There aren’t two people in a sabre bout. There are three. And the third person is the most powerful: no matter what you do, you can’t beat the referee.
The referee is the ultimate arbiter of a sabre bout. They make the game. They alone decide what happened. And their decisions can seem capricious, even corrupt, favouring the more famous or familiar fencer. Many a sabre bout ends in a shouting match, not between the people who have just finished their bout, but between them and their supporters against the referee — usually from the losing camp, but on some occasions from the winning one as well.
Refereeing is the tragic flaw of sabre fencing. Part of the game is to play the referee. Yell at the weak ones, suck up to the strong ones, flatter liberally, and guide the narrative of the bout in your favour. Spend enough time in a sabre competition and you will see the glut of grandstanding gestures, the Premier-league soccer levels of dubious leg injuries, the abject inability of any fencer to tie their shoelaces properly, and the hitherto unrecorded phenomenon of sock elastic wilting in the presence of swords.
My grandcoach, veteran of a time when Soviet fencers were discriminated against, disliked such tricks. He was an ardent advocate of the single-light point. Their Russian descendants, of course, later rose to be the team most discriminated for in the sport. A decade later, I heard my grandcoach’s attitudes echoed by the Koreans who led their team to the top of the rankings. That was the era of Won Woo-young’s gleeful madcap stop cuts. In time, the Koreans also became fixtures in the fencing firmament, too good for even the “Russian Box of Death” and cutoff time changes to dislodge. The referees got used to them, and they got used to the referees.
Still, I have rarely seen a group of people more loathed and feared in sport than sabre referees. They are treated as the lowest caste in the fencing world; untouchables, engaged in essential but excretable labour, while subjected to snide remarks from the athletes and coaches who rely on their services yet also look down upon them as the ones who never made it.
Only at the top of the sport are referees given any measure of the respect they are due. It gets worse the further down you go, down the pyramid of talent and ability until you hit the rump of coddled private school boys who infest the bottom rungs, as contemptuous of the referees who make their game possible as they are secure in their ignorance of how to fence.
Such attitudes only hurt them. Referees are gods in bouts. Their role, as in other sports, is to enforce the rules of the game. But it is more than that in sabre. The referee passes judgement upon the fencers, ruling whether their actions were valid, and which take precedence in the exchange. The referee decides who gets the point. They decide who wins.
Because in sabre, the referee doesn’t just enforce the rules of the game. They make the game. It is a foolish fencer who thinks that they can defy the referee. A truly corrupt referee cannot be beaten; they have the means to award the bout to whoever they like, no matter which lights turn on or not on the scoreboard. But such referees are few, and mostly sprinkled in the amateur leagues. The vast majority of referees are professionals, in manner if not in paycheck, dedicated to their task of making sabre fencing possible.
This task is difficult. The referee has to apply the rules of the game to the reality of combat. These rules, codified in stilted text on hundreds of pages in the official rulebooks, must be interpreted in the moment to the motions of the fencers in their innumerable forms and combinations. Every ruling has to be explained. Any ruling can be appealed. Each ruling — by the top referees, recorded in videos — becomes part of the precedent for the rest of the profession to follow: if you see this action in the future, make this call.
In a past life I worked in the justice system and saw its parallels with refereeing. These extended beyond the obvious — referee as judge, fencers as plaintiffs, rulebook as legislation, precedents as…precedents — to the dynamics of the whole game: the contest between the referee and the fencers, and — hovering on the sidelines — the coaches.
Because if referees are here to make the game, then coaches are here to break it. They can do so in the open, by intimidation and coercion. They can play the meta-game, in politics, changing the rules to favour the attributes of their fencers over those of their rivals.
But most often the coaches’ work is done long before the competition, in the privacy of their own fencing clubs. There they scour through notes and videos to find blind spots and loopholes in the referees’ interpretations of the rules, exploits that they can make tangible in their lessons and drills to give their fencers an edge over their opponent.
Now I am a coach, married to a referee. I think of sabre bouts as being just part of the much wider game being played in sabre fencing: coach versus coach, and the coaches versus the referees.
The primary role of the sabre referee is to judge the actions of the fencers and award points. They have to parse the actions they see in split-second resolution into the simplified phrasing of the exchange: attack, no; attack, touch; attack, parry riposte; etc. All other aspects of the role, like enforcing technical rules and issuing penalty cards, are secondary. The sabre referee has to make quick and accurate decisions, over and over again, to keep the game going.
