Week 15: Surprise

When I was younger, I got it into my head that I should be able to win every point in a bout. If only I was good enough, made the correct preparation, had the correct reflexes, and executed the correct technique at the correct time with the correct form, I should win no matter what my opponent did. Every point I failed to win meant that I had made an avoidable mistake. And if I was a better fencer, I should have won anyway.

This, of course, is the classic watcher mentality that the Major taught me. My contribution was to apply statistics; I’d scour through videos of the top fencers and draw up frequency charts of which moves they did and how often it worked in the aggregate and paired against each other. I’d use these charts to pick moves for my own repertoire, keeping only the ones with a high success rate and dropping the ones that didn’t make the cut. My hunch was that if I could just figure out what to watch for and the optimal set of responses, I would always win. Maybe not every point in a bout, but certainly more than the half I needed to win overall.

It was a quixotic quest, no different in substance than the search for the “unstoppable thrust” in Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s The Fencing Master. But combat is not a statistics test. It is not like running or swimming or archery where the weight of numbers falls in favour of the person who is better on average. Fights are won or lost on the outskirts of the bell curve, where the random and unexpected play disproportionate roles. Clive didn’t conquer India because he was a better man, or a better soldier; he won his first decisive battle by sheer dumb luck in a literal fog of war against a far more numerous, experienced, and better-armed opponent. Statistics did not sway the first Gulf War for the Iraqi army any more than they helped the Americans in Vietnam or the Jin against the Mongols.

Nor did such ideas help me in sabre. Sure, they enabled me to thrash weaker opponents that I would have beaten before but not by such margins. And as my scores against such opponents improved, I thought I was making progress: winning 15-5 is better than 15-10, ergo, I must be fencing better. But I wasn’t beating stronger opponents any more often than before. Dominating the weak did not translate to challenging the strong.

I, entranced by the glamour of numbers, had forgotten the most important idea in combat: it takes two people to have a fight. You can’t be a good fighter just by following a generic statistical algorithm. You have to fight the person before you. You have to get in their head. You have to surprise them.


Earlier in the Course, I wrote that fencers have only three sets of options for what they can do at the start of an exchange, like rock-paper-scissors. They can immediately attack at short range, prepare to defend, or hold to attack at long range. At its most basic, a fencer has to guess their opponent’s intention and execute the correct counter move.

More sophisticated fencers also make a preparation before their counter move, to hide their own intentions and trick their opponent into doing what the fencer wants. They guess and bluff. For example, the fencer might guess that their opponent will defend, and thus pretend to attack, but actually give chase. Or the fencer might guess that their opponent will attack, pretend to chase, then make their opponent’s attack fall short.

But sabre is not this simple in practice. Your opponent may not have an action planned at all. They might simply make a preparation and watch what you do so they can react. This is a fencer’s fourth option, and the basis for the watcher approach to the start of an exchange.

All things being equal, a fencer who watches usually wins against an opponent who uses the other three options. The watcher can see what their opponent is doing before they commit to their own move, after all, and simply has to identify and execute the correct counter move in time.

It’s harder for the watcher to win when their opponent adds a deception to their opening move. But it is difficult to make a truly convincing deception, and watchers learn quickly to pick up on the subtle differences between fake and real moves. Even when a watcher is deceived at first, their opponent’s deception has to transition to the real move at some stage. A watcher who watches long enough can wait for the real move, then react.

So to beat a watcher, in practice, you need opening moves that stop the watcher from watching too long. These are moves that can take a watcher by surprise, so they get warier and react earlier in subsequent exchanges.

This is what the advance-lunge excels at. It can be used to deliver a powerful strike that hits a watcher earlier and harder and at a greater distance than they expect. It is why Gu Bon-gil used it for his signature move: his incredibly fast advance-lunge and incredibly long mid-air extension. It worked because it was incredible; his opponents just could not believe how quickly it would arrive and how far it could go. They’d get scared. They’d get ready to do whatever they were planning — lunge, run away, parry — earlier. Then, next time, Gu would slow down a touch, see his opponent make their move too early, then respond accordingly.

Your surprise attack doesn’t have to be as fast as Gu’s to work. It just has to be faster than anything else you normally do. Even if it doesn’t succeed in winning you the point — perhaps they parry in time, or launch their own attack fast enough for simultaneous actions — it will leave an impression in their minds. They will get warier, act earlier, move faster. Exploit it.

The downside of using your advance-lunge as a surprise attack is that you then can’t use it to stop your opponent’s chase; they will always be ready for it. Use attack-in-preparation against the chase instead.

Attack-in-preparation looks superficially like an advance-lunge: you advance, then you lunge. The difference is that you advance like you are getting ready to jump back, with lilting deceleration not-quite-pause at the end of the advance that looks like you’re preparing to make your opponent’s attack fall short. Kamil Ibragimov does this with a sinuous step that slows down as his back foot slides forwards to complete the advance. Kim Junghwan uses a springy step-bounce, Peter Wagner is so tall that he just steps and stops.

All of them look like they are about to move back. But they don’t, of course; they explode forwards into a lunge that stabs into their opponent, ideally in their wrist, just as their opponent is about to chase.

A perfect attack-in-preparation is one-light. The opponent is so stunned that they cannot finish their own attack in time. An imperfect attack-in-preparation is two-lights. It is thus subject to the referee’s judgement. Most fencers sell their attack-in-preparation by posing afterwards in their most aesthetic lunge position. Some garnish this with exaggerated celebrations.

Others forgo any pretence of impressing the referee. They just counterattack single-light. K-pop does this, but to succeed with this move you neither need his speed nor his technique. The person who did this the best on the circuit, that I’ve had the displeasure to witness, was a teammate of mine on the Expendables — the Champ — who Bond first introduced to me as having “the worst timing of any fencer that he had ever seen.”

The Champ was as unlikely a sabre fencer as you could come across on the circuit. He was a former brawler from a country boarding school who somehow survived an improbably misspent youth to end up in corporate banking with a wife, kid, dog, cottage and an inexplicable affection for sabre fencing — which he took up at 29.

He was amazing. I have never seen any man incite such impotent rage in his opponents. The first time I ever fenced him, he waddled forwards then nailed me with an attack-in-preparation while I overshot my lunge. In the next point, he faked the attack-in-preparation then made me miss my attack by about an inch, which he punished with childlike glee. The third time, he faked the attack-in-preparation, faked the fall-short, then hit me in preparation again.

“No respect,” he told me, as we were gearing up for our first A-grade team match. “These c***s don’t deserve it.” The day before, we found out we had drawn the French team as their warmup act. One of our teammates got to chatting with the former French captain, Julien Pillet. When Pillet heard who we had drawn, he asked what we thought our chances were. We said maybe 20 points, if they gave us a break. Pillet laughed and said “they will give you nothing.”

We showed up on the piste just as the French did their customary team cheer. It was cool and sexy and clearly something they practiced in advance. “F**k,” said the Champ. “What have we got?” We settled on a rousing rendition of the traditional Australian sports anthem: “Aussie Aussie Aussie, Oi Oi Oi”.

It did not start well. We were getting comprehensively smashed. But that only seemed to make the Champ more belligerent. By the time he drew the French kid mid-way through the match, the Champ was in full troll mode. He played up the fat middle-aged banker facade while racking up “fluke” points until the kid finally realised — too late — that it had all been an act. Then came his one-two-three combo; it sent the kid back into reserves. It was a gambit worthy of Patrick O’Brien naval novel.

I didn’t make any boat jokes at the time though. Because of the Champ’s stunt, I had the French captain in the final. And he was harder to surprise.

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