Brazilian Jiujitsu: Human Chess or Human Go?

One Brazilian jiujitsu cliché is that it is “human chess.” This self-indulgent essay argues that Go is better than chess as an analog for BJJ. It is written for BJJ practitioners with some understanding of chess but limited or no exposure to Go. It will be tough to understand for a reader without knowledge of BJJ.

Disclaimer: I am about a ~1400 chess player, a ~13k Go player, and a BJJ blue belt. In other words: My knowledge of chess, go, and BJJ is imperfect.

Simple Rules, Enormous Complexity

The most famous Western quote about Go comes from Emanuel Lasker, an early chess world champion. Lasker said, “If there are sentient beings on other planets, then they play Go.”

Lasker was speaking to the elegant, organic rules of Go.

In chess, each piece has its own special function: The bishop moves in a diagonal, the knight in an L shape, etc. The rules of chess are complex.

Go rules, by contrast, are simple: Each stone is the same. Go forth and establish positional dominance.

BJJ rules are elegant and organic, similar to Go: Your pieces are your body. No striking. Go forth and establish positional dominance.

Part of the beauty of BJJ and Go is that despite their simple rules, competitions of each are spectacularly complex––even to an extent that makes them difficult to watch and impossible to understand for non-players! Simple rules engender enormous complexity; BJJ and Go are each their own Mandlebrot Set.

The Mandelbrot at a glance
Mandlebrot Set
The spectacular permutations of Garry Tonon’s body.

I might offer a corollary to Lasker’s claim: If there are gym rats on other planets, then they train BJJ.

Establish Positional Dominance (Don’t Just Capture the King)

I hinted above that the aim of BJJ and Go competitors are similar: Competitors in each aim to establish positional dominance. This is different from chess.

Consider John Danaher’s infamous four-step description of the traditional BJJ scoring system: Bring the opponent to the ground, pass his dangerous legs, pin your opponent, and finally submit him.

If a BJJ match ends without a submission, the fighter who established more positional dominance wins. Submissions themselves are positions of extreme dominance. Again: The goal of BJJ is to establish positional dominance.

In chess the connection between positional dominance and victory is dicier. To win, a player must capture the king. Consider the below image of a game ending in a stalemate even though one player enjoys an extremely dominant position:

Black to play: Stalemate.

To make BJJ more like chess, the scoring system would have to be made more one-dimensional: To win a match, a player would have to secure a rear-naked choke.

To make chess more like BJJ, on the other hand, points would have to be awarded for positional dominance. In other words: Chess would have to be made more like Go.

Go games are decided by positional dominance. In the below image, white has won the game by acquiring more territory.

White (me) wins in spectacular fashion

During the course of a Go game, one player might recognize that he is in a compromised position and cannot recover. In that case, he will resign (or submit to his opponent’s dominant position).

Black (me) resigns after realizing that all is lost.

Top and Bottom versus Influence and Territory

Absent from chess is the interplay between a “top player” and a “bottom player.” In BJJ top and bottom players have different scoring tactics available (pass guard versus sweep). To my knowledge, chess lacks a conceptual analog. Obviously “attacking and defending” in chess is not the same “top and bottom” in BJJ, which are each attacking positions.

Go, however, has the concepts of Influence and Territory. Consider the Go game below:

The image above is of a typical “corner fight” in Go. The black player is playing Territorial: He is attempting to claim the corner territory as his. Go players would actually describe white as “playing low,” “underneath,” or “below” white. Sound familiar?

For their part, the black stones have more Influence. Again, the white stones sit “above” or “on top of” the black ones. From his influential position, the white player can look to pressure and then capture the corner black stones, or he can seek to claim territory on other parts of the board.

As in BJJ, neither Influence nor Territory is paramount. During Go gameplay, players seek to strengthen the strategic advantages granted by their territorial and influential positions.

At higher levels of play, some players develop an influential style while others develop a territorial style. In these stylistic differences BJJ practitioners would recognize their own concept of “game.”

