How’s Your Poker Face?

We’ve all heard that “jiu jitsu is like chess”, but have you ever considered that it’s a lot like poker as well? I spent some time thinking about these two activities today and I see at least five lessons one can learn from playing poker that can be easily applied to jiu jitsu.

  1. You gotta play the hand you’re dealt. Yes, you can discard and draw cards, but you can’t make requests…you have to make the best of the cards in your hand. In jiu jitsu this is true on the macro and micro levels. On the macro level i.e. looking at the journey as a whole – we don’t all have the same physical attributes, we don’t all have the same amount of time to invest, we don’t all have the same training opportunities etc. So, your journey may be a little more difficult and take a little longer, you just have to press forward and play the hand your dealt. On the micro level – every time you go into a competitive roll whether it’s with one of your favorite training partners or whether it’s in a tournament, you each bring different skills to the mats. At that point it’s probably too late to try and revamp your game, you have to use the tools you currently have in your toolbox (or the cards in your hand) in such a manner that will produce the best outcome.
  2. You have to know the rules and understand the objectives. I have a vague memory of a scene on tv of a guy laying down his cards saying “read ‘em and weep” thinking he had a flush, but his cards were a mix of spades and clubs…. yes, they’re all the same color, but that’s not really the goal. While this point has application for those who are training jiu jitsu as a hobby but don’t compete the real value of this point is for the competitor. Don’t lose matches because you didn’t know the rules or intricacies of how points are scored.
  3. Bluffing is a necessary skill to win. When you are bluffing at the poker table you are simply trying to create the illusion that something is true (like you have a great hand) when it may or may not be. Likewise, from guard you may mess with your opponent’s lapel to get him worried about a technique he may not have seen when you have no intention of playing any form of lapel guard. It doesn’t matter so much if you have a decent lapel guard, but it does matter that your opponent believes you do.  
  4. You gotta know when to hold em, know when to fold em, know when to walk away, and know when to run. In poker there are times when you say “I’m good with these cards, I’m going to play them” there are other times you just lay em down and fold. There other times when you have to say, “this table is too rich for me” and just walk away. Then there are other times you realize you’re playing with sharks and you better run. The lesson here is you have to learn to read situations on the mat quickly. If you have been doing jiu jitsu for any length of time you should be able to visit a new school for an open mat and almost immediately be able to read each training partner, you roll with. No matter what position you are in – their stance, posture, grips, frames, etc. are all clues that should help you understand what they are bringing to the mat. 
  5. You never count your money when you’re sitting at the table. In the old west, gambling was a cutthroat business and sometimes men bet all they had on a game. Making a show of counting your money was a sure way to get shot in the alley behind the tavern. You won’t get your ass shot but making a show of every victory you have in jiu jitsu is not the best approach to making friends and earning respect in the community. Having friends and respect in the community go a long way towards helping you get better at jiu jitsu. The goal is to have a healthy ego and be humble at all times.

      In conclusion: If you’re going to play the game, you gotta learn to play it right. There may not necessarily be a “right” and “wrong” way to do jiu jitsu, but there are definitely some ways that are better than others to get good at jiu jitsu and win matches. The sooner you figure this out, the better off you’ll be.

Train hard. Train smart. Get better.