One learns to be a good referee by watching videos of other good referees, then refereeing under supervision. It is not possible to definitively describe the technicality of refereeing in words, any more than it is possible to faithfully render in the mind’s eye the precise movements of a dancer from a theatre review. If you are a student at Sydney Sabre, you will learn most of your refereeing from doing it in the club and at club competitions, being mentored by instructors, watching the videos we compile, and passing the tests we set you at gradings.
So this article is not about teaching you the mechanics of how to referee. It is about teaching you how the game works and how it can be broken so you know what to look out for when the fencers you oversee try to pull the proverbial wool over your eyes.
Recall that there are three ways to score in sabre. Hit first by more than the cutoff time. Trick your opponent over their back line. And, finally, to hit with priority.
Priority is the Pareto principle of sabre refereeing, the cause of most of the difficulties. And the majority of these involve deciding who gains priority first in the box. As a rule, the priority goes to the first fencer to attack. But how does a referee decide this in the chaos of the bout, when both fencers are trying their hardest to hide their mistakes and ardently profess their claims to priority?
I will describe in this article the most common deceptions I have seen in my time in sabre. Some of these deceptions I have used; others I had used against me. This is by no means an exhaustive list — like video games, players keep coming up with new exploits and referees keep needing to nerf them with patches to the rules and conventions.
The oldest hacks were taught to me by hoary old-school coaches when I was a novice. Turn your sabre edge forward as soon as the exchange starts, they said, and move your hand slightly forwards — this will show the referee that you have started your attack. Then hit your opponent when you get into range, whether that is immediately because they have also come forward, or after you have chased down their retreat.
You haven’t committed to attacking at any particular distance, so you can just keep grinding down your opponent for countless “simultaneous actions” until they break away and you run them down, or some accidental clash or parry in the box throws the point to one of the fencers. I suspect this tactic tarnished the reputation of amateur Australian sabre for decades.
When referees wised onto this “hand priority” trick, fencers switched to darting the front foot forwards instead, “foot priority”. You still occasionally see referees that fall for this one, in the benighted recesses of the sport.
The trick to seeing through this hack is to look at something the fencers can’t fake: acceleration. A fencer who has committed to an attack, accelerates; a break in the acceleration indicates a break in the attack.
The “hand priority” and “foot priority” fencers usually accelerate off the line at high speed, then cruise, unwilling to accelerate further to finish their attack until they see their opponent come within range. That’s what allows them to chase after a fleeing opponent; they aren’t intending to hit their opponent so much as trundle into them.
I never used those hacks much, but I did spam the next one: the attack-on-preparation. I would make a quick advance off the line, then cruise — not pause, that was too obvious — and watch the opponent. If they closed distance, I would lunge with a thrust to skewer them through; if they hesitated or ran, I would chase them down off the cruise. I later used a more sophisticated version, now standard practice in little kids clubs around the world, which added a third option: retreating away if the opponent launched a very fast attack off their line.
This “watcher” game served me well for many years. It worked as long as the referee gave me at least simultaneous actions when I lunged, and as long as I could react in time. It remains a staple in the B and C grades of the sport, where referees award the attack to the most sudden lunges, especially those that hit with the tip. It has lasted so long because it is so difficult to parse: how does a referee decide whether this particular exchange was a continuous attack versus attack-on-preparation — point to the left — or just an advancing fencer still in preparation versus the attack-on-preparation — point to the right?
This is the moment when “the referee must work out what the fencers tried to do,” as a former FIE arbitrage member said to me, during referee training. “You reward the fencer who achieved what they set out to achieve, and you punish the fencer who did not.”
Of course the referee cannot read the minds of the fencers, so they must infer the fencers’ intentions from what they can see. Acceleration helps, as does distance, and rhythm — all these provide clues as to whether a fencer intended to launch their attack at the correct time and distance, or only decided to do so when they saw their opponent closing in. But even then it is not easy: I have seen plenty of A-grade fencers who looked like they were in mid-lunge only to convert the action into a chase in apparent defiance of the laws of physics.
The worst of these hackers was a kid from the wrong side of the tracks in Busan by the name of Gu Bon-gil. He burst onto the scene with the — so far — ultimate exploit of the cruise/attack ambiguity in the late 2000s, with an initial advance so quick and with such momentum that his subsequent lunge would carry him past his opponent’s start line 4 metres away.
