“Never hit to head,” the Paladin advised me, “because it’s too far and too obvious. [When you’re in high line] hit them in the chest or belly instead. Or even from underneath.”
“It’s just a game,” the Batman said, while showing us how to cheat in rock-paper-scissors. “I attack…sorry, I chase. I chase…sorry, I parry. I parry…sorry, I attack.”
Of course, hardly anyone admits to it. So the only deceptions you get to pick up are the obvious ones you see from the sidelines, and from other fencers griping — usually after they have lost.
“The first time I ever fenced the Italian Stallion,” the Paladin said, “I was a cadet. It was at training camp. Three times I beat him. I was so happy. Then I fenced him in the competition and he completely destroyed me. He saw every one of my moves in training and gave me none of his.”
“The Space Lizard was always the favourite,” griped the Dropout. “He was fast and flexible, but mostly he was devious. Coach makes everybody go running, then goes away. But the Lizard and his friends rest. When coach comes back, they are fresh, everybody else tired. Then we fence. The Lizard never lost. He always lies. If he thought you might win, he would pretend to be injured and pull out.”
“When he isn’t being a …” the Old Zorro said, “He’s amazing. Look at how he makes it look like he’s about to flunge, then makes a jump parry instead.”
Then there was K-pop. Everybody knew he was a punk after the bout where he stopped right at the start the start of the exchange, then hit the world #1 single-light with the counterattack. One draw cut later, the #1 was 14-12 down and pissed. So pissed that when K-pop pretended to start early, the #1 actually did. The referee red carded both of them. K-pop won, 15-13.
It was K-pop’s debut on the circuit.
But he misfired as often as he scored. He’d get stuck trying to do what he wanted. No matter how many times it failed. He just couldn’t help himself.
No so with Dadbod. No one could understand how he was still at the top of the rankings. He didn’t look like much from the side, or as the mean girls say, too much. But it was like he knew what you were about to do. Or, more disturbingly, could make you do whatever he wanted.
Tricking your opponent is essential in sabre. It is just as essential to do so in the opening phase, within the box, as it is to do so when you are on defence.
The reason is that most opponents will watch you, to some degree, as they make their own actions into the box. They won’t just guess and commit. This is partly instinct, and partly because of how they were trained to fence.
Go into any fencing club in the world and look at their lessons and drills. Take away the superficial differences — lunge like this here, hit like that there — you may notice that all the exercises follow a similar pattern. Student makes an initial movement, a ‘preparation’, coach gives a signal, then the student makes the correct response.
Preparations come in all forms. In Busan, they favoured the no-nonsense advance. In Seoul and Budapest, the step-bounce. I saw a coach in Padua teach the double-advance preparation to a cohort of tiny tykes, got lectured about how this was the best preparation on Jeju island, and was sent a video of Nazlymov teaching his grandkids the same thing. A whole generation of New York fencers picked up the skitter preparation from their local heroes; fan boys elsewhere did the same for Gu’s vault-advance and whoever invented the short-lived pseudo-ballestra hop. My Soviet grandcoach preferred the advance-step, but that was old-school even by the time I got to the scene. Their Russian descendants use other preparations, like the glide step, instead.
This diversity of forms extends to bladework as much as it does footwork: blade up, blade down, blade forward, blade back, and every variation in between.
The specific motions of a preparation are not important; just about anything can be made to work. What is important is whether the preparation succeeds in what it is meant to do. And every preparation is meant to do three things: hide your intentions, give you time to see your opponent’s intentions, and to deceive them into doing what you expect.
The first part is to hide your intentions. One way is to make a preparation that enables you to do at least two completely different actions, so your opponent can’t infer what you are about to do. For example, I make the same preceding advance when I intend to lunge for the attack-on-preparation and when I intend to pull away for the fall-short.
Some coaches go so far as to insist on the same preparation for all actions that you intend to execute. I think that’s a great idea, if you can do it. I can’t; I always give a tiny tell for some combinations.
The second part is to see what your opponent intends to do. The more time you have, the easier it is to see what they are doing. The further away you are, the easier it is for you to do something about it. The problem, of course, is that the longer you wait, the more likely it is that your opponent will just hit you first. And the further away you are, the more likely your opponent will read your intention — to wait and see — and run you down.
