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This website is about Brazilian jiu jitsu (BJJ). I'm a black belt who started in 2006, teaching and training at Artemis BJJ in Bristol, UK. All content ©Can Sönmez

23 October 2009

Book Review - Passing the Guard (Ed Beneville & Tim Cartmell)

Short Review: Everything you could ever want to know about passing the guard is covered in this book. Opening the guard from standing or kneeling, dealing with grips, countering submissions, beating the lockdown, solo drills and of course a huge number of different passes are all included. As this is by Ed Beneville, that is all described in copious detail, well-illustrated by masses of clear photographs and helpful accompanying text.

Beneville's first volume is justly regarded as one of the best BJJ instructional books on the market, and with this second edition, it is now even better: available to buy here.

Full Review: Passing the Guard was originally written in 2001 and released a year later, to widespread acclaim. Top BJJ blogger Aesopian has referred to it as his "favourite BJJ book of all time", typical of the high praise Beneville's first publication received (another high profile BJJ blogger, Val Worthington, also has a connection to the book, in that she was involved in the editing process).

I was keen to get hold of this back when I initially started buying instructionals, but by that point, it had become a rare prize, with the accompanying inflated price tag. It was already a brilliant book when first released in 2002, when the authors Ed Beneville and Tim Cartmell were both still purple belts. They have each since received their black belt, so you can imagine just how much more information they are able to offer now.

Beneville began revising his modern classic some time ago: I've been eagerly waiting for the second edition. It finally hit the shelves earlier this year, expanded with new photography and the helpful flow-charts first seen in Strategic Guard (which in turn may well have taken its cue from Mastering the Rubber Guard). Like previous volumes, those flow-charts appear at the end of every chapter, concisely summarising the preceding contents and the various connections between each technique and situation.

The authors make the important note that "this book is not a substitute for training, nor for the feedback of someone who knows what he is talking about." This should always be kept in mind when reading or watching instructional material: your instructor is always the best person to talk to if you are having technical problems in class. Another essential point is that you shouldn't give up on techniques just because you can't immediately get them to work. As Beneville puts it, "all of the techniques in this book work, but none of them work when poorly executed."

For those who haven't read any of Beneville's books before (I review the other two here and here), he has developed an excellent format. Firstly, the photography is clear, with one guy always wearing a blue gi while the other wears white. This is a big help for the textual descriptions, as Beneville can just write 'blue' or 'white' to refer to each person, rather than confusing the issue by using their name (as Saulo does in his book), or something like "person on top".

Secondly, there are a number of simple symbols added to the pictures to show the direction of flow, emphasise details or show a tangential option. This is the same system as in the other two books, and is explained at the beginning of Passing the Guard. Each chapter also includes an insightful introduction, running through central principles, along with things like competition strategy.

As with every instructional BJJ book I've ever read, the first chapter is my favourite, which is unsurprising given I'm mainly interested in the absolute fundamentals. This is especially true of guard passing, because as I've mentioned many times in the blog, that is by far the weakest part of my game.

Chapter one is entitled basics (25 pages), at first emphasising two key factors, balance and sensitivity. Beneville moves on to posture and base, which interestingly appears to have a sequence of photographs from his competition history to illustrate a point. I'm not sure if Beneville is the first to include what is effectively competition footage in a book, but that has always been the mark of a good instructional video, so adding it to the book medium is an innovative step forward.

However, the opening chapter also brought up one of the few elements I dislike about Beneville's book series, which is the inclusion of what I would call 'dirty' moves. Beneville often puts forward somewhat disreputable techniques as a viable option, which in this case is the method of digging your elbow into your partner to open the guard. Even worse, he continues with a detailed exploration of the 'can-opener', a form of neck crank.

While both can undoubtedly be an effective method of beginning your pass, I don't feel comfortable hurting my training partners. I also don't want to rely on overcoming somebody's pain threshold. I much prefer Saulo Ribeiro's approach, where he talks about treating your training partners like they're "your best friend," always relying on smooth technique rather than crude pain compliance.

[Update: Tim Cartmell, the co-author, provides his reasoning for including those techniques here]

The next chapter is all about passing from the knees (76 pages). Beneville spends a lot of time going over the smash pass, with variations and counters, such as what to do if they try to stiff-arm you. That flows into coverage of the 'scissor guard', which is useful: at least in my experience, it's very common you'll find they manage to get a knee in as you're looking to pass, which is what this segment aims to overcome. Common passes like the double underhooks also crop up, along with some potential problems, like how to prevent your partner from rolling out into the turtle position.

Standing passes (52 pages) is less geared towards specific techniques, instead focusing on how to deal with what your opponent is attempting to accomplish. For example, while the previous chapter included sections like 'cross knee pass', 'scissors pass #4' and 'double underhooks pass', chapter three has subtitles like 'freeing the arms' and 'feet on the hips', along with plenty of detail on 'standing and opening'.

Presumably that is because if you're able to open the guard from standing, you may well transition into a pass from the knees. I prefer the approach in the third chapter, as it is probably a better mindset to react to a particular situation, rather than insist on going for a certain technique no matter what your partner is doing. In other words, taking what they give you.

Chapter four on defences and counters (48 pages) follows in a similar vein. When standing, the big worry is getting swept, whereas on your knees, you're in danger from submissions. Beneville and Cartmell run through defences to all the common attacks, like armbars, cross-chokes and triangles, as well as typical grips, like an overwrap on the arm or a hold on your gi trousers. Those standing sweeps are covered too, along with some further responses to particular situations, like the de la Riva hook.

