Fencing is chess on the feet, or so they say. Many parents, and many novice fencers, are clueless as to what that means. It’s a conversation that I have with a lot of new parents and new fencers because they don’t really understand the importance of thinking in fencing. It isn’t like other sports, it’s truly a unique venture. With the right thinking, you can outplay opponents who are physically stronger than you are. This aspect isn’t always easy to explain, but my hope is to break it down here in a way that allows you to see the tactical side of fencing, particularly thinking on your feet.
Strategy in Rock Paper Scissors
To make it easier, let’s start with something familiar. Kids everywhere in the world play rock paper scissors. It’s everywhere! To understand the tactical side of fencing, let’s look at it through the lens of this simple game.
Just in case you aren’t familiar, here’s how rock paper scissors is played. Two players are positioned next to each other. On a count of three, they draw one of three symbols with their hand – either “rock”, “paper” or “scissors”. Each symbol beats one other symbol. If one player draws rock and another paper, then paper “wins”, since it can wrap a rock. If, however, the second player draws scissors then rock wins since it can smash and destroy the scissors. If the two players draw scissors and paper, then the scissors win since they can cut the paper. In the case of both players drawing the same symbol the result is a tie and the match has to be replayed.
That’s the simple outline of the game, of which the simplicity is a major reason for its widespread popularity. There are a myriad of variations on this game that can include expanding it to more than two players and other symbols, but for our purposes we’re going to keep it simple.
Now for some straightforward strategy. Suppose I drew rock and my opponent drew scissors. I win this round. In order to win the next round, I must predict correctly what my opponent will draw. I must start thinking like him or her. I think about how they drew scissors, and how that might affect what they choose to draw on the next round. What is going on in their mind? One of the options for the next round is that they will think that since I beat them with the rock, I will draw a rock again, hoping they will do scissors.
The idea of repeating the same strategy because it worked makes a lot of sense. By this logic, they need to do paper to beat my rock. Now as I am following their thoughts, I am basically assuming that they will go for paper, thus I will draw scissors to be able to beat them again. Of course, they might also think that I will not do rock again, since it is too obvious. I might then conclude that they will change from scissors to rock to either draw a tie or in the hope that I will do scissors myself in the second draw. I’m realizing now that when I write this I sound just like that scene with the poison from my favorite fencing movie, “The Princess Bride”.
That is basically the way the thinking goes. What’s fascinating is that the more you play the game and practice it, the better you become at “predicting” your opponent’s draw.
Parallels between Rock Paper Scissors Strategy and Fencing
Perhaps surprisingly, when we go to fencing we can think in parallel terms.
On the strip, you need to predict what your opponent will do in every moment. That’s the first skill. For example, think about how you got this last touch. What was the action that you took and what was the action that your opponent took? We can start with a simple example – you tried to go in for a direct attack and you got into a simple flat parry 4. You can safely assume then that the next time, if you do a simple direct attack, then your opponent should take parry 4 again. Instead of going in straight, you reason out that you should disengage around their parry 4.
You might also get into the mind of your opponent and think that they will make assumptions about you, perhaps that next time you will try to disengage. They could be thinking about different ways to parry instead, for example, a circular parry instead of flat one, to catch you in the disengage. If you assume that would be what they will do, then you can change your action accordingly.
Do you see how much this recalls the “rock paper scissors “ game?
Add to this a whole slew of other actions, both from the technical perspective as well from the situational perspective. Just a few possibilities are:
- many ways to attack
- many different sectors to target
- many ways to defend and counter-attack
- many different speeds of everything.
Beyond even these, there are situational moments that can happen in a bout. Is whatever action that is happening going at the beginning of the bout, the end of the bout, in the middle of the period, or it is happening during the priority minute? There is also the dimensional aspect, the relative space in which it is going on. Is this happening in the middle of the strip? On their end? On your end? Whatever it is actually should not always be preceded by a stop call from a referee. The actions and the decisions oftentimes happen during that actual fencing time when you continue to fence.
For example, if you take a look at the first example when your opponent successfully parried your attack, but suppose they did not succeed to score a riposte. The bout is not stopped and you need to continue. Now, without stopping, you must decide your next action. There isn’t a break for you to mull over what you’re doing and what you’re missing. You have to do it all on the fly, roll with the rhythm of the bout and learn to observe and react in real time.
