190317 Second and Other Intentions

For there to be a second intention, doesn’t there have to be a first intention? And there is. A first intention action is a complete action executed with the intent to hit. You execute a one-two-three high-low-high attack – that is first intention. You riposte – first intention. You counterattack – again your first intention.

But don’t you expect to hit with a second intention action? Well, yes you do – it is just that the flow is different. Instead of everything being focused on getting blade to target, the first action in a second intention has no intent to hit at all. Instead, the first action does two important things: (1) it fixes the opponent essentially in place so that he or she is not thinking about using distance to escape from your action, and (2) it creates favorable conditions for you to score in terms of distance, the flow of the phrase, timing, and mental state. The mental component of this is very important – a good first action creates in the opponent’s mind the assurance that this is their opportunity to score.

The second component exploits the opponent’s attempt to hit you based on his or her understanding of the supposed opportunity you have offered. In each case you need the opponent to believe the first action that had no intent to score. Then, when the opponent reacts in the expected way, you execute the second intention to take it all away, crushing their hopes and dreams of an easy hit with your action landing as a touch. A nicely executed second intention is poetic in its justice, psychologically devastating to the opponent, and a strong morale boost for you.

Before we look at examples of the technique and application of second intention, it is reasonable to ask if there are more intentions. And yes, there is a third intention, a planned action to defeat an opponent’s second intention. Finally, there is a fourth intention, an action to defeat a third intention. Even in the heyday of complex blade work in the classical period from 1880 to 1939, fourth intention as a planned action was regarded by Maestro di Scherma Masaniello Parise as impractical.

There is also another version of intention that needs to be excluded from the analysis, the referees subjective determination of intention as a way to decide the value of the two fencer’s actions independent of traditional right of way the value of the two fencer’s actions. Regular readers of this blog know that my predilection is to regard a referee’s pronouncement that “your action did not show intent” as pernicious claptrap. Nowhere is this more obvious than in second intention. The duty of the initial movement is to convince the opponent that you have a badly conceived intent or no intent to lure him or her into the trap of the second, very intent, intention.

I should note that, in all fairness there are people who believe they can determine what I am thinking from a distance based on how I act. Undoubtedly the referees who make calls based on their assumption about the fencer’s intent think they are doing the right thing. In reality, particularly in lower level competitions, they are constricting the vital mental and psychological aspects of the game to the fencer’s disadvantage. The Fall 2018 issue of American Fencing has an excellent article on this subject by Jeff Bukantz.

So how do we do this? The classic example of second intention is how it is commonly taught, so commonly taught that it is a cliché:

  1. Fencer on the left attacks with a false attack.
  2. Fencer on the right parries and executes a riposte with the expectation of a hit.
  3. Fencer on the left parries the riposte and scores with the first counterriposte.

The initial false attack fixes the opponent in place because of the expectation of being able to score with the parry-riposte combination. The false attack itself must be executed to resemble your actual attack in all ways – same mechanics, same or slightly slower speed, same body language. The falsification comes in not penetrating as deeply into the opponent’s space as you would be doing in a real attack. If your opponent habitually executes a short step back to parry an attack, either with a blade parry or parry by distance, the lunge can be longer, but it still should not be so deep as to drive a retreat. The supposed failure to correctly gauge the distance is a primary attraction for the opponent to use the parry and riposte. In reality, you need the short lunge to generate enough time to be sure of being able to parry and counterriposte, especially against a quick opponent.

But this does not exhaust the options for second intention. The first action can be anything that will cause the opponent to commit the blade to create the conditions for your second action. And the second action does not have to be a parry and riposte. Consider the case of the invitation as first action:

  1. Fencer on the left executes a fourth invitation (moving the blade from third (sabre) or sixth (foil and epee).
  2. Fencer on the right attacks in the opening of sixth (third).
  3. Fencer on the left parries the attack and scores with the riposte.

The invitation draws the opponent into committing the blade. Invitations vary in size based on three criteria: (1) the opponent’s experience and ability, (2) the inviter’s assessed ability to stop the inviting movement after the opponent has made the decision to attack but before the start of movement, become stable, and be ready to parry, and (3) whether the inviter believes the psychological dynamic in the bout is most favorable to a wider invitation as a dare or a subtle invitation that communicates a lack of focus or misunderstanding of distance, movement, and timing. Remember that invitations can be by footwork, distance, or timing as well as by blade action.

And, if we remember the previous blog post on stovepipes, there are whole classes of actions that are inherently second intention. To give an example of countertime:

  1. Fencer on the left starts a slow attack.
  2. Fencer on the right believes there is an opportunity and counterattacks with a stop thrust/stop cut.
  3. Fencer of the left accelerates and stop hits the stop hit.

There are three interesting parts to this. First, this is particularly useful against the opponent who habitually executes stop actions into your attack – this knowledge allows you to predict the conditions under which the countertime will work.

Second, in foil and sabre this exploits right of way. To the referee this actions looks exactly like the fencer on the left executes what? Yes, you are right, an accelerating one tempo simple attack from left (with an out of time stop from right). But, in reality, this is a carefully considered two tempo action on your part (first tempo – draw the attack and second tempo – stop hit).

Third, everyone knows that countertime is one type of countertime: slow attack -> opponent counterattacks -> attacker parries and ripostes. This looks exactly like the cliché of second intention, and is just as much a cliché. In actuality, it is defensive countertime, defensive because it relies on the parry. I have had professional colleagues who flatly deny that any such thing as defensive countertime can exist – and state with some heat that there is only countertime and it is only done with a parry riposte. In reality, the action described above with a stop hit on the stop hit is counteroffensive countertime. Especially with the recent definition of parries and beats in the rules based on where blade contact is made, there is also a case for offensive countertime using the attack on the blade with the beat as a defining criteria.

What is the bottom line to all this? Second intention exists, and it works. It works best when the opponent has a habitual response that can be exploited. The key is to get the opponent to commit to a course of action based on your first action that is not intended to hit. The defeat that action with your second intention intended to hit. Do not stovepipe – use the full range of possible actions not intended to hit and work on combining them with the full range of possible actions to deny the opponents hit and score your own. And … practice, practice, practice.

Copyright 2019 by Walter G. Green III

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