A Game Without Tactics

Football, soccer, squash, table tennis- they all have tactics; plays, the game plan, strategy- something essential to all sports. Fencing, if there ever was one, is the epitome of tactical sports. One must outwit his opponent, not merely out-touch him. It is, after all, chess at a thousand miles an hour.

Generally speaking, fencing tactics are the why of our actions (technique being the what). With this simple definition, we can much more accurately establish what tactics are.
  • The tactical wheel. The tactical wheel is a sort of choose-your-own-adventure of fencing strategy. The simple wheel has two spokes- offense and defense (or offense and counter-offense). After choosing a path (for example, offense), the fencer will try to figure out what the opponent's reaction is. If it is, for example, to parry, the attacking fencer should use compound attacks (those that attempt to avoid the parry) instead of simple attacks (those that attempt to hit on the first action). If the defender is also following the tactical wheel, after being hit with a compound attack, he will wisely switch to a counterattack in time (aka "stop hit"). This can continue back and forth until someone either makes a technical error or switches spokes. Additionally, more advanced fencers often rely on the complex tactical wheel, which has some additional parts called counter-time and feint-in-time.
  • Intentions. Beginning fencers nearly always use the first intention, meaning that they wish to hit with the action that they are executing in the moment. More advanced fencers, however, will fence in the second or sometimes third intentions. This means that they are using their initial actions as preparation, something to set up their following movements. This is extremely difficult, however, because the preparatory actions must be committed enough for the opponent to believe it, but not so much that it is impossible to break off and do something different.
  • Tempo. In fencing, tempo is a word that will take many meanings. It is the amount of time it takes one fencer to do one action, which is the definition used when determining right-of-way. It can also be used to describe the feeling of the bout, for example: fast, slow, even, etc. The Tempo (practiced by playing the "bladeless distance game") is something that takes many parts. There is the tempo of the bout as well as the tempo of the fencer's footwork. But what is nearly indescribable is what happens when a fencer attacks "with the tempo". The fencer is truly attacking into preparation- not the beginnings of a compound attack, but true preparation- catching the opponent off guard, too busy still planning or simply not doing anything at all. Furthermore, this form of attack is so smooth and unexpected, the opponent quite literally doesn't know what hit him.
  • Critical distance. All fencers are constantly striving to reach their critical distance- and forbid the opponent from reaching theirs. Critical distance is the distance in which it is impossible to react in time. Many fencers on the receiving end of this describe it as if the attack is in slow motion, that they can see it coming but for some reason their hands and feet just aren't listening. Assuming all other things are planned well, achieving critical distance will ensure the touch - with one exception: don't let your opponent realize it first!
  • Distance event triggers. Distance event triggers or ideal times to attack are designed to create an opportunity to act with critical distance. They are set up so that fencers can utilize either one or two tempo footwork (and could theoretically be modified to accommodate more than that) so that their attack is synchronized with the footwork of the opponent. These triggers use our main distances: short, medium, medium plus, and long; or extension, lunge, lunge plus, and advance lunge. The events will catch the opponent in transition, which is a perfect opportunity to hit them.
  • Indication and objective. The indication is physical action that the fencer is demonstrating; the body language that he is allowing the opponent to read. The two indications are pushing and pulling. Quite simply, pushing is driving the opponent toward his or her end line, and pulling is brining them towards yours. Objective is the intent of the fencer once they get to that desired location. Defend and attack are the two objectives. For example, pushing to defend is to force the fencer as far back as he or she will go, and then pressure the fencer into attacking into the waiting parry and riposte.
  • Preparation and Probes. Preparation begins as soon as you want it to. Perhaps it was the moment you walked into your first fencing class. Or when you began to seriously train for a large competition; it could be when you walked into that competition (though possibly without exuberantly announcing, "Everyone! I am here!"), or onto that strip, or came on guard for that touch. Whenever your preparation starts, it is vitally important. Preparation during the bout can also be dangerous. If you are left in the state for too long, your opponent is likely to catch you and score a touch. However, when done in the proper distance (hint: as far away from your opponent as feasibly possible), it will allow for your touches to happen. Ideally, the majority of preparation, where all things tactics are considered, specifically in their ability to function against the particular opponent, occurs in between touches, when the director is making his decision. Probes, though part of preparation, must be done during the fencing. Their function is to test out the opponent's defenses and to see where their strengths and weaknesses are. Probes can also be used to scope out the opponents hard ground which is the location on the strip from which they are unwilling to retreat any further. This is particularly useful information if one were to want to use pushing to defend. Make sure to be in a safe distance while performing these studies or a particularly strong attack may be revealed.
In a particularly tough DE bout in senior open foil today, after my opponent had made an 8 point run, I changed tactics. I decided to fence electrical foil. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, you heard me correctly. The dreaded "e" word. Yes, I ran up the strip trying to hit, and then I ran back down trying to parry. And in those five minutes, I discovered something significant. Something that has explained much of the insanity of the past 9 months. Electrical foil has no tactics.