Your preparation therefore has to be in roughly the same timing, or rhythm, as your opponent’s. Too late, and your opponent hits you first. Too early, and you have to commit to your action while your opponent is still watching and ready to respond; or you keep waiting, and your opponent hits you first. It helps to be a little earlier than your opponent, in most cases, so you can initiate your action before they do. But not a lot earlier.
Your preparation also has enter the box deep enough to convince your opponent that you intend to attack. How deep is deep enough? Depends on your opponent. Some opponents need a lot of convincing. Others are so jittery that you can stay well back. Hit them a few times and see what convinces them. The more times you hit them first, the more jittery they get.
This, of course, is the basis for the ‘grind’ game, also known as the tactic to “make simultaneous”. The idea is that you make a preparation in the same rhythm as your opponent, then lunge to hit. This gives you your opponent’s rhythm and attack distance, and trains them in your own. Then when your opponent deviates from their usual rhythm or distance — perhaps they slow their rhythm to chase, or enter the box less deeply before their fall-short — you can sense what they are about to do, and respond accordingly.
These reactive tactics work well if you’re the better fencer: taller, faster, quicker in your reactions, superior in your technique. It also relies on your opponent playing the same game. If you’re not the better fencer, or you don’t want to play that game, then you must deceive your opponent.
Before you do so, you must guess what their intention will be. Fortunately for you, there aren’t that many options to choose from. At its most basic, a fencer has only three things they can do at the start of an exchange: attack short, attack long, and defend. Even the best fencers in the world only have a few variations of each of these moves in their repertoires; short attacks to three or four targets, long attacks to a few more, then a clutch of parries and exotic things like draw cuts. The frequency distribution of these moves is almost certainly non-linear; one or two will get spammed, the rest used sparingly, with a rump of flashy panic moves like jump 2.
What if your opponent doesn’t have an intention, other than to watch what you do first and respond? Even better. All you need to do then is to make a convincing deception; no guesswork required. This is where the common coaches’ exhortation to “make your opponent do what you want” comes from. You can’t make anyone do anything in sabre, but you sure can trick them into doing what they wanted to do anyway. And if what they wanted to do was to follow your lead, great!
Now your preparation should not look the same regardless of what you intend to do. It should look like you are about to do something stupid that your opponent is ready for. Then you switch to your true action to win.
Say you’re up against a tall punk. You’re pretty sure they want to hit you in preparation. You infer that they want to see you blunder in with a long, overshooting attack. For kicks, and to show off to their not-girlfriend on the sidelines, they probably want to headshot you to boot.
So you give it to them. In you rush, sword down and back, head forward, a ready sucker to be macked. When you see the start of their triumphant lunge, parry riposte. Sometimes it works two or three times in a row before they get pissy and try to run you down. Then you can pretend to run away, and headshot them instead. And so on.
It works for the “make simultaneous” guys as well. They, of course, are watching for your attack and trying to match rhythm and distance with it.
Remember the earlier mention of how you “train” your opponent to know your rhythm and distance? This is where it comes in. Give them an attack. Maybe one time you swing wide so they can hit you first, but you parry them at the last moment. Perhaps another time you attack a little early, so they finish earlier and shorter than usual, short enough that you can make them miss. Or you finish so early that they decide to make you miss instead, and you run them down before they realise it was a trap.
What if your deception doesn’t work? Figure out why. Maybe you just guessed wrong; you can’t make your opponent do something they don’t want to do. Maybe your deception didn’t look right. Or maybe your deception looked right, but they didn’t respond the way you wanted.
I get that last one a lot. It goes something like this: my student assumed that their opponent wanted to “make simultaneous”. So my student made their deceptions accordingly, like pretending to make a short attack to set up the fall-short. Their opponent, of course, was doing no such thing. They would respond to the short attack by parrying, then take over the priority.
I would advise my student to keep the preparation, ditch the fall-short, and chase down the opponent instead. Their error was not in the deception but in their reaction. The opponent was falling for the deception; they just weren’t doing what my student expected. My student needed to make the correct action for the situation, not the action they wanted to do.
As my grandcoach used to say, it doesn’t matter what you want to do. It only matters what you need to do.