Some fencing figures are more than what they seem, and one such figure is Andrew Fischl, known to most of us as Cyrus of Chaos.
For those of you who might not know it, Cyrus of Chaos is a major resource for fencers on YouTube. I’ve been subscribed to this channel for many years, and his fencing videos and analysis have been a wonderful addition to my own fencing knowledge. They are in depth and thoughtful, and totally unlike anything else out there. It’s a resource that has become a huge value for many fencers, no matter your weapon.
In the last few months, the channel has branched out in a wonderful way, featuring analysis with fencing coaches, great fencers, and sometimes even with fencers themselves as they analyze their own bouts. It is refreshing, it is mind blowing, and it is positively brilliant.
This is a positive source of next-level fencing understanding who’s importance cannot be overestimated, particularly during these pandemic times when we are forced to be innovative and when we are looking more and more at our screens. Cyrus of Chaos offers us the perfect mix of a solid, tried and true member of the fencing community who knows what fencing is about, mixed with youthful, out-of-the-box thinking.
In this interview, we learn more about the man behind Cyrus of Chaos, including how Andrew came to find this wonderful resource and what keeps him going. Some of the answers will surprise you, and all of the interview will enlighten you.
If you aren’t already subscribed to Cyrus of Chaos’s YouTube Channel, hop on over and subscribe!
Interview with Cyrus of Chaos
Igor: You are the first fencing YouTube celebrity.
Cyrus of Chaos: I guess I am.
IG: Yes, well. Unfortunately that’s a sad truth in fencing. When you get out of your small little bubble and you see that it’s actually a very miniscule sport.
CC: Yes, it’s very small.
IG: I am a huge fan. I cannot say that I watch every video that you put because it will be . . .
CC: It’s a lot.
IG: Tons of hours. You are my encyclopedia for fencing education when I need to dive deep into some specific topic. In particular I love the fact that you started to spend so much quality time during the pandemic with these analyses.
CC: It was a really good opportunity because in the past I’ve really only done those kinds of analysis in person with people. At a NAC or something I’ll have dinner with some friends and we’ll go sit down with us sitting right next to each other in front of a computer. The nice thing about the pandemic is that it made it so that everyone had a ton of free time and because everyone started using Zoom, I got the opportunity to figure out exactly how I wanted to do this. It was really helpful because no one else was training either, all the top guys had free time and everyone is happy to talk about fencing. It was a good convergence of circumstances shall we say.
IG: I would say that you are the only fencing Youtube celebrity. Let’s talk first from the beginning and your interesting path into fencing.
Late start, early success
CC: My family’s a tennis family. So when my dad was a kid he used to drive around the northeast playing tournaments and his dad would take him and it was just a great experience for him. He always dreamed of having a son or daughter that he could do the same thing with. When I was growing up, I was pushed to play tennis but it’s kind of annoying when everyone in your family wants you to do that. “Oh, let’s go work on your serve. Let’s work on your back hand. Let’s go play tennis.” As a kid you just want to hang out on the couch and watch TV or go play with your friends, so I kind of resisted that. I was told “You should try playing other sports.” So I tried soccer, lacrosse, basketball, and I just didn’t really have the passion for any of them.
During that time I kind of stumbled on fencing because it was an obscure sport that I hadn’t been pushed to try and no one in my family knew anything about it. In a sense, I kind of got into it because it was obscure. I think the first class I ever took was during my sophomore year of high school and I didn’t start taking a class again until like the middle of my junior year or something like that. I actually was not being recruited by colleges the way that other fencers were, but the person who taught my first fencing class was Bruce Gillman and he’s the coach at Vassar. He saw my progress in the one year since I had started and he was the main person who was pulling for me. That’s where I ended up going to school.
IG: I don’t think that today anyone that starts fencing that late will have any chance to be recruited, but you never know.
CC: Yeah. The thing is that when you start late, you don’t have the opportunity to get as much experience as other people, but I also didn’t have to learn to compete or to control my body the way that other beginners do. I already knew how to win and how to fight hard, so for me it was just taking the things I learned from other sports and just putting them into fencing. I just needed to learn how to fence, I didn’t need to learn how to control my body.
IG: How to be an athlete.