Don't get me wrong, I am still confident that there is a method to the madness, but none of what I just described seems to be present in modern foil fencing. [In this country. In this division.] With the possible exceptions of critical distance and probes, none of the stuff that I've spent the past three years learning about, experimenting with, and debating over -things that people the world over have written books about; things that I know are essential to fencing- is necessary (and hardly useful) to fencing electrical foil.

Perhaps the most devastating of the bunch is the absence of the tactical wheel. In a chicken and egg situation, the rearranging of right-of-way has nearly eliminated attacks into tempo. Doing so has created a three-sided tactical wheel. And for anyone who knows the least bit about anything knows that a three-sided wheel won't turn. Taking away an essential portion of foil fencing leaves us with only one option- to add things that aren't based in fencing. Most of my "electrical foil" experience in my DE bout today was not fencing, at least not as I know it. I was instead relying on natural instincts (to run away from an angry girl waving a sword at me) and athleticism (to be able to quickly switch to directions from running away from to running towards that sword bearing girl).

It no longer comes as a surprise to me that modern fencers fence only one weapon seriously. It is not due to equipment costs or differences in technique; it's the tactics. The three weapons have become so different from each other, it would be nearly impossible to master all three.

A New Tactical Mindset

In an effort to get it up to a B1, I was greatly urged to fence in our salle's open epee event. My initial refusals were on the basis of not being technically/tactically prepared for the event, even though I knew that I "should" fence with a NAC only a few weeks away. After some coaxing, however, I was convinced on the basis of, "Would you do it if it were just sparring?"

My answer was of course yes. I hadn't wanted to fence because I didn't feel ready to compete- but that didn't mean that I would turn down an opportunity to fence. About half of the event was made up of fencers from a visiting club, most of whom I had never fenced before. There was no reason for me to turn down the opportunity to fence with someone new.

It was not the first time that I had gone into an event just not caring. But this was different. When I say that I don't care, I often end up fencing stupid. In this event, I treated it as sparring- not for the point, but for the fencing. Though I believe that this is how all bouts should be fenced, the concept of competition often makes that difficult.

I didn't realize how effective this idea of treating the bout as fencing and not bouting is until my second bout, against a tall guy that I had no idea how to deal with without getting hit. No one had scored yet, so I thought, what would you do if this were just for fun? My answer was, of course, fleche! So I did. And I got the touch; and was able to continue with that mindset throughout the bout to win 5-1.

In a later bout against a fencer (who is probably better than me but I can beat about half the time)who was leading 3-1, I wasn't getting anything to work, so I went back to that idea of sparring. When I'm sparring, I attempt new things to try and get the touch. I'll play with more unusual parries or compound attacks; I do things I'm unfamiliar with. Though it is usually(*) not a good idea, I tried something that I had never had success with; pushing to defend. It worked! I got two touches to end up losing 5-3.

I'm not yet sure how to apply this to events that I feel really matter, but it was an interesting experience. The concept is one that seems obvious (don't fence for the point, fence because it's fun) but is often lost in the hustle and bustle of a USFA tournament.

Happy fencing!

Pre-season excitement!

