The Russian Box Of Death: An in-depth report

For those of you who don’t make a habit of following the pronouncements of our glorious overlords in Switzerland, a quick catch up is due: there are new rules for sabre!  Here’s a short FAQ.

What’s the new rule?

Under current conditions, the fencers start 4 m apart, with their front foot just behind the engarde line (ie: with the fencers just outside “the box”). The Russian Federation, in their infinite wisdom, have decided that things would be much more exciting if we started matches without nearly as much room to move. Here’s the official phrasing:

For sabre, the referee places each of the two competitors in such a way that the back foot of each is 2 m from the centre line of the piste (that is, in front of the “on guard” lines).

This puts the fencers anywhere between 2 m and 3 m apart, depending on the size of your fencers.

We’re calling this the Russian Box Of Death.

personal space
Sabreurs hate personal space, right?

Where will this apply and why do I care?

This is currently a test, which will be carried out at all FIE tournaments, in all age categories. World Cups, Grand Prix, the works. After that, they’ll decide whether to make it permanent.

Application as follows: the tests have to be done after the Olympic Games and until December 31, 2016 and, according to the ad hoc Commission, the Executive Committee will decide if the rule will be applied for the rest of season 2016-2017.

It will also be implemented at all USFA events from August to December.

Why are they doing this?

To reduce simultaneous hits, and to reward “athletes who have sabre repertoire and technique rather than growth and special physical condition”.

Which we think means they’re sick of getting hit with Gu Bon Gil Specials.

Yakimenko thumb
In our brave new world, all lunges will look like this.

How does it work in reality?

We did two tests.

  1. 20 club fencers at Sydney Sabre, ranging in experience from 1 month to 15+ years national and international competition, in a standard-format tournament.
  2. The German Men’s Sabre Team at their training centre in Dormagen, messing around behind their coach’s back.

We filmed as many matches as we could, then cut them down to the starting actions. Data in hand, we sat down to do a frequency count.

And we ran into a problem, which can be summarised here:

Nobody knows how to ref under these conditions yet. Definitions of  “simultaneous” and “attack/counterattack” and “attack on preparation” have taken years to evolve to their current form in the existing rules, and that’s all just been thrown out the window.

But there’s a further problem.

The implementation is going to be based on opaque machinations of the FIE COMEX which are way above our pay grade, and are not likely to be influenced by some stats from a bunch of random Australians. So we’re not going to waste our time.

Instead, we made a video.

If this is what you want from this sport, well, then that’s fine. In our humble opinion, it is garbage, and it produces vile sabre.

But does it actually cut down on simultaneous actions, or make attacks easier to judge?

Maybe? But even if it does, do we really want to sabre to devolve into a series of 1-second exchanges where both fencers jump at each other and the one who jumps slightly faster wins?

Our hypothesis is that any change in the rules leads to a temporary drop in simultaneous actions as fencers experiment with the new conditions. As they figure our the highest probability actions, however, the frequency of them both making the same move at the same time will go back up.

Do you guys have an alternative?

We have several.

1. Leave it alone, and let nature take its course. It’s a continuously evolving arms race, always in flux. The current 4 m simultaneous deadlock is unlikely to be permanent.

2. As proposed by CyrusOfChaos: we go back to the refereeing conventions of the 2009-2010 season, where attack on preparation was enthusiastically called in the 4 m and thus making your opponent’s initial attack fail was substantially easier than it is today, where long trundling “continuous attacks” are favoured.

Check this out if you don’t believe it:

3. As proposed by Tim Morehouse: get radical with it, and get rid of the whole idea of a neutral starting position. We tested it, and it’s awesome.

There you have it, ladies and gentlemen. The Russian Box Of Death is awful, and better options are available. Let’s just hope those in power don’t go ahead with this ugly blight on our sport.