Art of Fencing, Art of Life

Principles of Pool Assignments

Principles of Pool Assignments

There’s something mysterious about the way that fencing pool assignments happen. To uninitiated it’s can feel like a hidden secret that no one really understands. It doesn’t have to be confusing or frustrating though! 

Fencing competitions are not a straight line from start to finish. To narrow the competitors from a wide group to the finalists, there are two layers of competition – the pool rounds and the direct elimination rounds. Everyone knows that there are two parts, but what we’re interested in is making sense of how they work. 

It’s time to demystify the seeding and pool assignment process. We’ll explain how it’s done, why it’s done, and what everyone can and should expect from the process. You will also learn how to manually make correct pool assignments if you ever need to run a competition in your club and have no access to tournament software!

Lucky vs unlucky

Some fencers think that they “lucky” in their pool, falling into a group that has a weaker roster. This group is all fencers who are a seeming walk in the park. It’s no big deal to wade through them and get a top place in the pool.

Other fencers believe to be “unlucky.” They end up in a pool that has nothing but A-rated fencers who just bulldoze the poor “unlucky” fencer and they get knocked down quickly. 

There is no magic here. There is no such thing as a “lucky” or “unlucky” fencer in the pool rounds. It’s not a flip of the coin that lands a fencer in this pool or that pool, it’s a process that’s thoughtful and the same every time.

The reason that a fencer may or may not end up in the pool has everything to do with the rankings that each fencer brings with them to the competition. These rankings are constantly changing, and that’s why the pools are different, even when fencers who meet each other regularly on the competition keep mixing things up through the season. 

There are other considerations in the competition as well. As much as possible, fencing competitions like to prevent two fencers from the same club from going head to head. For two fencers from the same club to fence against each other, it’s a little unfair to everyone as they might fix the score and affect their placement in a DE. Also, while with kids collusion is highly unlikely, the teammates still have experience with each other and they know each other, presumably, Fencing competitions want to give fencers the chance to fence someone new, as this builds growth and is also a little fairer. 

Understanding the process will help fencers to reframe the whole business of chance and “luck” in this competitive world. 

Ranks and pool assignments

The magic number for the pool rounds is seven fencers per pool. Whenever possible, that’s the number that the competition organizers will use for each pool. If the number of participants won’t evenly go into 7, then the organizers will split out the remaining pools evenly to have as close to seven fencers in a pool as they possibly can. 

Let’s walk through an example of pool assignments in a fencing competition.

Imagine we have 26 fencers who are signed up and excited to compete. These fencers are named AA, BB, CC, DD, EE, .., XX, YY, ZZ – for a total of 26 fencers. They rank in alphabetical order to make it easy for us, with AA being the highest and ZZ being the lowest. All of the in-between fencers have a rank order according to alphabetical order or in other words, they are initially seeded in that order (from AA to ZZ).

Let’s also assume that these fencers have all earned different ratings with USA Fencing. These ratings will factor into their seeding in the pools. 

  • AA thru FF are A-rated, 
  • GG is B-rated, 
  • HH, II, JJ, KK, LL are C-rated fencers, 
  • MM and NN are D-rated, 
  • OO, PP and QQ are E-rated fencers 
  • and the rest are unrated or U fencers. 

For the sake of clarity as we walk through this example, we’ll make the assumption that there aren’t any outstanding conflicts between any of these fencers. That means that we don’t have two fencers from the same club who are in this pool. This is only for the sake of simplifying our example, as in the real world there are always fencers from the same club in a pool. 

Now its time to split up our 26 fencers and get them into pools. Pools are optimized for 7 fencers, which means there will be 4 pools: two pools of 7 fencers and two pools of 6 fencers. First, we fill up the bigger pools to reach seven, then split our fencers into smaller pools. 

Imagine the fencers are jellybeans and the pools are bowls. Each pool – 1, 2, 3, and 4, – will hold jellybean fencers up to its number. So pools 1 and 2 will each have seven jellybean fencers, and 3 and 4 will have six. 

From here, we can start to add fencers to our pools. Imagine the pool bowls are sitting in front of you on the table, and you are now starting to put your beans into them. The pool assignment would look like the following for the first four fencers, who are all A rated, if you remember.

Pool 1 – AA

Pool 2 – BB

Pool 3 – CC

Pool 4 – DD

Now each of our bowls has one jellybean fencer in it. Let’s keep going. Remember that our fencers EE and FF both are A rated, while GG is B rated and HH is C rated. Instead of starting with bowl one, now we start on the other side when we place our jellybean fencers in our bowls.

Pool 4 – EE

Pool 3 – FF

Pool 2 – GG

Pool 1 – HH

II, JJ, KK, and LL are all C rated fencers. They go into our bowls like this, snaking back the other way. 

Pool 1 – II

Pool 2 – JJ

Pool 3 – KK

Pool 4 – LL

We keep on going like this, adding jellybean fencers to our bowls by snaking back and forth down our line of bowls. Fencers are added in descending order. MM and NN are D rated, OO and PP are E rated. They go in their bowls according to their rating. 

Pool 4 – MM

Pool 3 – NN

Pool 2 – OO

Pool 1 – PP

After a few more rounds, we’ve gotten through all twenty-six of our jellybean fencers. Now bowls 1 and 2 each have seven jellybeans in them, and bowls 3 & 4 each have six jellybeans in them. 