Well, folks, this weekend marks the beginning of the 2010-2011 fencing season for me. I am competing at Leon Auriol in Seattle, WA. This season I will be focusing primarily on foil, and therefore, I will be fencing in the senior women's foil event on saturday. Over the past two months, I've been struggling to understand this crazy sport people call fencing. And during my spare time, I've rewritten the lyrics to a particular holiday song- Spirit of the Season. Enjoy!

It's the spirit of the season
You can feel it anywhere
You can see it, it'll glisten
Shiny, RU, oh it's true, a new bell (guard)
Whatever it is you need to use it
It's the spirit of the season
You can see it everywhere
People run as their strip is called
Their bout will begin soon
Dreams are dancing in their coach's eyes
Fencers yelling, coaches yelling too
It's the spirit of the season
Beeping buzzers fill the air
Clear a pathway for them quickly
It's their lair, there's no care
It stays there
Sabre fencers there's no need to share it
It's the spirit of the season
It's the spirit of the season
Weapons breaking as you rush on by
Lights will fail to glow
Prayers begin for that hopeful sound
Of fencers fencing, boxes beeping too
It's the spirit of the season
Beeping buzzers fill the air
Clear a pathway for them quickly
It's their lair, there's no care
It stays there
Sabre fencers there's no need to share it
It's the spirit of the season
You can hear it anywhere
It's the spirit of the season
You can feel it here and there

Summer Nationals, Day Five: Division Two Women's Foil

My final event at Nationals was division 2 (C and under) women's foil. I had a low seed (124 out of 129), and, as my coach put it, could only go up. My first bout was against Thomas, and it started out really well. I led 3-0, all on attacks into prep. But then I started to counter attack with out time, and she hit me on parry-riposte once, too. When the score was tied at 3, the referees realized that my guard was non-conforming. The largest possible size is 120 mm, and my guards were about 122.5 mm. I was yellow carded for that weapon, and as the other foil had the same size guard, I was given a red card. The score was 4-3. The big problem was that, although I was allowed a "reasonable amount of time" to find other weapons, the ones I had had been confiscated (as is the protocol) so we couldn't go and get them fixed. After waiting for about a minute, one of the other girls in my pool offered to loan me one of her foils- and we got to the fencing again. I was able keep going for about a minute, but as Thomas drove me toward my end of the strip, I sort of crumpled and counterattacked- into her simple attack. I of course lost the bout, 3-5.

Whitt was my next opponent. I was able to get three attacks into prep, and we traded points for a while. Sometimes she hit on attack, other times on parry-riposte. She got her fourth touch when I countered without time. After that, I wanted to keep the score low, not willing to take the risk of her hitting me. I probably should have won that bout, but I didn't have the courage to attack, so it ended 3-4, her win.

Trella was my third bout. (She was also the one who had lent me her foil. At this point, my coach had been able to come back with a new weapon and then took the other ones to have the guards changed. Fortunately, our friends at Fencing Post changed all four of ours with that size guard free of charge) Again, I was able to get the attack into prep with mixed success. She hit me on riposte a few times, and I had a very nice compound attack with fleche that hit off-target on the bib. However, I was still unwilling to actively try to hit her and the bout ended 1-3.

At this point, my coach had to remind me that it was division two and that no one there was
an A. That definitely helped me to go on the attack, or at least keep fighting until someone got 5 touches.

My bout against Szpak was a little bit frustrating. I was able to keep the phrase going, but my ripostes just never hit- and her remises did. She's a tall, skinny leftie whose technique and tactics weren't all that great. This time, at least, I kept going until she had scored five touches, instead of just giving up when she had three. Regardless, I lost the bout 1-5.

Using opposition ripostes, compound attacks, and second intention, I was able to win my fifth bout, against Chernyshova. She liked to pause after her parry to see what the other fencer would do. I let her pause, but when she came out with the riposte, I would reach for her blade, closing off the line and scoring the touch. I was also able to hit on a compound attack with a deep feint. (This is something that I had been working on but hadn't been able to make work very much). The final score was 5-3.

My last bout was against Dusinberre. I scored the first two touches on fleche with compound blade work, which again made me happy. Then she scored two touches on parry 6-riposte. With the score tied, I began having people stepping on my reel cord (once again) which rattled me quite a bit. In some weird haze, I decided to go on the attack, but without any real plan, and she continued to hit on riposte. Though she beat me 2-5, it was still a really fun bout. We had actual phrases with lots of different types of parries and attacks.