What happens with time is that you get more and more experience. You become a faster thinker and quicker analyzer. It feels like you’re developing intuition, and yes could conceivable call in that. However it’s not just intuition, it’s experience.
Another point to make note of is that in fencing and in rock paper scissors, you are going to lose sometimes, no matter how good you are. No one wins every fencing bout, no one goes without ever getting a touch against them. Not even the best fencers in history have been impenetrable. A certain percentage of the time in both of these, you are going to lose. Learning to roll with that and still keep thinking, well that is a skill and a major point of winning in the long term.
It’s a trap!
The next stage is even more important in fencing. Instead of “guessing” what your opponent will do next, you should force them to do what you want them to do, by setting a trap.
Let’s consider the same simple example from before. You know that when you go in for an attack, your opponent will try to defend by taking a parry and responding with a riposte in order to get a touch on you. Instead of going for this attack for real, you pretend to attack and wait for them to riposte. When they do riposte, you take a counter parry and only then go for a real touch against them. Human reaction is habit driven, and you can in this way guess with a great deal of accuracy about what the habit of the opponent will be and so play that to your favor.
Here it is important that your “fake” action really looks like real action, one that is driven by real intention. This is how you will provoke their real parry and riposte. Your attack should look and feel like the real deal to them. It must be threatening enough to execute the riposte. This is called “second intention” in fencing. It is when your first action is not the action you plan to score with, but the action you plan to provoke your opponent to respond in a way you want them in order to execute your real action.
It is very important for fencers to develop a rich repertoire of their techniques. It’s only by having that deep well of possible attacks and defenses that fencers are able to execute it all quickly and to think about it in the split seconds that are required. The techniques that are being relied upon here must be exercised with perfection. When you need to execute this disengage or that parry, you have no time to think about how to do it! The whole process happens in the body. All of the body. From the toes to the fingers to the top of the mask, all the way down to the tip of the blade. It has to follow through organically.
In this way, it is similar to a master piano player, who does not think about which note to play. The fingers push the piano keys without thinking, and then the music follows in a coherent and powerful way. The same is true of a good fencer, who must execute the elements of technique that they need to use without thinking. The rhythm of a fencing match requires the automaticity of a professional pianist playing a sonata.
Simple keys to a simple sport
There is no secret to success in fencing, just as there is no secret to success in rock paper scissors.
In developing a laser view sense for tactical fencing, you need practice, practice, practice. If you do it enough, you will become intuitive about it. Just like in rock paper scissors you have to practice, practice, practice to get that intuition. With both of them, you need lots of opponents in a variety of settings. A person who wants to master the game of rock paper scissors, needs to play against many opponents. On the train, at school, with siblings in the back seat of the car, with the barista at the coffee shop, everywhere. More practice means a better outcome! In fencing, you need to try your skill in a wide variety of environments.
- fencing competitions
- open fencing events
- private lessons
- fencing camps and clinics
All of these are important to development in fencing! Don’t discount how important it is to keep on working on your fencing in different settings. Doing this will tremendously increase your tactical abilities, all through experience and observation. Running drills and at home practice are important too, but nothing is as good for a fencer as fencing an opponent. You learn to adapt and grow within the match more and more each time you do it.
Thinking in fencing is critical. It is the center of our sport! The fast thinking that is developed in fencing doesn’t just stay there on the strip though. It crosses over to lots of other areas of life too. When you learn to think fast, you are able to analyze and predict complex situations everywhere. In your daily life, in school, at work, and even in important situations like driving your car. Training hard, getting in those private lessons whenever possible time-wise and budget-wise, going to as many fencing competitions as possible, and all of those practical training situations are central to developing the thinking skills you need. It’s also very helpful to watch high level fencers and to try to decipher their actions and understand their thinking. You can learn a lot from simple observation, on video and in person.
The goal is not just to be the fastest and most agile person on the strip, but to be the smartest person on the strip. It’s not a gamble or a game of chance to win at fencing. It’s a methodical and reasoned outcome. While fencing is far more complicated than rock paper scissors, they both cause us to think fast and react if we are going to win!
Rock beats scissors because it dulls scissors – not smashes them. But thanks for the “Princess Bride” link. At this weekend’s tournament, a last-minute 15th fencer entry wore her black coach’s glove, so we joked about the six-fingered man.
Hi R, this is a a good example in culture differences: back in Russia the rock was smashing the scissors, but it seems that American culture is more gentle 🙂