High Percentage martial arts takes data from hundreds of fights, competition matches, and self defense situations to answer the question: What's truly high percentage?


Tim Ferris, Hearthstone, and Deck Building in Jiu-Jitsu

Tim Ferris, Hearthstone, and Deck Building in Jiu-Jitsu

I recently watched a video of Tim Ferris, a life hacker pioneer and author of “The Four Hour Workweek”, giving jiu-jitsu a try. But he did it in a very, umm, Tim Ferris way.

Tim Ferris wanted to learn BJJ, but as quickly and efficiently as possible. Of course, people that dedicate their lives to BJJ will tell you that it can’t be learned quickly. There are no hacks. Period.

Tim took this as a challenge. So he enrolled for several private lessons at the Marcelo Garcia Jiu-Jitsu Academy in New York. Whereas most students new to the art show up to their first private lesson with no idea what they want to learn, Tim went the opposite way. He only wanted to learn one thing: the guillotine.

Tim had a plan, devote 100% of his time to learning how to attack a single submission. No shrimping, no fundamentals, just the guillotine. At the end of the week, he would face off against a seasoned purple belt competitor.

Suicide right?

I don’t think so. In fact, I think it was genius. Rather than attempting to be well rounded, which takes years, Tim wisely went the specialist route. If he could become excellent at an attack, then throw up a Hail Mary, he might have a chance. If nothing else, he would bypass the most common complaint of the new student:

“What am I supposed to be doing?!”

Of course, he would also have a lot of holes in his game. That’s generally the price of specialization (that’s why you often don’t specialize until later in your BJJ career). But the alternative was a futile attempt to learn everything in five days.

And as for his technique of choice, it was an excellent pick. The guillotine is a high percentage finisher in nogi (all Tim’s training was nogi). It can be attempted from the top or the bottom, and can actually be applied quite poorly and still yield a tap.

I won’t spoil the outcome of Tim’s experiment, but you can watch it below.

Is Tim’s experiment the optimal way to learn jiu-jitsu? Probably not. If you have unlimited time, unlike Tim, you should spend your first months or even years building a solid foundation of fundamentals. But Tim was doing something that gave him a major advantage: he was creating a “build”, which gave him a specific endgame in every match.

His endgame was the guillotine, and every other technique in his arsenal existed to support his endgame. This gave him an impressive amount of focus. So much so that he could probably beat many other new students.

Don’t be fooled by the bright colors, Hearthstone is infinitely more complex than chess, and a great exercise in the concept of “builds”

Don’t be fooled by the bright colors, Hearthstone is infinitely more complex than chess, and a great exercise in the concept of “builds”

The Hearthstone Model

The idea of character builds comes from game theory. Popular game franchises like Diablo, Borderlands, and The Division all revolve around the concept. But a game that I think illustrates it best is Hearthstone.

Hearthstone is one of the most downloaded and played mobile games in the world. It’s a card game, where every player builds a deck of thirty cards and plays them against other players online. Every player can own hundreds of cards on their account, but must choose thirty for their deck.

In Hearthstone, you play cards as if they were actual characters on the game board. Every card has health and attack stats, as well as special properties. Some cards can’t be attacked for one turn, other cards become more powerful when they “die.” Some are cheap, and can be played early on, others are expensive and can’t come out until later in the game.

When you first start playing the game, you often just pick the best individual cards in your collection and create your deck that way. You may win some matches this way, but eventually you will run into players using “builds” and be destroyed. A “build” is a deck that is designed to win the game a certain way. What makes builds powerful is that all the cards work together to support each other. Some examples of builds in games like Hearthstone are:

-A deck designed to overwhelm players early by flooding the deck with cheap cards.

-A deck designed to stall players until late in the game when big, powerful cards can be played.

-Decks that intentionally damage themselves to get stronger.

-Decks that force opponents to run out of cards (thus, loosing the game)

Because every deck can only have thirty cards, creating a focused build is essentially mandatory. Players carefully plan out how to create the most synergy in their decks, and spend as much time thinking about what kinds of decks are popular with other players (this is called “the meta”) and how to counter them.

Believe it or not, games like Hearthstone are remarkably similar to BJJ. In BJJ, the best players are also deck building. Some players have builds designed to exhaust you with excellent defense. Players like Keenan Cornelius have builds that use lapel guards. Of course, Tim Ferris made a simple build that used a kamikaze-like guillotine attack.

If you wanted to build your BJJ deck around leg locks, a popular build in the meta at the moment, your “cards” might look something like this:

-Your endgame position might be the 411 (aka honeyhole), where you would secure one of the many submissions available.

-You’re guard of choice might be the butterfly guard, where you could set up the 411 from the bottom.

-Your ideal top position could be half guard, where you could backstep to the 411.

-You would always pass guard on your feet, so you could drop into the 411.

-Your preferred takedown would be the imminari roll, which lands you into the 411.

- When your opponent stands in your guard, you’d immediately move to single leg ashi garami and sweep to the 411.

So every card in your deck would be working towards the goal of moving you into your endgame position. Now, I know what your thinking: why not just be good everywhere? Being over reliant on one position or submission means if it fails, you’re screwed!

But I’d give you three strong arguments against this.

1) Unless you’re Tim Ferris, you probably are already “good” in most areas, good enough that you won’t be completely useless if things get away from your plan.

2) When you attack your opponent in a specific way over and over, you’re reducing all their skill into their ability to defend a single position that you’re an expert at.

3) When you’re attacking, you’re controlling tempo which we’ve already discussed is paramount in BJJ.

Let’s do a deck building experiment:

What if, for the next month, we do a modified take on the Tim Ferris experiment and build our game like a deck of cards? The goal being to create laser sharp focus in our rolls. We would go tall, not wide. Here’s a quick guideline:

Identify your endgame position:

This is a position where you will finish the match with one or more submissions. It should be something you’re already good at, with enough options that you will have a variety of attacks.

Find your setup positions:

These are the positions that get you to your endgame. If your endgame is the omoplata position, your setups will most likely be the bottom of the closed guard, or maybe you have another unique position you like to set it up from.

Establish your top path and your bottom path:

If you’re on top, whats the most efficient path to your setup position? What about the bottom? This will help determine the best guards you should use, and the best control positions on top. Try and chart the shortest path to your endgame.

Determine your opening moves:

What do the optimal first moments of a roll look like for your build? Do you need to grab lapels and pull someone into your closed guard? Or do you immediately stand and go for a speed pass? Strong opening moves are critical to control tempo and move the match in the direction of your endgame. Think about standup as well as starting from knees.

Finally, try giving your build a cool name.

Keep It Simple

Remember, builds work because they give you a single-minded focus. Use the power of simplicity, don’t expect to have answers for every conceivable scenario. Your build should be simple enough that you can remember it during rolls. Cut out any techniques that don’t work for your build. You don’t have to forget things forever!

Share Results

I’m going to be focusing on my personal build of the 411 Leglock Build (until I think of a better name) and sharing my results on the High Percentage Facebook Page. If you want to go on the journey with me, I’d love to hear what you discover. Tim Ferris had five days, what can you do with thirty?

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