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The Dilemma Principle

Updated: Sep 24, 2022

Early on in our Jiu-Jitsu careers, all of our attacks are linear, in an A to B attack formations. An example would be, Closed Guard to Arm Bar. When we get the submission, things are great. The issue comes when that first attack eventually fails and we feel we have no other contingency plans. For a good few months, you collect techniques, ultimately tinkering with them until you realize that some connect while others don’t. Connecting techniques together is what allows you to create Dilemma Principle scenarios during training.

A Dilemma Principle scenario is when you present someone with a set of options where neither is great, and all play against their better judgement. A famous example is the Trolley Principle where a trolley is on its way down the tracks and you are faced with the terrible decision of either allowing it to keep going down it’s current path and killing a number of people, or hitting a switch and allowing it to go down another set of tracks and having it kill one person.

Truthfully speaking, either way, you’re making a decision, even if one is made by indecision. Do you do nothing and allow what is going to happen, to happen. Or do you do what seems like the lesser of two evils and try to save a set number of people by sacrificing another?

Jiu-Jitsu is a mousetrap. The trap does not chase the mouse. But when the mouse grabs the cheese, the trap plays it’s role. -Helio Gracie

In Chess, the Dilemma Principle comes in the form of a Fork. In the example provided, the Knight has moved from D5 to F4, creating a dilemma between the King and the Rook. A novice’s automatic response might be to take the Knight with the Pawn that’s sitting on E3, but that would leave the King completely defenseless against the Rook on E8. With this being the case, the Pawn on E3 is essentially locked in place and unable mount an attack.

The resulting effect is really what you want to create when pushing forward with a multi-pronged attack. White now has to not just respond to the dilemma, but response intelligently and safely. If White chooses to do what’s most instinctual to a novice player and retreat it’s King to D2 or worse yet E1, the black Knight will take the Rook on G2. If white’s King had retreated to E1, black’s Knight will then set up an additional dilemma once they take white’s Rook on G2.

Much like Chess, in Jiu-Jitsu, the dilemma principle comes into play when one player has stacked a set of attacks against their opponent. For example, going from Closed Guard to Armbar. When you’re opponent stacks you and pulls the arm out, you have the option to switch to Triangle or Omoplata. The immediate danger was the Armbar, a decision was made to save the arm, which put the defending player into a separate danger of the Triangle or Omoplata. Unlike with turn based Chess, these decisions are made instinctually and generally in actions that overlap one another.

In Chess, it’s not your opponent’s goal to lose their Bishop. However, given the right incentives, your opponent may surrender their Bishop to save another piece. The Tree of Knowledge by Daniel G. Miller

Dilemma Principle in Action

As the attacking player who’s applying these constant dilemmas, you’re forcing your opponent to react in survival mode instead of mounting any kind of offensive attacks for themselves. Compounding these interchangeable attacks enriches the dilemma tenfold which increases the possibility of a mistake on their behalf.

This is actually the prism in which I view and weigh whether a technique will ever be added to my game. Is it fundamentally sound, can I do it safely, and most importantly, does it fit within what I already do, and the kind of dilemmas that I am already creating.

The understanding that comes from knowing your own game and the dilemmas that can be created by it, are what foster those “clairvoyant” moments. You know the dilemma that you’re creating by reducing the available defensive options for your opponent, all while knowing the answers to the available questions.

If this is not something that you’re already doing, I implore you to. If it is, I would love to know what attack sequences you’re using and how successful they have been for you.

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