Just read this excellent interview from On The Mat after seeing it mentioned on Formosa Neijia. It seems perhaps the world of people cross-training “internal” and “soft” arts is expanding or at least getting a higher profile due to famous people practicing and talking about them. Always great to see despite the head in the sand crowds who can’t see any value or parallels in the other arts. Some people will always see the glass half empty but this interview gives some reasons to see the glass as half full. Waitzkin draws the connections between chess, tai chi, and bjj more eloquently than anyone else probably can, given his perspective training with and competing/winning against some of the best in the world in all three fields. Some excerpts from the interview:

Comparing tai chi to bjj:

OTM: What benefits from Tai Chi do you bring to BJJ and vice versa?

JW: Well, the learning process begins from different places but arrives, ideally, at a similar feeling. In BJJ, you tend to begin with technique, and through repetition you come to a smooth, efficient, unobstructed body mechanics. In Tai Chi, you begin with body mechanics, get a certain internal feeling over months and years of moving meditative practice, and then you learn the martial application of what you’ve been doing all along.

The essence of Tai Chi is sensitivity to intention. Turning force against itself, overcoming power without meeting it head on. Of course these principles are at the heart Jiu Jitsu as well. In my mind, the arts are completely intertwined and to be honest, the purest Tai Chi I’ve ever felt has been getting my ass handed to me, over and over, by John Machado and Marcelo Garcia.

Philosophy in martial arts:

Also, could the absence of the philosophy in Brazilian jiu jitsu serve as the direct link to the blueprint of the essence of martial arts?

JW: That last point is deep, man. Alright, this is how I feel. I’m a student of philosophy and engage that element of my being in everything I do. As individuals, we have the choice to go down this road or not. I think the vast majority of people, in all disciplines, tend not to. You asked if there were any spiritual/internal limitations to BJJ. My feeling is that BJJ is a beautiful martial art that can take an individual as far as he or she is prepared to go.

I don’t think that BJJ imposes any limitations—some practitioners might, but the art itself does not. I’ve met plenty of meat heads in the Jiu Jitsu world, but I’ve also known them in chess, tai chi, academia, science, religion…we can screw anything up. And there is no easy answer. If there is too much of a spiritual structure in an art, we may become dogmatic and not take responsibility for our beliefs. If too little, we can fail to even consider the critical questions.

Chess and martial arts:

What would you say are the core similarities between chess and martial arts?

JW: People tend to answer that question with clichés. They talk about the need to think ahead, to combine strategy and tactics–those parallels are critical but obvious. To my mind, the interesting connections reside in the learning process. Both chess and the martial arts involve internalizing tremendously complex information into a sense of flow—I call this the study of numbers to leave numbers, or form to leave form. I love the play between the conscious and unconscious minds in the creative moment, and for me chess and the martial arts are both about developing a rich working relationship with your intuition.

Wow, he really has a way with words, too. These arts seem more interesting and inspiring after reading his chessmaster and ph-master perspective. I also blogged some posts about Josh Waitzkin here, here, and here earlier. Here is a link to his book, The Art of Learning, on Amazon.


There is a more popular article on Scientific American, an interview with the author of a new book – Becoming Batman: The Possibility of a Superhero– about whether a human being could actually become Batman with sufficient money, talent, and training (The answer is yes). That one is covered on about a kajillion blog sites by now but surfing over to Scientific American after reading a few, I also found this article on the expert mind and research into chessmasters minds. They are able to study this field via memory tests with games in progress vs. random piece locations that make no sense, among other techniques. I am interested in this topic after reading about Josh Waitzkin, a champion in chess, push hands, and now aiming for a championship in bjj. Waitzkin talks about reducing moves to simpler patterns and thereby speeding up perception of what is happening. Bjj especially is often compared to chess but how is it that experienced players seem to see so many moves, combinations, and possibilities? I think this is partly what is happening with the Fedors, Anderson Silvas and BJ Penns – they are not just well trained and great athletes but have a faster perception. A quote from the article explains some of the psychology of the expert mind:

“I see only one move ahead,” Capablanca is said to have answered, “but it is always the correct one.”

He thus put in a nutshell what a century of psychological research has subsequently established: much of the chess master’s advantage over the novice derives from the first few seconds of thought. This rapid, knowledge-guided perception, sometimes called apperception, can be seen in experts in other fields as well. Just as a master can recall all the moves in a game he has played, so can an accomplished musician often reconstruct the score to a sonata heard just once.

I can’t claim much success yet but cross-training seems to be a key to making some more pedestrian progress. Where Waitzkin probably sees many links between chess, push hands, and bjj, I see a few links between ph and bjj but these are at level 0 at the moment. Taijiquan in general seems so abstract – almost more of a reduction of arts to underlying math – that its principles seem to be found easily in specific arts. That is as it should be in my opinion but there are always folks who want to harden something that purports to be Taoist into something more well defined that paradoxically can no longer really be called Taoist (the Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao).

Here is a great interview I found on EmptyFlower.net in a thread called “Attacking during the blink”:

He talks about breaking down the complexities and making smaller circles and fancy techniques not being “it” and condensing biomechanics, bringing things from the conscious mind to the unconscious, speeding up perception (slowing down time) at will, and more.

AND, he wants to win the BJJ world championship in 2010 or 2011. GEEZ!!!! I bet he can do it. Holy cow! Un-frakking-believable. OMG. That is pretty inspiring.

I was responding to a Formosa Neijia blog post about doing limited moves vs. knowing many and referenced Fedor Emelianenko as a genius:

On throwing out techniques – if you take a combat sports master from the “freest form push hands formats” of combat sambo and Pride mma like Fedor Emelianenko (probably the greatest ever) – he probably has mastery of 100’s, maybe 1000’s of moves. In each fight his “style” is slightly different – always “following” the “energy” of different opponents. His improvisational, fluid mastery is always there. The move he “applies” depends on the circumstance … yet he tends to win by a limited set of armbars. Even the geniuses seem to have some favorite moves.

which, speaking of genius, makes me wonder about Josh Waitzkin’s taiji book. He is the chess genius and prodigy who was the inspiration of the movie “Searching for Bobby Fischer”. He is:
– 8-time National Chess Champion
– 13-time Tai Chi Chuan Push Hands National Champion
– Two-time Tai Chi Chuan Push Hands World Champion

1) could anyone who’s read his book provide a review and relate some key lessons from it in a comment?
2) does he cover the nature of how a master deals with massive complexity (as in chess or push hands) – does he end up using favorite moves (“applications”) in chess or push hands?
3) can anyone who considers him or herself good at chess and push hands shed some light on the above questions?
4) what is the nature of such genius, especially when one masters multiple domains?
5) what can ordinary individuals learn from these kinds of people?
6) how does Josh answer these questions in his books on the learning process?

Of course I’m going to read all his books, but any comments?