My seed coming out of pools was 100, but once again, I had missed the cut (the last person to make the cut was 98th). Despite this, I had ended the day on a high note and I now look forward to more foil fencing!

Summer Nationals, Day Four: Senior Women's Team Epee

Today's event was senior team, with a bright and early check-in time of 6:30. Our team was seeded 24th out of 27, and we were matched up against the 9th seed, Windy City Fencing Center. Their team was made up of Jessie Radanovich (2010 Y14 national champion, 3rd in cadet,), Mason Speta (11th in Y14, 10th in cadet, top 8 in Div 1A), Anna Garina (6th Div 1), Ana Vinikov (54th Div 1). Needless to say, we were a little out-classed.

Our match got off to a slow start, 5-0 at the end of the first bout and 10-2 at the end of the second. After that, each bout was fenced better and better, with the match finishing 23-45, their win. Even though we lost, we all fenced well (especially with Isabel nursing several injuries) and it was a good experience for everyone.

My scores were 5-3 against Vinikov, 5-3 agains Garina, and 4-2 against Radanovich. We finished right where we started, 24th out of 27.

(As a really exciting side note, the USFA used fencing time for the team competitions!)

Summer Nationals, Day Three: Cadet Women's Foil

In contrast to the day before, Cadet Foil was one of the best fencing days that I've ever had. Even without that terrible day to compare to, this was a very good day. Giving up the idea of trying to use Italian grips in USFA competition, I was using my coach's foils.

I didn't win any of my bouts, but I got out-fenced instead of out-touched. There were some very strong fencers in my pool, and even though none of them fenced "our way", the bouts were still enjoyable. My final bout went to la belle, but I countered at the last touch and lost the bout.

I didn't make the cut to DEs, but I was only off by a couple of places; that day also helped me know that I can fence well in USFA foil.

Summer Nationals, Day Two: Y14 Women's Foil

Today was.... interesting. Nothing was hugely wrong, but I was having a terrible day. I warmed up as usual, had a lesson, but it didn't feel right. I fenced a little, but still, nothing felt right. I could do the actions, but like a robot- not well, not when I wanted, and I wasn't thinking. When pools started I felt a bit better, but after I started fencing, things got worse again. I couldn't make anything work, and if I did, I couldn't get the calls. I was loosing my bouts 5-1. Not fun.

After a couple of bouts, a woman came over and asked me how I used my wrist strap. Even though I had been really upset, I didn't know who she was and therefore took interest in explaining to her. At the beginning of my next bout, as I got up to hook up, she came over to me and gave me the same speech about it being dangerous. This made me more upset, as it was contributing to my bad day. She gave me three options: wear it under my glove (which ended up making the safety thing worse as my glove couldn't close so there was a large hole leading up to my arm- but she said it was fine), put tape over it( I wanted to go for this option, but of course she expected me to have the tape, and I was about to fence, so that didn't work), or just not use it. They never said anything about my grip.

Of course, one cannot exactly use an Italian without a wrist strap, so I went to switch to my French. The wire wasn't attached to the socket, of course. Fortunately, as I never presented to the ref, I wasn't carded. I fenced that bout with an Italian, no wrist strap. (And lost, though I probably should have beaten that fencer) With many comforting words from my coach in between bouts (and using his foil [with a grip that is actually illegal for me because of my hand's size]) I actually fenced the next time (instead of flailing around like someone who hadn't yet finished Intro 1) and won my last bout 5-3! At the end of pools, my fencing had gone from beyond terrible to an average bad day.

After eating some lunch, chatting with friends, and just generally cooling off, I went to fence my DE bout. Convinced that my opponent was seeded far higher than I was, I was determined to give her a run for her money. With an uber-fast, action-packed first period, we traded points until the score was 11-9, her lead.In the second period, I got the first touch, but than made a fleche with a distance error so she was able to get the parry-riposte, and then I proceeded to counterattack (without time) for the rest of the bout, finishing 10-15. I later found out that it had been the table of 256, and I was seeded 128 and she 127.