Classically Unorthodox: Inside the Mind of Chessmaster Josh Waitzkin
At six years old, Josh Waitzkin was one of the toughest chess players on earth. His creative and aggressive style made him one of the most feared American chess players ever. His style was a fusion of his years being raised by chess hustlers in New York’s Washington Square Park and his classical guidance under Bruce Pandolfini. His early life was made into the cult classic film Searching For Bobby Fischer.
After leaving chess, he discovered the martial art of Tai Chi Chuan. After training in Tai Chi Chuan, he realized how much marital arts and chess are connected. On his path to becoming a two-time world champion in Tai Chi Chuan, he learned about Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. He wrote a book about his experience entitled The Art of Learning. It became a best seller and is used by CEO’s and fighters alike who seek a higher level of understanding.
I first met Josh at the second Hip-Hop Chess Federation event with the RZA from the Wu-Tang Clan. I remember how well he and RZA connected like old friends from the second they met. Josh is a living hieroglyph of the idea that chess and martial arts are one.
In this interview Josh Waitzkin talks about his path to learning Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, the relationship between chess and martial arts and his philosophy about the lack of philosophy in BJJ.
OTM: How were you first introduced to Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and when did you begin training?
JW: I began training BJJ out in LA with John Machado about 5 years ago. But for the first two years, 90% of my energy was focused on stand up, getting ready for the 2004 Tai Chi Chuan Push Hands Worlds. For the past three years I’ve been focused exclusively on Jiu Jitsu, with John out west, then in New York City at NYBJJ with Marcos Santos. I also worked a lot with Marcelo Garcia while he was in New York, which was incredible.
OTM: You are a two time world champion in Tai Chi Chuan. Many BJJ practitioners write off styles like Tai Chi. Why do you think that is?
JW: I was fortunate enough to be introduced to Tai Chi Chuan by William CC Chen, who is humble, understated, very practical, a true master of body mechanics, and a fabulous teacher. He is well into his seventies and is still a demon in the boxing ring. If grapplers were exposed to William Chen’s Tai Chi, they wouldn’t write it off.
But to answer your question—honestly, a very large percentage of Tai Chi practitioners have their heads in the clouds…and they are the ones who make the most noise, stage the silly fake demonstrations, and create a cultish mindset that a practical fighter can just walk right through. I’d write them off too. Plus the system has little groundwork and most teachers are still closed minded about that element of the martial arts. Frankly, I think this problem is rampant in many traditional martial arts—teachers are terrified of looking bad and losing students so they create a world that denies what they don’t know.
On the other hand, if you travel to Taiwan and China and focus on the top competitors, the Tai Chi scene becomes incredibly dynamic. The rules of International Push Hands comptition are that you are in an 18 foot diameter ring and points are scored for throwing the guy on the floor or out of the ring. No frills. The fighters are superb athletes, training 6 and 8 hours a day since childhood, competing all the time. There is no fancy esoteric language—they just smash you on the floor with a speed and power that is breathtaking. They are open-minded, incredibly subtle, and of a very similar spirit to the top BJJ fighters.
The chess world made me practical, so I always challenged and rejected the elements of the Tai Chi scene that were overly idealized. If someone told me they could throw me without touching me, I asked them to do it. If they said they could kill me with a touch, I said I’d be willing to take the risk. This led to some pretty funny scenes and was an easy way to filter out the nonsense.
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.
OTM: Your book The Art of Learning talks about your journey from chess to Tai Chi and BJJ. 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. We are forced to be relentlessly introspective, to take on our weaknesses and build games around our specific nuances of character. If I learned anything from my life of competition in chess and Push Hands, it’s that if you’ve swept anything under the rug in your learning process—if you haven’t taken yourself on truly and deeply—it’ll come out and destroy you when the pressure is on.
In his translation of The Vimalakirti Sutra, Robert Thurman defines wisdom as “tolerance of cognitive dissonance.” That is chess and that is the martial arts. We are learning to cultivate a peace of mind, clarity of expression, and unstoppable growth curve in the most chaotic, wildly complex, and dangerous situations imaginable.
OTM: What rank do you currently hold in BJJ and who do you train under currently?
JW: I train under Marcos Santos in NYC and have been a purple belt for a couple years.
OTM: What is your ultimate goal in BJJ?
JW: I’m just a beginner in this art, but it’s my dream to win Mundials. I have a long way to go, but I’m committed.
OTM: Who are some of your favorite BJJ and MMA fighters today?
JW: Hands down my favorite BJJ fighter is Marcelo Garcia. The dude is amazing. Pure flow. He’s very similar to Tiger Woods in that he doesn’t hesitate to break down his game at the top, when it seems absolutely unnecessary. There’s a certain unstoppable mindset in his approach to learning. I also love how he hones in on one or two techniques and makes them manifest everywhere—this idea, of learning the macro through the micro, is at the core of my approach to everything. Most recently for Marcelo it was the omoplata and crucifix. He was catching his students in those two submissions from every conceivable position, and this was while his X-guard and back game looked unbeatable. Everyone prepped for the back attack and then he blew his weight class out of the water in Abu Dhabi with a brand new game. I can’t wait to see what he comes up with in MMA.
