BJJ and Chess: Two Games Where Tempo Is King
When I first began to learn chess as a child, I would teach friends the game so I would have partners to play with. I had a simple strategy for winning: Just block every move that you can. Somehow this seemed to work, but I didn’t really understand why.
It wasn’t until I played my grandfather that my strategy was exposed as poor. For years, I couldn’t win a single match of chess with him. Much later, I figured out his secret. My friends were just moving pieces. They had no real plan. Merely defending against them was enough. Eventually, they made glaring mistakes.
My grandfather was different. He knew how to plan, and force me to choose between two bad options. He was offensive. I waited for him to make the same critical errors my twelve year old friends did. But they never came, so I played defense until he overtook me.
You often hear BJJ compared to the game of chess. Personally, I don’t think it’s the best comparison. In chess both players start with the same pieces. In BJJ, players begin with wildly different “pieces” based on their skill, experience, and how their game is built.
But there is a key similarity you can gleam from chess and BJJ, they both rely on “tempo” to win.
TEMPO AND THE VALUE OF OFFENSE
“Tempo” is a concept from game theory that is most often used in turn based games. To be playing a “tempo” game generally means that a player is constantly threatening his opponent, keeping them from mounting their own offense.
In chess, each player can only take a single action during their turn. A novice player can experience some success against another novice player with a tempo strategy. Every turn, try and threaten your opponent’s piece. If you can threaten two at the same time, even better.
The idea is to be constantly pressuring, your opponent will never re-take the initiative. A move spent in defense, is a move not spent implementing their gameplan. They get caught in a reactionary loop. Essentially, it’s how my grandfather was able to beat me in chess.
THE DEFENSIVE SHELL
In BJJ, we’ve all been caught going into a “defensive shell” in sparring or competition. Sometimes our opponent is so ferocious in their offense, that we give up any ideas of attacking and shift our objective into simply surviving for the duration of the match. If we manage to do this, we often walk away with our heads held high.
“He was really putting the pressure on me, but he couldn’t tap me.”
This is a good example of how you may have “won” the defensive battle, but you lost the tempo game. Maybe you weren’t submitted, but you were controlled and neutralized. On a long enough timeline, your opponent might have tired out and opened opportunities for you to take control.
But only if they don’t know what they’re doing.
When you’re battling an experienced practitioner, there is a far greater chance they will defeat you before getting tired. Someone with your relative skill level will have the tools to overtake you. They won’t make critical errors, only small ones. They understand efficient use of energy. They may get tired, but you’re getting tired too. They’re too good to simply control in your closed guard. Defending against them takes energy.
My old coach, Daniel Thomas, used to preach the gospel of making your opponent choose between two bad options. He had a “pick your poison” philosophy of always keeping something in your opponents face that they had to address. Defend the collar choke or give up your back, for example.
Like in chess, you typically need to focus on one thing at a time in BJJ. If someone has a hand deep in your collar and is moving the other to sink in the choke, that takes up all your attention. It’s hard to think two moves ahead when you’re one move from checkmate.
In this way, playing a tempo game is always putting up a credible threat for your opponent to think about. It could be a submission, breaking posture, or a strong bridge when you’re underneath them. As you do that, you’re already setting up the next one. Your opponent will never be able to get back to their game plan because they’ll never get out of yours.
I don't want any messages saying 'I'm holding my position.' We're not holding a goddamned thing. We're advancing constantly and we're not interested in holding anything except the enemy's balls. . .Our plan of operation is to advance and keep on advancing. “
-General George Patton
On a more “real world” example, this was a core tenant of General Patton’s Third Army. He prioritized not simply attacking, but advancing a forcing defending armies to frequently fall back and reset their positions. His aggressive tactics and emphasis on forward movement is still studied today.
LET’S END ON THE LOGIC OF IT.
Like always, we like to use science to make arguments at High Percentage. When we weigh defense vs tempo, consider this:
A solid defense ensures that an opponent will not be able to submit you or advance position. However, maintaining tempo will also achieve this. If your opponent is too distracted to mount an offense, you have effectively shut them down as good as any defensive play.
Use tempo to roll out a steady stream of threats to your opponent.
Even in defensive positions, stay busy to keep their mind occupied on reacting to what your doing.
Put your opponent of the defensive and keep them their with calculated attacks.
Offense is not aggression, but repeatedly forcing your opponent to make decisions.
What is High Percentage?
We are bringing some objectivity into martial arts. We use science and data, helping students and teachers of jiu-jitsu focus their training to answer the question, "What's really high percentage?"
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