IG: You succeeded despite starting late. You succeeded to reach the ranks of being on an international team. Senior National Team. How is this possible?
CC: Well, I think that when you start later, you have more cognitive awareness than you do when you start younger. Every time one of my coaches would tell me something, I would ask “Well why am I doing this, why am I not doing this instead?” I think the why is much more important than the what or the how. If you can understand the why when you’re doing something, it’s much easier to internalize it. In addition to that, I knew that I was starting much further behind everyone else.
Importance of video analysis
My strategy was to watch as much video as I possibly could and try to understand what the people in the videos were doing and replicate that. Before I fenced, I was actually really good at a video game called Super Smash Brothers Melee and it was kind of the same thing. In high school there was this kid that used to beat me all the time. So I went online and I found videos of people playing the game at like a high tournament level and I would watch and understand what they did and try to do it myself. Before long I was crushing this person and I was going to tournaments and winning them. When I started fencing, I was thinking it worked for me once before, why don’t I try doing it here? The problem was when I went and looked online there was almost no fencing content at all. So my dad suggested “If you think that the way to improve is to watch fencing videos but there are none available, here take the camera and go get some yourself.” That’s the way that started.
IG: It’s a great story. What is your way to explain to a person who is new to video analysis, who is new to fencing videos on the internet, new to your channel? How are they supposed to watch it?
CC: For me it kind of depends on what your goal is. If you’re watching a bout just to try to understand what’s happening, that’s different from trying to understand how someone does something that they like to do a lot. For example when I’m watching a sabre bout, I’m paying really close attention to the steps that the person is taking right in the beginning of the action, and the exact moment that someone does something. Whether it’s too early, whether it’s too late. I go back and watch that moment a few different times from a few different perspectives. One moment, as the fencers are moving close you watch in-between them. Then when you see that this fake worked and this person fell short, go back and watch from the perspective of the person who did the action, and then go back and watch it again from the perspective of the person who was affected by the action. The person on the right might be doing a certain pattern of footwork from this distance and he doesn’t do it at the time that the back foot comes down, right before the lunge starts for example. When you watch a bunch of videos in that way, you start to notice patterns. When you start to notice patterns, you get the experience that those fencers have more quickly than just when you’re doing it for yourself.
An example might be with a really great time to make a fake. At the time, the person thinks that they can just about hit you with the lunge, you make the fake right as the back foot is landing on the advance. For some reason if you go back and look at a lot of videos of fakes to try and pull the person short, you’ll see that that’s the time when that happens. I noticed a bunch of patterns like that and so I made sure when I was fencing I was like, “ All right, I feel like this is what I need to do in order to fill up the time so that when this person is about to hit me and when he is about to be hit and puts his back foot down.” I make a fake and it works. Why shouldn’t it? It works for these people, and if I understand what’s going on, it should theoretically work for me as well. That’s my thought process for analyzing a bout.
For analyzing something specific like a person’s signature move, the first person that I saw doing something really unique that I liked was Nicholas Lopez. His counterattack was really interesting to me. I would see six or seven of them in a bout without the traditional setup that I thought was needed. For me, I understood counterattacks to mean that you want to get the person to chase you. When they feel like they really have to reach to hit you, that’s when you counterattack them. But he wouldn’t do it like that. He would kind of show a fake and then do a counterattack off tempo. In that way, people would expect counterattacks at certain times, and he would break that pattern and counterattack in a moment when they weren’t expecting it. Maybe a tiny bit early or eventually he would use a counterattack to pull people short. The first compilation video that I ever made was I took all of his counterattacks from one tournament and just put them all right next to each other so that I could watch them all in succession and see that really clearly. Then once I started understanding what he was doing, I started adding that to my own game and I found that it worked for me as well. Again, if you understand what the person is doing, if you know the why of it, you can start putting that stuff into your own game effectively. That was my mentality for doing that.
IG: All those videos, the initial videos, were those that you taped?
CC: Mostly. My dad was also very helpful for recording them in the beginning. Then after the 2008 Olympics, I captured a bunch of the streams and so most of what I watched when I was first starting was Olympic footage. If you’re going to learn how to paint, go straight to Picasso, you know.
IG: Well, if you like Picasso.
CC: (laughing) Yeah, exactly.
IG: So, the first thing was capturing the Olympic stream from the TV.