As for MMA fighters, all politics aside, I think Randy Couture’s mental understanding is off the charts, and Anderson Silva is the scariest dude out there.
OTM: What is your training regimen like these days?
JW: I train BJJ six days a week, twice a couple of those days if possible. My book has made things in my life more chaotic than I’d like and when I travel I inevitably miss some days. I’m trying to minimize that as much as possible.
OTM: Do you still practice Tai Chi?
JW: Internally, yes. Chess and Tai Chi are at the core of everything I do.
OTM: In the HHCF Chess Kings Invitational, RZA spoke about how Chessmaster 10 and getting coaching from you gave him a true edge in the tournament. Can you talk about what you taught him that enhanced his playing?
JW: RZA is an incredible man. He has a deep wisdom, and we have very similar approaches to creativity. He’s a very strong chess player, but he didn’t have a solid classical foundation. I suggested that he study the endgame. Instead of memorizing opening traps, I suggested he dive into the principles that govern all chess positions. That’s how I teach through Chessmaster—connecting chess to life—and maybe that approach helped translate his musical genius to the 64 squares. With a guy like RZA, who is a tremendously high level thinker, all you have to do is figure out how to open the floodgates so his understanding of Quality can transfer over. These arts are all the same, really. We just need to break down the walls in our minds.
OTM: What was your favorite memory from the HHCF Kings Invitational?
JW: Dude, the HHCF events have been amazing….I think the panel discussions with you, me, RZA, Rakaa, Qbert, and Kevvy Kev have been very dynamic. Bringing together role models from all these different disciplines to discuss the road to mastery is a brilliant way to inspire kids who might not otherwise be exposed to all the connections.
As for specific moments, two come to mind. Last event, it actually happened behind the scenes. RZA and I were waiting to go up for the panel, and we got into this intense conversation about creativity, going back and forth, discussing these wild connections between chess, hip hop, and the martial arts. We were speaking about improvisation, the role between the technical foundation and the creative leap, about where all these arts collide. I came out of the conversation on fire with new ideas—I wish others could have heard it.
The other moment happened on the street after our event at The Omega Boys Club. A young rapper approached RZA, Monk, and Reverend with a challenging vibe. He started freestyling and then a cipher broke out, with the Wu Tang crew blowing this guy out of the water. It all came to a head when RZA brought the house down with probably the most amazing improvised performance in anything that I’ve even seen. It was flat out awesome. After he was done, and without missing a beat, he said “Josh GO!” It was my turn. I laughed. I know when to keep my mouth shut.
OTM: What are the practical fighting limitations of tai chi?
JW: I think that depends on how literal you're being. If you come from my perspective, in which I rebound away from traditionalism and don't care much for labels, Tai Chi is in everything just as chess and Jiu Jitsu are in everything. The boundaries are very porous. From a slightly less irritatingly abstract perspective, the Tai Chi system, if cultivated in a no nonsense manner, can be quite powerful as a striking and throwing art. Despite what some might say, the ground element of the game is not terribly developed--and that's a big limitation.
OTM: What are the spiritual/internal limitations of brazilian jiu jitsu?
JW: I don't have any reason to believe that there are any.
OTM: Not any? I find this hard to conceive. Looking back into antiquity, the philosophies of Lao Tzu, Buddha, Jigoro Kano and even more recently Bruce Lee, gave each of the respective martial paths a sketch of spiritual structure. These sketches served as a loose road map to one's true self.
When I look at Rickson Gracie for example, the main thing I see that separates him from the rest of the jiu jitsu practitioners in the world is his philosophical approach to fighting. Many of his interviews highlight his respect for the traditional philosophical approaches of the past.
In America at least, there does not seem to be a philosophical methodology to Brazilian jiu jitsu. I have always felt this has created a vacuum of sorts that makes jiu jitsu more of a supremely effective fighting style- but not a martial art.
Do you agree? 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.
I think there are countless paths to spirituality--meditation, surfing, running, climbing, music, sailing, archery, calligraphy, chess, martial arts, motorcycle maintenance, whatever. The vehicle is just the husk. It is a structure, a form, a channel to be penetrated with an understanding of its relativity. In my opinion, what matters isn't so much what art you pursue but how honestly, creatively and relentlessly you explore it. You brought up Lao Tzu, Buddha, and Bruce Lee. These were all sages who spoke about leaving form behind. Religious followers and devotees later took their ideas and made them much more static than they were ever intended to be. And that brings us to your last point which is very powerful.
OTM: Any last words?
JW: Yeah, one thing. I'm in the process of opening up a nonprofit foundation, designed to help disadvantaged children, teens, and young adults get their footing in the learning process. If anyone reading this works in this field and believes the educational philosophy of my book The Art of Learning can make an impact on their group, please contact me on my website www.joshwaitzkin.com  and I'll do my best to help out by donating copies to teachers, families, and students. It's been a pleasure, man.
Adisa Banjoko is CEO of the Hip-Hop Chess Federation. For more info visit: www.hiphopchessfederation.org