An analogy is often drawn between Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and chess; during a match, you are constantly adapting your strategy to the movements of your opponent, just as you would in a game of chess. I particularly like the intellectual aspect of the game emphasized by this comparison.
If your opponent blocks your hips with a hand, you have a different set of escape options than if she used a knee. Securing an underhook in butterfly guard allows for the application of a variety of techniques that would not otherwise be available, and a corresponding shift in the options available to your opponent. In back control, trapping an opponent’s defending arm with your leg (thereby leaving him with only one arm to defend against your two attacking arms) is the jiu-jitsu equivalent of putting your opponent in check. Securing the rear naked choke is the equivalent of check-mate.
As a white belt, jiu jitsu is like playing chess with only pawns (and perhaps not even knowing the rules). As you progress and learn more techniques (but more importantly, sharpen up the techniques you already know), you begin to acquire more “pieces” with which to play the game. The goal, of course, is to eventually acquire a complete set of pieces.
In practice though, this is impossible. Nobody – not even the greats like Marcelo or Roger – can specialize in everything. If mastery of a technique is equivalent to acquiring a new piece to use in a chess game (or perhaps, exchanging a pawn for a king), nobody will ever have a complete set.
This is where general strategy comes in. Knowing how to use your strengths against your opponent’s weaknesses is perhaps equally as important as acquiring new pieces. Knowing when and how to avoid an opponent’s strengths, and how to take advantage of their weakness is what separates high-level competitors from the elite. As an example, I recently heard an interview with Ryan Hall where he discusses his experience rolling with Marcelo Garcia. Ryan Hall is famous for his mastery of the guard and the triangle choke, but he pointed out that when training with Marcelo, he was never given an opportunity to play his game. Marcelo’s distance, timing, and positioning forced Hall to over-commit on any submission or sweep attempts, effectively nullifying the strongest part of his game.
I think this is an important point that is often overlooked by new students (including myself). Progression in jiu jitsu doesn’t simply consist of learning new techniques. Rather, it entails a deeper understanding of why certain techniques work and when to use them. Too often we become fixated on learning a plethora of new techniques, without spending enough time on developing strategy. As any chess master would likely point out, success is a function of both the pieces you have available to you and the strategy you employ with them.