This chapter also has a far higher proportion of pictures from the original edition of Passing the Guard, so presumably that also means it hasn't been altered as much as the previous segments. Like in earlier Beneville releases and in Saulo's book, possible mistakes are also described. That threw up some submissions that looked like fun: for example, the 'leg strangle', where you simply secure a collar grip, then throw your leg over your head and push.

Half guard (30 pages) again began with an excellent treatment of the basics, as is true for all the chapters in this book. For half guard, that is how to flatten your opponent on their back, which is naturally then followed by several passes. As in previous chapters, methods of dealing with what your partner is doing to prevent your technique pops up too.

The most interesting example of that is several pages on countering the lockdown. Beneville had earlier shown some familiarity with techniques popularised by 10th Planet JJ, which is clearly something he has been aware of for many years: the pictures for the first lockdown escape are from the original edition back in 2001.

That begins with the 'Indian death lock', which I've seen discussed before, and presumably isn't all that high percentage (Beneville mentions "this one is painful for both players, but it is worse for the guy on the bottom.") However, there are new methods for the second edition, which look less risky, with both early and late defences.

Beneville also includes submissions from the top, with chokes, armlocks and kneebars. Half guard is a position in which both participants have various attacks open to them, so it makes sense to include them in a book on guard passing. As Beneville notes on the chapter flowchart, "your chances of successfully applying one increase if your opponent is concerned with you passing his guard."

Less common is trying attacks from inside the guard (16 pages), as detailed in chapter six. Generally this isn't too effective, especially as your primary aim should be passing the guard, but there are several possible submissions. The ezekiel choke can work, or potentially a neck crank against butterfly guard. Again, that is normally illegal, not to mention dangerous. It's also a rather dick move to pull against training partners.

In his defence, Beneville does put up a big red warning on the same page (p235, if you would like to judge the legitimacy of the technique yourself), stating:

Be extra cautious with any submissions involving the spinal column! The potential for serious injury must be taken seriously. It is one thing to hyper extend an elbow and quite another to damage the spine!

If this was a book about self-defence, I could understand the inclusion of neck cranks. Yet that isn't the impression I get from the introduction, where Beneville says "the rules and strategies discussed throughout the book were written with Brazilian jiu jitsu sport competition in mind." Even if neck cranks are 'part of the art', I'd rather they hadn't been included here. I would hate to think white belts are reading that section in Passing the Guard, slipping over the warning, and then seriously injuring their classmates in sparring.

However, such attacks in the guard tend to be rare: the higher percentage option is to go for leglocks, which make up the majority of this segment. If you have the original edition of Passing the Guard, this chapter will probably look very familiar. Every technique, except for the toe hold at the end (which incidentally also gets a warning), uses pictures from the first release, so I assume it hasn't been significantly changed for 2009.

Along with neck cranks, this section also includes another example of Beneville's occasional tendency to cover especially dangerous techniques, triangle leg control. This is currently outlawed from BJJ competition. Presumably the reason Beneville shows a banned technique is because it was covered in the previous edition. As Beneville explains:

Since the first edition of this book was published, this version of the ankle lock has been banned from many BJJ competitions. This is considered reaping the outside of the knee and apparently that is too dangerous. You cannot wrap your outside leg over and across your opponent's leg from this position. This technique is effective, however, and it is part of the art.

Chapter seven also focuses on submissions, this time from the turtle position (44 pages). This reminded me of what I'd seen at the Roy Dean seminar, with lots of rolling attacks, in-depth discussion of the clock choke and details on the crucifix. Finally, Beneville closes the book with a brief chapter on solo drills (12 pages), designed to help you practice the sometimes difficult motions required for certain passes (e.g., head springs and modified cartwheels).

My reservations about neck cranks aside (a very small proportion of the book), I can see why Aesopian rates Passing the Guard: it is comprehensive, clear and concise, reaching the same high standard as all of Ed Beneville's publications. Everything you could want to know about passing the guard is covered, from breaking the guard to dealing with grips and submission attempts, along with the actual pass itself. If you manage to absorb everything in Beneville's three volume series, you will be incredibly effective at attacking and using the guard.

That is a big 'if', however. There is a great deal to take in, so it's unlikely you'll improve from simply reading Passing the Guard from cover to cover. A book like Jiu Jitsu University is easily comprehensible, as the techniques are basic, explained slowly, from the perspective of an overview.

Beneville, on the other hand, leaves nothing out, so it can be an overwhelming experience reading his work. I have had his other two books for almost two years now, and barely scratched the surface of what they have to offer. To benefit, you'll need to invest considerable time and effort into a small number of techniques, attempting to use them in sparring over the course of weeks, months and years. Available to buy here.


  1. Definitely something I want to check out. Guard passes are one of the weakest points in my game. Thnks for the review!

  2. Great review. I only have the 1st edition but it seems only a few small additions have been made, and perhaps larger or more photographs.
    Yes neck cranks and leg locks look dodge but better to know them and assimilate than be caught out in class by some sadistic idiot.

  3. I think I agree with just about everything in this review. I only got the book in July and I already feel it has surpassed Jiu Jitsu University as my go too manual.

    It can be overwhelming though and I found myself skimming through on a reread and jotting down some techniques that would work well with my game to introduce at a drip feed rate. Still working on that at the moment really.

    I was also a bit disappointed about the frowned upon moves (I hate it when people use the elbows as a painful way of breaking the guard) so when I read Tim's response to your message I was enlightened and a bit relieved that they were put in more for completion of knowledge than as a preferential technique.

    All in all Can, I'd say it was another great and thorough review. It's given me a lot to think about for if I ever review any of my favoured Bjj manuals.

    Great stuff \m/

  4. Thanks all!

    Yeah, Tim seems like a pretty cool guy: there was a good Rolled Up episode featuring him a while ago.