There are a multitude of ways in which people compare jiu-jitsu to the ancient yet still popular game of chess. One organization, the Hip Hop Chess Federation (HHCF), make continuous efforts to celebrate the similarities between the two. I had an opportunity to chat with the founder of the HHCF, Adisa Banjoko, about his innovative project.
“HHCF is the world’s first organization to fuse music chess and martial arts to promote unity, strategy, and nonviolence. We were formed in 2006. In the beginning, we held celebrity chess tournaments with folks like RZA and GZA from Wu-Tang Clan and others. These days, we work in juvenile halls teaching about chess and life strategies. Plus, we teach classes where chess and BJJ are taught as a unified class. We do that at the high school and college level.
Martial arts are a huge component in HHCF. Essentially, our position is that chess is jiu-jitsu for the mind and jiu-jitsu is chess for the body. So, as I stated, we teach both. Chess and jiu-jitsu both deal with threat assessment, weighing options, using multi-pronged attacks, etc. This helps us learn a lot about ourselves and others. It helps us find our own humanity. By doing that, we help you find the humanity in others. When that happens, nonviolence can manifest itself more consistently. Peace starts within.”
Adisa, a jiu-jitsu brown belt, has been at this for a while and has gotten to rub elbows with some of hip-hop and jiu-jitsu’s elite.
“My dad taught me chess when I was four. I’m nowhere near a master, I just love it. My strength has always been in extracting life lessons from games I played in and watched.
When I was a kid, I did judo. But my friend got me into BJJ of the old school Gracie in Action tapes. From there, I started training with Ralph Gracie and Charles Gracie. I’m currently a brown belt un Alan “Gumby” Marques at Heroes Martial Arts.
As far as hip-hop, I’d been DJ’ing and beatboxing and rapping since 1983. I wrote one of the first articles ever on Eazy E and NWA in high school. Tupac was a friend of mine since before he was big. I have written several books on the topic, and I lecture about hip-hop history at places like Harvard, Stanford, and museums across the country.
We have always been blessed to have amazing support over the years from people like RZA, GZA, Rugged Monk, Mike Relm, DJ Qbert, Immortal Technique, Denny Prokopos, Jen Shahade, Maurice Ashley, Josh Waitzkin, Ralston and Ryron Gracie, Ralek Gracie, Emilio Rivera (Sons of Anarchy), and a lot of others really. The support keeps growing, and I’m supremely thankful.
For me, training the curatorial team at the World Chess Hall of Fame in St. Louis on the history of hip-hop and chess was amazing. Opening night I was there with RZA and we beat the crowd Bobby Fischer had opening night.
But our greatest moment was at the Oakland Museum of CA, where I served as Guest Curator for an exhibit I created called RESPECT: Hip-Hop Style and Wisdom. More than 100,000 people came out over the course of the exhibit. I think it was the first time there was BJJ in a mainstream museum.”
There are lots of thoughts on the comparison between chess and jiu-jitsu.
“The relationship between chess and BJJ is very deep. This is sometimes hard to understand initially, but as you play both, you will experience a wide spectrum of connectivity. I mean, Josh Waitzkin, author of The Art of Learning, highlights a lot of these in his book. I think he even did a video on the topic with Tim Ferris (also a BJJ black belt under David Camarillo). Josh talks about the similarities in initially beginning in a framework of reduced complexity. As you know, BJJ starts for most of us begin just learning how to escape mount. But as you go, you see it as an endless ocean of opportunity. Chess is exactly like that. Additionally, the use of the exploitation of empty space between you and your opponent. Play for 21 days, especially on the day you train, and you will see the difference in how chess impacts your BJJ and how BJJ influences how you play chess.
Psychologically, you enter with an open mind, first of all. Beyond that, you are acknowledging it is war — war necessitates deception, mentally of balancing, misdirection, recovery from loss (material loss), and finding a way to guerrilla war style it to victory. All of that is active on the mat. Additionally, you have this window to be creative and sometimes even go against traditionally respected lines of attack to create new kinds of victories (Gordon’s innovation on the half guard, Nino Schembri’s omoplata combos, and the 10th Planet no-gi system are fantastic examples).
The main difference is that chess is primarily mental and the other primarily physical. At the same time, using concepts like safety, position, and finish (our motto at Heroes) apply on the chessboard as well. Fork attacks, pins, skewers, and many more apply on the mat as well. Chaining attacks are also a part of both arts. They are both endless. I love it.
In chess, you see similar approaches in the evolution of how chess players today are much better than in years past. I love the games of Bobby Fischer, Mikhail Tal, Capablanca, and others. But if they were to play Magnus Carlsen, Fabiano Caruana, the Polgar sisters, Hou Yi Fan, or Kosteniuk they would all lose. Not because they suck, but not just the game, but HOW YOU STUDY has changed so drastically. I could really do this all day. I really do this all day.”
Adisa’s Hip Hop Chess Federation is constantly growing and changing, so I thought it would be interesting to explore about his goals both long- and short-term and see how someone not local to him can get involved.
“Right now, I host a weekly podcast called Bishop Chronicles where we talk about chess, jiu-jitsu, hip-hop, and health and fitness trends. But I’m working on a new venture I can’t even talk about yet. But when it drops, it will shake up the world in a good way. Please follow me on IG @realhiphopchess! I always follow back. Also, you can check out my book Bobby, Bruce & the Bronx: The Secrets of Hip-Hop Chess and/or my podcast the Book of 5 Rings podcasts so people can hear me dig a little deeper.
The best way to get involved really is to read the book so you really understand the approach on a real level. A lot of people can passively say the arts are connected, but to drill deeper you must see through our unique lens. Once that happens, those wanting to incorporate HHCF lessons in their BJJ classes can reach out and we can share how we connect the arts in class. I can be reached on my IG and we can build from there.”