180121 A Matter of Intent

No, this blog post does not address the ridiculous statement by some referees that “your attack did not show intent so I am giving the hit to the clearly out of time counterattack.”  Instead, this week we focus on actual fencing, you know, the thing the fencers do to hit each other.

Fencing is all about the initiative, who is in control of the bout at the moment in time.  Initiative rests with the fencer who deliberately starts the action.  “This is easy” you say, “initiative belongs to the attacker.”  But that is a simplistic and inaccurate understanding of the situation.  If I invite subtly and you fall for it with your best attack, only to be hit with a fast parry and riposte with opposition combination, who had the initiative?  A spectator on the side lines or the referee would automatically say that you did.  After all, you attacked, and all I did was parry and riposte.  But you, the referee, and the spectator would all be wrong.  Initiative and intention are about what the fencers conceive of and what they see, not about what observers outside the bout see.

This allows us to fence in first intention, second, intention, and theoretically third and fourth attentions (these two levels are rare and even Maestri di Scherma Salvatore Pecoraro and Carlo Pessina, writing in 1912, stated that they were almost impossible to execute).  First intention is an action in which you intend to hit with the action itself; a simple attack, a beat disengage, an indirect riposte, and a time hit are all first intention actions.  Rob Handelman (2014) defines first intention as “an action made with the intention of hitting/scoring on the first offensive thrust/cut.”  Edoardo Mangiarotti (1966) suggests it is “the first planned action and the one that produces the hit denying the initiative to the opponent’s steps, for example when the opponent cannot find the blade, parry, release, or stop hit in time.”

Second intention is more complex.  Let’s look at some definitions.  Roger Crosnier (1951) offers “a premeditated action dealing with a provoked movement.”  Edoardo Mangiarotti (1966) states “the second intention is to provoke the opposing initiative to neutralize it promptly.  Ed Rogers (2003) describes it as “a premeditated action used to draw a response from the opponent, which prepares the way for the intended action that follows.”  Rob Handelman (2014) defines second intention as “a tactic that is used to make the opponent believe that the fencer intends to hit on the first action, however, the plan is to hit with a second action that is adapted to the expected response.”

Is there a third intention?  Mangiarotti says there is, describing it as an action “which deliberately eludes the opponent’s second intention.”

If we take the initiative, we can do these things.  That means you must have the plan for the touch, create the conditions that will make it work (the right distance, timing, psychological state, and previous history of actions in the bout), and then deliver the desired first, second, or third intention.  So to understand this, let’s synthesize the definitions, and then apply them to actions to create story lines the opponent will believe.

  1. First Intention – a planned action intended to hit on the initial attack or riposte, with the counterattack on an opponent’s attack, or following the deception of an opponent’s action resulting in that action loosing the time.
  2. Second Intention – a planned, deceptive action to provoke a response from the opponent with the intent of defeating that response and hitting him or her.
  3. Third Intention – a planned action against an opponent’s second intention to defeat it and hit the opponent.

What is important about these three definitions.  First – first, second, or third intention are planned actions, not opportunistic ones.  Second – the objective is to hit the opponent.  Third – the second and third intention build on the previous first and second intentions.  Fourth – a wide variety of specific techniques can be used to accomplish these goals.

The last point is very important.  Second intention has tended to be one of many stovepipes (the traditional narrow approach to teaching techniques in which each technique is presented as a unique entity instead of a collection of common parts that create families of possible actions).  Second intention, in this model, is a false attack to draw the opponent’s parry-riposte followed by a parry-1st counterriposte by the original attacker to hit.

Instead, second intention is a wide envelope of possibility.  We can do a false attack-parry riposte-parry 1st counterriposte.  But we can equally do an invitation, opponent attacks, parry-riposte to hit.  And we can feint a slow attack to draw a stop hit which we then defeat with a parry riposte (defensive countertime) or a stop hit of the stop hit (counteroffensive countertime).

But wait, those last actions were countertime, not second intention.  They belong in a different stovepipe.  Incorrect.  Let’s parse the action and compare it to the definition (a synthesis of the definitions of other fencing masters including an many time Olympic gold medalist and three trainers of fencing masters):

A feint slow attack [a planned, deceptive action] to draw a stop hit [to provoke a response from the opponent] and defeat it with a party-riposte or a stop hit [with the intent of defeating that response and hitting him or her].

And this is a good example of two themes in this post.  First, stovepiping – countertime can’t possibly be second intention because it has a different name and second intention is only done as attack-parry riposte-parry counterriposte.  Sorry, countertime is a type of second intention action; get over it, smell the coffee, or whatever cliché will bring the point home.

The other theme is intent.  Second and third intention actions demand that the fencer who is conducting these planned, deceptive actions must take the initiative, a false action followed by the final in second intention, and a false second intention followed by the final in third intention.  And yet, if these are properly done, neither the opponent nor the referee may understand the initial initiative or intent that leads to the hit.  And that is the paradox of fencing.  Fencing is about what the fencers think and do, how the blades and the feet move, subtle differences in timing, distance, and flow that may be perceived by only one participant – it is not about what you see from the side of the strip.   And yet, what a non-participant sees and believes determines the outcome of the bout …

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