Making Life and the Guard Recovery

Let’s stay with this corner fight.

We can pretend for a minute that this corner fight is happening in a vacuum, and whoever wins the corner wins the game. White’s goal then, becomes to capture the black stones by surrounding them––without letting black “make life.” Here is how white might succeed:

White moves first: S1, T2, R1

For his part, black’s goal is to make life. If black makes life, his stones can no longer be captured. This is tough to describe without going into the rules of Go, but to make life black must have two spaces, or “eyes,” within his group of stones.

Here is one way that black could “make life” in the corner fight:

Black moves first: S1, T3, T2

Life-making is analogous to the guard recovery. Before making life, black has essentially “turtled” in the corner. White will apply pressure. If black makes life, he will be free to mount an attack on white’s position.

One way to improve your Go skill is to practice “life-making” puzzles called tsumego. BJJ practitioners might do guard passing drills.

Gambits and Leg Locks

In chess, gambits (sacrifices) are most often used in the opening of the game (see the famous Queen’s Gambit opening below) to establish broad positional advantage.

Queens Gambit - The Chess Website
Queen’s gambit opening

In Go, on the other hand, sacrifices are commonplace throughout the game. Sacrifices in Go aim to give up positional advantage in one location on the board in exchange for a broader positional advantage. You might consider sacrifices in Go the equivalent of “Fuck it, try a leg lock” in BJJ.

Check out this sequence in which black sacrifices a stone in exchange for a big gain in influence:

Popular corner sequence in which black has sacrificed his stones at Q3 and R3 in order to gain the outside influence on the bottom left side of the board.

There is a significant difference here: In BJJ, a player often sacrifices a dominant top position to try a leg lock. In Go, a player typically sacrifices a stone for broader positional dominance. The relationship between sacrifice and position appears to be “inverted” in BJJ and Go.

Cutting, Inversion, and Sweeps

Speaking of inversion, it’s time to introduce the concept of cutting in Go. The tactic of cutting is part of what makes Go dynamic. Here is an example of a cut by white, blocking black’s stones and threatening to attack:

By playing P6, black threatens white’s stones

The effective cut above acts like a timely inversion or a sweep. A player who has just had his stones “cut” can quickly find himself in a “bottom” position, desperate to make life. One of his groups is cut off from his other stones and threatened—as though his opponent has just inverted to attack an ankle.

Of course, cuts are not always effective, just as a BJJ competitor who inverts risks being sprawled on and smashed by his heavy opponent.

History, Language, and Proverbs

By now you’ve noticed some of the linguistic similarity of Go and BJJ.

Like jiujitsu, Go came to the West recently. It was introduced in the Americas by the Japanese in the early 20th century. Both Go and BJJ use copious Japanese terminology. High-ranking practitioners of each receive a dan ranking. (The highest ranked professional Go players are 9-dan).

Go is linguistically even more Asian than BJJ. English-speaking players use Japanese terms for positions, tactics, and more.

BJJ: Kimura, Ashi Garami, Kesa Gatame, and a litany of judo terms

Go: Sente, Gote, Aji, Hane, and much more

In some cases, the vocabulary of BJJ might actually be improved by more use of Japanese vocabulary.

One great example is the chess concept of “tempo,” which Keenan Cornelius popularized in BJJ. In Go, a Japanese term sente captures tempo. Go even has a useful bonus term gote, which is the move that responds the sente move: One grappler shoots a takedown [in sente]; his opponent sprawls [in gote].)

It’s also worth noting that many of the tactical and strategic proverbs related to Go can also be applied to BJJ.

“Urgent points before big points.” (See: Position before submission.)

“Use Go to make friends.” (From the Chinese Yi Qi Hui You)

“Give your opponent what he wants.”

A full list of Go proverbs can be found at Sensei’s Library.


This became a lengthy essay! I hope you enjoyed it. Let me just point readers to the great sport of chess boxing. I leave it to my readers to create its Go/BJJ analog!

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