Here’s what our bowls look like, including their rating.

Pool 1Pool 2Pool 3Pool 4
AA – A-ratedBB – A-ratedCC – A-ratedDD – A-rated
HH – C-ratedGG – B-ratedFF – A-rated
EE – A-rated
II – C-ratedJJ – C-ratedKK – C-ratedLL – C-rated
PP – E-ratedOO – E-ratedNN – D-ratedMM – D-rated
QQ – E-ratedRR – UnratedSS – UnratedTT – Unrated
XX – UnratedWW – UnratedVV – UnratedUU – Unrated
YY – UnratedZZ – Unrated

Notice how incredibly mixed up these pools are! None of them is strictly one kind of fencer, and they all have a really hearty sprinkling of different strengths of fencers. (Now we’ll drop the candy metaphor). 

Pool perspective

Here’s where it gets really interesting. Depending on where you are in the scheme of things, this arrangement could feel very lopsided in one way or another. It’s all about where you are in that hierarchy of mixed rating pools. 

In the example above, if you look at Pool 1 from the perspective of the AA fencer, her pool is the “easiest”. She not only doesn’t have any other A-rated fencers, but she also has no other fencers who are even a level down from her. All of the fencers in her pool are at least two steps below her – a C rating or below. 

In that same fashion, let’s look at things from the perspective of CC fencer. While she is also an A-rated fencer her pool seems “stronger”, with 1 fencer of her level!

But it is important to note that this way the pools are most optimized – in general, the average strength of the pools are more or less the same. 

This is achieved by assigning fencers one after the other in the descending order of their ranking (or, as it is called in the competition, their initial seeding) going from the first pool to the last and returning on each turn in a snake-like fashion, as we illustrated in the example of our competition with AA, BB and … ZZ fencers.

Important to note that while in the above example we assumed that the fencers are seeded according to their ratings, they might also be seeded according to their national point standing in their age category (aka national ranking) or any other method in a local or internal competition. The first to last snake-like pool assignment mechanism does not care what is the seeding principle, it just assumes the fencers are seeded from the first to the last.

Conflict resolution in pool assignments

After this “first stage” seeding there will be a process of conflict resolution. What is conflict in that context? The pool assignment process will try to separate fencers that are somehow connected. For example, if they are teammates representing the same club, or at the national level, when there are many clubs, also if the two fencers come from the same division. In international competitions, such as World Cups or World Championships, a conflict means two fencers from the same country.

While you cannot make such separations in the DE round, since the DE round placements depend solely on the pool results, this means that two teammates, even two siblings or even worse – parent and child – can meet each other and fence to get promoted/eliminated, in the Pool Round such separation is definitely attempted to the maximum possibility.

For example, let’s say that fencers PP and QQ are teammates from club “Golden Blades” and fencers BB and JJ are teammates from the club “Silver Blades”. If we consider only initial seeding, then the assignment above presents two conflicts: 

  • Pool 1 has a conflict with two fencers from the same “Golden Blades” club
  • Pool 2 has a conflict with two fencers from the same club “Silver Blades”

In this case, the pool assignment process will try to switch between QQ and some other fencer of the same rating, in order to preserve the strength of the pools. So QQ, being an E-rated fencer, will be moved to Pool 2 instead of OO, who is also an E-rated fencer, and OO will go to Pool 1. Likewise, JJ will switch places with KK, who is also a C-rated fencer. So the final pools assignment will be: 

Pool 1Pool 2Pool 3Pool 4
AA – A-ratedBB – A-ratedCC – A-ratedDD – A-rated
HH – C-ratedGG – B-ratedFF – A-rated
EE – A-rated
II – C-ratedKK – C-ratedJJ – C-ratedLL – C-rated
PP – E-ratedQQ – E-ratedNN – D-ratedMM – D-rated
OO – E-ratedRR – UnratedSS – UnratedTT – Unrated
XX – UnratedWW – UnratedVV – UnratedUU – Unrated
YY – UnratedZZ – Unrated

Direct Elimination 

The round of Direct Elimination (DE) starts with the seeding that is resulted from the pool round. In this post we talked about the DE seeding in length and I encourage you to read it if you aren’t familiar with this concept.

The human side

Of course, all these calculations are done by a tournament software with its algorithms, but sometimes a Bout Committee still must intervene in the process of pool assignments and manually move some fencers if the conflict wasn’t resolved automatically. In the USA all fencing tournaments are managed by the software called “Fencing Time”, which you are familiar with as you most probably used one of its services called “Fencing Time Live”. In Europe and other countries, there are other tournament software services, the most known of which is En-Garde.

So now you are familiar with the principles of seeding and pool assignment in tournaments.


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1 Comment

  1. R

    Assigning clubmates into separate pools prevents collusion.

    Two other formats are local “Sharks & Minnows” and multiple pools/DEs Sharks & Minnows pools separate fencers into strongest and weakest, then Sharks winners filling the DE tableaux’ top and the Minnows the bottom. Multiple pools/DEs is either ranking pools, seeding based on those results and pools again A.K.A. “Brazilian”, or national epee two-pool for more than 203 fencer-events. In this format, the top 34 fencers receive a bye into second-round pools, with the remainder fencing pools and DEs to L16s.

    International World Cups don’t use pools, using points to seed.

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