CC: It was NBC. They had all of the streams on their channel, so I copied them and put them onto my computer, cut them up. My coach, Mike Etroposki, did a lot of that work as well. We had them uploaded on my channel for a long time, but then the copyright stuff changed and they ended up taking them down unfortunately. Fortunately there’s still a ton of footage around so it’s not as devastating as it once was to lose that stuff, but it was still kind of annoying.
IG: I get it and it’s unfortunate. But now, you are obviously limited to how much you can do by yourself. What is the source now of all of the videos for you?
Crowdsourcing for Cyrus of Chaos Video Channel
CC: Now when I go to the NACs I don’t have much time to film myself, but fortunately there are a lot of people who are in a position that you’re in where they’ve been watching my videos for a long time and they want to help. Before a tournament I will always post on my Instagram page that I’m looking for people to help me film things. People always come to me and ask “I want to help, what can I film?” I’ll give them a couple of pointers, tell them to do it on their own phone and then send them off to record things. At the end of the day they send me the footage. It’s not just me just doing it anymore, it’s a group effort.
IG: Community effort.
CC: Exactly, and I’m very appreciative. The whole point is that we don’t want to lose the moments that happen at these tournaments. I can’t be everywhere at once. Even when I wasn’t refereeing. I’m very very appreciative of all of the people that have helped me .
IG: There are a lot of matches. There are a lot of great bouts that happen. You obviously do not have time to analyze them all. Do you think that it would be good for the community not only to be providing the footage but also to be helping to analyze?
CC: That would be interesting. One of the reasons I don’t have the same person back every time on my channel to do analysis is because everyone thinks about something differently. You may completely identify with something that John Normile is talking about in an epee bout and not understand Tagliaro’s mindset at all. Or the complete reverse of that. It’s really important to not have just one person doing that, but to have you know a large variety of people.
Path forward for Cyrus of Chaos
IG: Where do you think you will take you channel? What is your goal?
CC: My dream scenario would be that I could somehow pay to do this full time, but also to pay for more travel so that I could go to more tournaments and get more footage from them. Although right now that’s kind of a pipe dream because on my best months I don’t make enough for a plane ticket. It’s not anything that’s going to happen in the near future without some sort of sponsor. My ideal scenario in the future is to be able to use the channel or just the revenue I make from my brand somehow to pay for itself. And then maybe I could start paying the people who are helping me. That would be nice.
IG: Basically the money that you get is mostly from Youtube advertising.
CC: Entirely at this point.
IG: But you’re still doing this. I think about – ten, eleven years?
CC: The first video I put up was in 2007.
IG: Oh, even more. Thirteen years. It’s a lot. For something that doesn’t bring any money. Your name now everybody recognizes. I mean, most of the people know you as Cyrus. I think everyone in fencing that is Cadet and above I believe knows you.
CC: Initially it was just something that I started to do for myself to help me organize my collection. Not only for myself but to put it out there so that other people can appreciate the footage as well. Now that I’m retired from fencing and my goal is no longer to use my footage to improve, it’s to give other people the opportunity to do the same thing that I did and improve by watching the footage themselves. It’s always so cool for me to hear someone say that they were either inspired to reach a high level or something because of my videos. The Junior European Champion messaged me a couple of months ago to tell me that exact thing. That stuff really warms my heart that what I’m doing is having such a positive effect on such a large group of people.
IG: It definitely does. You are talking with one.
CC: Yeah, I’m glad.
IG: How can you keep it up for so many years so fresh and consistent?
CC: I really, I just like the sport a lot. I think it’s the amount of nuance it’s just something that I really enjoy watching at the high level. It’s hard to communicate that to people who don’t have a PhD in fencing, but my goal in doing the Instagram channel is to put little bite sized videos that people who don’t know a lot about fencing can see and appreciate. I think Instagram has been a game changer for me in that respect. Because I can reach a wider audience. I can make the content more easily. Hopefully it’s something that’s drawing people that are not only fencers into the sport.
Bringing fencing to masses
IG: I don’t have an answer. I think like you said, everything it’s about education. You are an educator. How do you see the United States in the last couple decades from the perspective of fencing?
