is the Chessmaster video game puzzles.  You think you see all the entries and exits that are blocked for the king and its not there. You try to move the bishop when its the rook that gets it done. You over think the position and try to smash with the queen when its the pawn that lands the final blow. That last scenario is so crucial to understand. Its why my instructors personal way of always using exactly the right amount of effort for any job is so mind blowing. The Confucian teachers from the Ming dynasty had a quote that resonates with me when I think of those situations. “To go too far, is just as bad as not going far enough.” Focused effort, the right tools for the job, proper planning, zugzwang.

Adisa Banjoko is the founder of the Hip-Hop Chess Federation. He holds a purple belt at Heroes Martial Arts in San Jose, CA. For more information visit www.facebook.com/hiphopchess

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