All my fencing life (I am now in my 53rd season), I have heard that fencing is physical chess. Perhaps you have also. There was even a fencing equipment company that used the term “physical chess” in its name. But it really is not true.
Chess is a game of complete information. At any time both players can see all of the pieces on the board. For any combination of pieces and positions the correct application of computational skills can lead to a victory. New pieces don’t appear randomly and old pieces unexpectedly disappear. In many cases, there are established tactical systems that lead to victory with a high level of certainty, absent the player making an objective error. This is why chess students study games by highly rated players – you can see the correct choices, you can identify the specific errors, and you can memorize the sequence of moves.
In contrast poker is a game of deliberately incomplete information. The skill in poker is less computation, more about concealing, bluffing, essentially lying to the opponents about your hand, your intentions, and your strategy for the game. Fencing is far more like physical poker.
This is important because in fencing, and in poker, success may result from skill or from luck. In this context skill includes your ability to develop a plan for how you will fight the bout, to revise the plan as necessary, to choose the correct timing, distance, speed, initiative, etc. for the execution of technique, and to execute the technique correctly. Luck, on the other hand, is created by the friction of the competition – the danger, physical effort required, the lack of information, the fencing environment (strip quality, lighting, noise, etc.), the opponent’s decision making and efforts to control what you can observe, the opponent’s level of skill, the quality and interpretations of the referee, and pure happenstance (things which cannot be foreseen). You can impact luck by understanding the friction elements, identifying which ones you can influence, and making those adjustments.
For example, if your referee tells you that the coupe is illegal in sabre, that is a friction element. You have two choices to reduce the impact of the friction – appeal the ruling, or not do any more coupes. If you know that your opponent loves to coupe and you have alternatives, the answer may be to let the referee’s ignorance (or cheating) establish a precedent that denies your opponent an attack at which he is proficient. If coupe is your go-to technique in critical situations, you may consider an appeal (because this ruling is so blatantly wrong that an appeal should be a slam dunk and a decision by the hosts not to use this referee in the future).
It is vital to be able to determine what is skill and what is luck. The natural tendency is to attribute successful actions to skill and bad outcomes to luck. This type of delusional evaluation of results can be fatal to the fencer’s development of skill, to his or her attitude, and to eventual success. It is vital to understand that even a perfectly skillful action (right distance and timing, correct speed and acceleration, possession of the initiative, and absolutely perfect technique) can be defeated by the friction of the competition.
Every tactical action you perform has a definable probability of success. If your perfectly executed parry and riposte has a 60% probability of success, then 60% of the time it should score the touch for you. But 40% of the time the result will be failure. If your execution is not perfect, the probability of success goes down – we will say 30% for this discussion. You will fail 70% of the time, but you will score 30% of the time. Similarly, the friction of the competition may work to your advantage or disadvantage. Your 70% failure rate may increase to 90% or decrease to 50% based on the conditions you face.
So, these numbers mean that to greatest extent possible you want to have a very high level of skill, and do everything you can to reduce the impact of the luck components.
Because your decision making plays a central role in the probability of success of your skill, it is important to understand that every decision you make on the strip carries a risk assessment with it. If the probability of success of your beat-straight thrust (or cut in sabre) is 25%, you probably do not want to base your whole game in this bout on beat-straight thrust/cut.
But the conditions change the value of success. If you are in the last 10 seconds of the bout, and you are down by 1 touch, the value of a successful hit increases to infinite because it gives you the chance of staying in the fight and winning on the one minute overtime. If you think conditions are good for your 25% attack and poor for most of your other choices, what do you do? Accept the friction and the risk and go for the beat-straight thrust/cut.
If you succeed, the result is skill, both the skill of execution and the skill of your decision making, combined with the impact of friction on the opponent’s actions. If you fail, the questions becomes more complicated and more urgent to resolve (you may have more pool bouts ahead of you or you have a DE bout ahead of you with some chance of it being the same opponent). First, was the decision correct? Was this your best chance, did you consider the friction of the bout, or did you overlook a skill with a 90% probability of success in your hurry to decide what to do? If the decision was correct, did you execute at your best level of skill, or did you introduce an error that increased the opponent’s chances?
If the results of an honest analysis are correct and correct, then you can feel good about your action, even if the result is a loss because of friction (or bad luck if you will). If however, the results point to a bad decision or a failure of skill in execution, you need to solve that problem. In either case, it is wise to more closely examine the friction components with the intent of finding ways to minimize their impact in the next bout.
Next week we look at bout planning.