Week 9: The Line

We called him Bond.

Sydney Sabre had just opened its doors for the first time to the public, and we had no coach. I wasn’t confident in my abilities to teach anyone other than people fresh off the street. I barely knew how fencing worked myself. I called myself and every other staff member I trained an “instructor”. Coach was something different. Someone with real expertise. Not me.

But none of the other sabre coaches in Sydney, few as they were, wanted to work with us. After all, we were the rebel club — founded by a couple of grad students in their spare time, with some very strange ideas about who to teach, and what to teach, and in what order. We even looked like the bad guys — our club colours were red and black. Also we kept playing the devil’s music: trance at the start, then later K-pop, and metal on weekends.

So we put up a job ad on the internet. Anyone in the world could apply. And they did. We got resumes from Los Angeles to London, from St Petersburg to Singapore. In the end we settled on Bond because he was the only one who seemed to appreciate our situation — we were in way over our heads.

He was at loose ends himself. He’d recently retired from his day job as a police superintendent, and needed a bit of a working holiday to wash away the accumulated detritus from decades of public service. His wife — his one-time superior officer, as far as we could gather — stayed back in the home country while she worked through the intricacies of her own retirement. The plan was for her to join him in Sydney if things worked out.

As it turned out, Bond would return home after six months; the missus got a promotion, they moved into a castle, and he ended up building his own dream club on a heath while she ran operations from an armoured mobile command centre.

But for the six months that Bond was with us, he was amazing. Literally amazing. It was like watching a magician. Bond’s schtick was tricks. He might have been part Time Lord, for all the horrible temporal hacks that he inflicted on us. He used them to hide what he was planning, hit you in between footsteps that you didn’t know you had, and parry in circumstances that were clearly impossible.

In quiet moments, over a scotch — our Bond stuck close to his roots — he would regale us with stories of his finest student: a future teammate of mine who had “the worst timing in the world”, so bad that he would confound his opponents into quivering mounds of impotent rage.

Bond himself could still fence. When he did so, he barely moved. He didn’t need to. He could somehow inveigle his way out of whatever move you tried to nail him with. He’d graciously explain how he did it too, in much the same accent as his namesake, and with whom he shared a passing resemblance, save for his unfortunate habit of popping his denture in and out while he spoke.

The move I shall always remember him for is the point-in-line. Bond loved it. He loved it even though he loathed the rule. What a fantastic opportunity it gives you, he would say. He taught us to set up the move with a small retreat and advance, so both the opponent and referee could see that we had held the line for the two fencing “tempo” it required to be valid. Then he taught us to extend the sword arm only as much as we needed to, just enough for the opponent to think that line had been established. And how to hit, and disengage to hit — but not for long. That wasn’t the point of line, he would pun.

The point was to trick the attacker into doing something stupid. The point in line was a lie. From it, Bond would stop cut and parry, get beat and counter-beat, and instil so much fear into the attacker that after a few exchanges Bond really could just hit with the line. With some students, Bond would goad them so much with the line that they would just take a potshot at his wrist then take their chances on the defence.

After Bond left us, we tried to use point in line. But we couldn’t do it as well as he could. And besides it wasn’t all that important; when the cutoff time was 125 milliseconds, most of the defender’s actions could freak out the attacker. Line was just one more technique; a bit old-fashioned, not a terrible move, but by no means necessary.

Then in 2016, the FIE changed the cutoff time to 180 milliseconds. Now the attacker could kamikaze the defender all the way down the piste. Once the attacker built up enough speed, they were nigh on unstoppable.

So the defender had to slow them down first. They couldn’t run. They had to hold the line. And thus the point-in-line made its comeback on the circuit.

***

“The point in line position,” the FIE Rulebook states, “is a specific position in which the fencer’s sword arm is kept straight and the point of his weapon continually threatens his opponent’s valid target.” By convention the fencer’s sword arm has to be pronated — knuckles up — and the position held for some time before it becomes “established”.