CC: I know it’s definitely growing. I know people have this kind of archaic concept that fencing is this archaic sport based on honor or something, but it’s not. I think since 2012 the USFA membership has doubled from twenty thousand to forty thousand. It’s definitely a continually growing sport.
There is a problem with the commentators. When I was commentating the Ivy League championships for ESPN, the person who was doing commentary with me knew almost nothing about fencing, but he was a really good at commentating. When I would say something about the fencing, he would say “I didn’t quite understand that term that you used. Can you explain what that means?” Which is good because sometimes as someone who is very knowledgeable you don’t necessarily understand when you’re saying something that someone who isn’t knowledgeable wouldn’t understand. Just to have him there to talk about stuff in general and to have talk about fencing specifics when he didn’t understand, it was really good for the audience in general. Because it wasn’t fencers in general watching that, it was parents and relatives. I think that kind of style would work a lot better than having two very knowledgeable people sitting in the commentary box.
IG: That’s a great thing. To pair someone that came from boxing with somebody that understands fencing and can talk in layman terms to him. That would be great.
CC: Again, sometimes I would say something and I wouldn’t even think about it and he would say he didn’t understand it, I was like “Well if you don’t understand it then the viewers probably don’t’ understand it either.”
IG: How do you comment on events on channels like ESPN?
CC: That was the first time I did it for ESPN. I was at World Championships that year and that was the first time I ever did live commentary. It was at World Championships of all places. Then a few months later I did it again in Montreal for the Women’s Saber for the World Cup there. So I’ve done it a total of three times – twice for the FIE and once for ESPN. I was hoping to do it again either at Junior World Championships or NCAAs but unfortunately both of those got canceled because of coronavirus.
IG: What is your wildest dream? To go to the Olympic Games and become a commentator at the Olympic Games?
CC: That’d be pretty cool. I mean, I’m trying to get my FIE license for saber right now, so if I could referee at the Olympics that would be pretty cool as well, but for 2021 I would and am definitely trying to do commentary there, assuming those games even happen.
From fencing movies to fencing sport
IG: Why saber? Why did you pick saber when you started with foil?
CC: When I was looking at the three weapons I just knew that as far as my mental concept of what traditional swordfighting was, it was pirates trying to cut each other and lots of parrying. Like you see in the Princess Bride. In any of these movies it’s always the cutting edge and so when I was looking at the three weapons, I was like saber is definitely the one that I want to do.
IG: Movies were the ones that influenced you into doing saber.
CC: Everyone sees the Princess Bride. It wasn’t really about that, but I just knew that I liked that aspect of it and thinking back to what I’d seen. The only movie that I could think of that I’d seen that was fencing but wasn’t saber was the Parent Trap. You remember when Lindsey Lohan fenced herself? That was foil, but I think that every other time that I’ve seen fencing on the big screen for any amount of time has been saber. Other than like a quick cameo.
IG: I think it’s kind of the first weapon that you mentioned.
CC: It’s the first thing that pops into your head when people talk about fencing or think about it and as someone with no experience at all, so that’s certainly where my mind went. After looking at all three of them I was like “That is the one that I would like to do.”
IG: I was expecting a different answer to tell the truth. I was expecting that you would say that you started late and that you were quite athletic.
CC: You’re thinking of it from the perspective of coach who knows a lot about the sport. I didn’t know anything about the sport. It wasn’t my goal to be on the National Team when I picked up a weapon. I just thought it was a cool sport and I wanted to try it. As time went on and I kept improving, my goals kept changing.
Fencing against those you emulate
IG: When did your goal begin to be more ambitious?
CC: I’m wondering if there was an exact moment. I can’t really think of an exact time. I remember when I qualified for my first World Cup and I was standing in the equipment line and there were like Nicholas Lopez and the whole French team got in line behind me. All of the Italians were right in front of me and I was like, “This is so cool, I want to be in this situation as often as possible and I’m willing to fight to make that happen again.” I made the sixty-four at my first World Cup ever and I was just completely hooked and I just started training a lot harder. I qualified for every World Cup the next season.
IG: By being in the top 12 in the United States.
CC: Actually back then the top 12 got to go World Cups and the top eight got to go to Grand Prix and I made sure that I was in the top eight so I could go to all the Grand Prixs I wanted to.