To this he paired such precise bladework that he could hit the oncoming opponent seemingly with a direct attack, yet still be able to disengage and extend his lunge to reach his opponent when they attempted to pull away.
But that wasn’t all. Gu was so flexible that he could land almost in splits, tucking his lithe form behind the shadow of his sabre guard to counter-parry on the rare occasions when his opponents could muster a parry riposte. And, to the continuing ire of everyone who ever fenced him, he would keel over in splits to stop the bout when neither his short attack nor extension managed to hit.
Though you will probably never referee Gu Bon-gil, you may referee one of the thousands of mini-Gu’s who copied every one of his moves and tics, right down to the post-lunge jazz hands and the “baiyo” mating call.
It is comparatively easy to work out whether these mini-Gu’s attacks really are simultaneous, or whether one clone attacked first. Working out whether one’s extension succeeded against the other’s fall-short, assuming both of them hit, is more difficult.
Use acceleration and distance as your guide. The first to accelerate gets the attack. If both accelerate, split on distance. If one extends their attack against the fall-short, ask yourself: did the attack hit at the end of their acceleration, or afterwards? That will tell you whether it was a valid compound attack, attaque-composee, or whether the extension missed initially and ‘remised’ (or ‘redoubled’) without priority.
Don’t use hand-first or foot-first or foot-landing-first to give you pat answers. Know the game and infer intentions like a pro; leave the rules-of-thumb to the dilettantes.
Refereeing outside the box involves much less deception but far more chaos. In principle, priority once gained by one fencer remains with them, the attacker, until they miss their attack, get parried, or their blade receives a beat from the defender. Then priority passes to the other fencer, until they too lose it and it passes back, and so on, until someone hits.
The problems for the referee here are deciding when someone has missed their attack and what constitutes a successful parry or beat. This can be difficult even when video replay is available. It isn’t always obvious when fencers miss their attacks. And blade actions like beats and parries often get executed by both fencers at the same time. Is this one fencer’s parry or the other fencer’s beat?
The precedents in sabre fencing circa 2020 have set the convention that attackers usually retains priority, even if they make blade actions and start-stop dashes that could be construed as being missed attacks. The attacker can even move backwards and retain priority, provided they did so to avoid the defender’s counterattack or beat.
Only when an attacker truly looks like they have gone for the attack and missed does convention rule it as a missed attack. And even then, priority does not necessarily pass to the defender. The defender has to take up priority by attempting to attack; otherwise, the original attacker can pick up priority again with a ‘reprise’.
Use precedent as your guide for these rulings, and remember the core principle: did the fencer achieve what they set out to achieve? Did the attacker intend to attack, and miss? Or did they intend to feint? Did the defender intend to trick the attacker into missing their attack, and did they intend to take over the priority in time?
The same principle applies to beats. By the rulebook definition, a beat is valid when made to the distal two-thirds of the opponent’s blade (the foible). But it is invalid — and judged to be their opponent’s parry — when made to the proximal third of the blade (the forte).
It is sometimes possible to work out exactly where a beat has occurred on the blade on video replay. But it might not help much. What if both fencers are moving their blade around, or attempting to beat at the same time?
You will just have to judge based on intention and result. Did both the attacker and defender really intend to beat, or was one of them intending to do something else — a counterattack, perhaps, or an evasion, or a feint attack — which just looked like a beat?
Results matter. Which beat was stronger? Correct beats tend to knock the target blade off-course; incidental beats tend to glance off. But even here be wary of what you see — some coaches teach their students make pre-emptive beats and hit hard to hide the impact of a defender’s beat.
Hard hits also make it difficult to judge parries. “The parry is the defensive action made with the weapon to prevent an offensive action arriving,” the rulebook states, but it makes no comment on how long it needs to prevent the offensive action for. For a moment? A second? The cutoff time? The days where sabre fencers were taught to hit with light touches, easy to block completely, are long past. Nowadays, even little kids are taught to angulate their hits around parries and the increasing adoption of ultra-flexible maraging sabre blades has made whipovers a constant threat.
The convention these days is that anything which “prevents the arrival of that attack by closing the line in which that attack is to finish,” as per the rulebook, is a valid parry.
This definition is forgiving. Aron Szilagyi, he who makes unerring beat parries like he has a magnet in his sabre, has spent his career pushing the limits of how lightly one can deflect an attack and still get the parry called in his favour. The convention is that his parries are valid.
His intention, after all, was to close the line but for a moment — and he succeeded.