How long this is varies from referee to referee and from fencer to fencer. My coaches always told me to keep it for at least two “fencing tempo”, the time to make two actions like advance or retreat. The longer you hold the point in line position for, the more likely the referee will consider it established.

Once established, you can move forwards and backwards but you cannot attack or move your arm out of position without “breaking” your point in line. Your opponent can also break your line by hitting it with their blade, usually with a beat but occasionally with a bind. Then you have to go through the process of establishing it all over again.

But so long as you have line established, you take precedence over priority. That is, if your opponent hits you, and you manage to impale them with the sabre tip in your point in line — cuts or glancing slashes don’t count — you get the point, even if they have priority. This is why the point in line is almost universally deployed by the defender; there isn’t much reason to use it otherwise.

The point in line remains valid so long as you keep your sword-arm in position, with a couple of caveats. You are allowed to disengage around  your opponent’s attempts to beat, provided you keep your sword-arm straight and your sabre continues to threaten your opponent’s target. If you move your sabre too far out of the way, you break your point in line.

If this all sounds vague and subject to the vagaries of your referee, you are absolutely right. It is vague and subjective. It is entirely up to them as to whether you get awarded the point in line, or get your efforts dismissed as a counterattack. Reputation helps. Good luck getting point in line called for you on the A-grade if you come up against a big dog. But don’t be surprised when it gets called for them against you.

Actually scoring with the point in line isn’t where its strength lies. It’s in the possibility that you could score with point in line. When you establish it, opponent has to decide whether they think the referee will give it to you, or consider it counterattack. It is the Dirty Harry manoeuvre of sabre: “Do you feel lucky, punk?”

That’s how the game starts. You can use a late point in line to trick the attacker into rushing to hit you before the line gets established, an easy mistake for you to punish with a parry riposte. Bond liked to do this with a parry 5, riposting with a through cut so hard that it sounded like the crack of a bullwhip. He didn’t like giving attackers a chance to counter-parry.

You can also just hit the attacker with the point in line of course, if they insist on ignoring it. You may need to disengage a desultory beat or two. You only have to succeed a couple of times before even the most eager attacker learns to be wary.

Then the point in line becomes one of the most effective ways to slow the attacker down. Even better, it slows them down and allows you to close distance on them, putting them comfortably within the danger zone. Once there, you can drop the point in line and do other things like beat and stop cut. It has served its purpose.

This is the point where most people stop in their use of point in line. But Bond had more tricks to share.

One was to establish point in line with a slightly bent arm. Not so bent to invalidate the point in line — unless he wanted to do so, as a trap — but bent enough so he could reach a couple handspans further than it would appear. Then he would disengage around his opponent’s attempts to beat until he felt that they had brought their wrist close enough to stop cut. Oh dear, I can hit further than you thought possible, he seemed to say. Sorry.

If he managed to land that one on you, he’d pretend to do it the next time — then he’d parry riposte instead.

Another trick was off the beat itself. He would either disengage around your beat, then in the same motion beat your blade instead and take priority. Or he would let you beat his blade, and counter-beat immediately afterwards. I saw him do this to a cadet once during the beat-attack; he calmly allowed the kid to knock his blade away, then counterbeat and backhanded the kid in the face while the kid was mid-lunge.

But Bond didn’t teach me the most devious trick I know for the point in line. That dubious honour goes to the Paladin. He taught me to reprise: to confound the attacker with the point in line, disengaging every attempt they made to beat it, then take over the priority the moment the attacker makes a big beat that could be incontrovertibly construed as an attempt to deflect the defender’s blade, and thus break the line.

Then you had to make a big show of celebrating in front of the referee. And watch their reaction. If the referee gave you the point, you were on fire. Now your opponent will be scared to make beats on your point in line; they might even freak out enough to just give up the attack.

If the referee didn’t give you the point, that was good too. Now you knew that your opponent will just finish their attack every time you set up point in line and reprise. It would be positively Pavlovian; they wouldn’t be able to resist. All you had to do was parry.

“It’s an important point,” the Paladin said.  Save it up for when you need it.


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