I’m not a good chess player. I’ve always respected good chess players, and I enjoy the game of chess. I’ve just been very lazy about learning the procedures necessary for winning at chess. If you don’t play chess you might not realize that there are almost lock-step recipes that good players have memorized for creating advantages in certain situations that they have learned to recognize. These situations are things like rows of pawns that you must get your pawn through to get it promoted, or the best way to drive your opponent’s king toward a mate when you’re down to limited resources.
These situations, and recognizing them are remarkably analogous to doing jiu-jitsu. Good jiu-jitsu practitioners have memorized and trained loads of various offensive and defensive moves designed to promote position or check-mate an opponent. Learning to recognize when your opponent (or training partner playing opponent) is giving you one of these iconic scenarios is what being good at sparring (or “rolling” as we call it) in Brazilian Jiu-jitsu is all about.
In jiu-jitsu you learn that when your opponent is leaning back in your guard, you’re probably not going to succeed with a scissor sweep, and when his elbows are dug into your hips in your guard, you’re probably not going to be able to force an armbar. These are simple realizations you get early on. As you progress you’ll train a lot with some guys whose game plans you’ll learn. Their favorite opening gambits could be a sit-up guard and a fast arm-drag which might resemble an E2-E4 pawn opening and a quick attempt at “Scholar’s Mate”.
And so, jiu-jitsu can be thought of as set of physical chess-like processes that you must practice to become a good player. But that’s not enough. You must also play the game as much as possible to get used to recognizing (through feeling and seeing) the situations that require your best physical recipes. Which is what the rolling part is all about, it isn’t just about satisfying a competitive urge, it is in reality a process of improving your technical capacity. Both sides of practice are required: the controlled practice of the various techniques, and the mindful rolling required to bring those techniques to life. Physical chess!
Geoff Balme is a second degree black belt and the lead instructor at Open Guard BJJ and Kickboxing.