Honestly, walking around with them was cool but fencing with them didn’t really seem that special. I feel like if you’re going to compete against somebody you can’t idolize them, you just have to get on strip and do your stuff. When I was in the equipment line, yeah that was really cool, but once I was on the strip with them it was just all business.
IG: No name on the back.
CC: Yeah, exactly. I have my experience of those people from when I was watching them and I have my game plan certainly, but if you give too much respect to somebody while you’re fencing them you’re not going to win.
IG: Were you able to really ignore the fact that you learned your moves from them and you learned your tactics from them and they were Picasso for you?
CC: Yeah, I beat a lot of those people. It was really encouraging to have a plan and go into the bout with the person knowing what I did about their strategy and game plan and be able to win or almost win. Stuff like that was super encouraging because I was like “this strategy works! If you just keep doing this, then you could be beating all of these people.”
IG: So you are a living example of how video analysis can actually help up one’s game.
CC: I think so. I definitely wouldn’t have gotten to the level that I got to without doing that. It was a huge aspect of my fencing.
Learning by analyzing
IG: What would be your recommendation for young fencers that start? How would you recommended them to approach their training?
CC: Definitely a lot of trust in your coach. If you don’t feel like you can trust your coach you probably are with the wrong person or you have the wrong mindset. Once you start to understand fencing well enough to watch it and get something out of it, pick someone that does things that you like and try to emulate them as much as possible. For me, the first two videos that I made were the first two things that I tried to emulate. Those two things were Lopez’s counterattacks and his defence in general and Montano’s attack and I watched those two. When I watched Lopez do defence and Montano do his attack, I really enjoyed those things a lot. I watched so much of them trying to understand what it was that made them work and trying to practice those things so that I could do them too.
IG: Koreans were sending their coaches to every tournament with cameras and they were filming everything possible from warmups to the bouts to everything so they didn’t spare any minute. Then they came back and video analyzed and the whole country came out of nowhere with no fencing tradition to become the most dominant country today in saber.
CC: They definitely did the same thing and it works. I was told at one point by one of the Koreans that when they’re learning fencing, and I can only speak for saber, he told me that when they’re learning saber they don’t get taught the right of way rules at all. They’re just told “Watch these videos. See what they’re doing to get touches. Then you do the same thing and you’ll get touches too.” Which makes sense from a certain perspective because in many ways the rulebook is very antiquated. In saber there’s still a rule that if you start your attack with your arm at 135 degree angle or more, you don’t actually have right of way.
What does that even mean? That’s not anything that matters. I don’t have a protractor, I can’t check. I had someone at a high school tournament, he actually said to me “well, wasn’t his arm back behind the 135 degree angle?” I was like – what are you talking about? That has no bearing on the sport at all. Our rules should reflect what’s happening in the sport. By not learning the rules, the Koreans don’t have to deal with that stuff. They just have to learn about the trends and that’s it.
IG: Do you think the US stands a chance beyond the current cohort of National team members to perform well on the world level?
CC: I think that it could but I think there need to be more incentives provided by the USFA within our sport for people who are getting out of college because usually the cutoff for people when they leave college is “Am I good enough to make a National or an Olympic team?” If the answer is no, those people tend to just quit completely. I don’t know exactly what the answer to this would be, but I think it would be a really big boon to the USFA to pay more attention to that specific demographic because those people feel like they’re being neglected. You can see the evidence of that in how many people just leave the sport after they’re done with college. They just put down their weapons and never pick them up again. On a more optimistic note if there’s some way to create professional fencing so that people can get paid to do this sport, that would be amazing.
IG: Let me thank you for this interview. It’s very interesting, very educational. Huge thanks and continue to do what you do despite the low return. I hope that readers will contribute a few cents by bringing you more subscribers to your Cyrus of Chaos Youtube channel.
CC: Thank you. I appreciate the opportunity.
Thank you so much to Andrew Fischl, aka Cyrus of Chaos, for his openness and true insight into the sport. He is a great treasure for fencers, and we know that he has touched the lives of countless of us with his dedication to the sport. This post is printed with his approval on this blog.
If you have not already subscribed to his YouTube channel – go subscribe! Check him out on Instagram too. It’s a wonderful rabbit hole of pure fencing knowledge and inspiration.