Eyes open … don’t we always have our eyes open? Well, mostly, although almost every fencer has closed their eyes at least once in the midst of an action during their career on the strip. But whether or not your eyes are physically open is not what we are talking about. Rather we’re talking about whether or not we see, understand, and act or react appropriately during each phase of an action.
The eyes open concept was most widely published by Fencing Master and Polish National Coach Zbigniew Czajkowski in his paper Fencing Actions-Terminology, Their Classification and Application in Competition, circulated in the United States in the early 2000s. The following discussion simplifies and focuses on one part of this paper; for a broader and deeper understanding, I strongly recommend reading the original complete document. Czajkowski classifies the application of fencing actions into three groups:
Foreseen actions – first and second intention actions conceived of before they are executed and executed according to the fencer’s plan. You know what you intend to do, you know what the opponent’s reaction, or lack of reaction, will be. When you start your action you can assess the risk of what will happen and define the probability of success.
Unforeseen actions – these are spontaneous actions in reaction to an opponent’s action that was not expected or foreseen. Generally these are reflexive parries or counterattacks in response to the attack.
Partly foreseen actions – actions which have parts which are foreseen and parts which are unforeseen. These include attacking actions which have a known beginning, but an unknown ending. This is the area of the eyes open attack.
If we apply this model to the compound attack, we have to think first about the parts of such an action. The first action (and all subsequent actions prior to the final) is a feint. And in modern fencing, in the great majority of cases, the second action is the final. The feint is a known action – we know with what action in what line to what depth on what timing we are going to feint. What we do not know is what the opponent’s reaction will be. This introduces the concept of eyes open. The final action is taken in response to the observed reaction of the opponent.
This sounds as though there are two disconnected parts to the compound attack and that there must be an intermediate break in order to see the opponent’s reaction. But that would result in a broken tempo action and provide the opponent unfortunate (for you) opportunities. Instead, the feint flows seamlessly into the final action with tempo and distance changes and acceleration of the final. Delivered realistically from the proper distance the feint will draw (under correct conditions) a response in sufficient time to allow decision making and acceleration by the attacker into the final line.
The feint is assisted by the limited number of realistic options an attack presents. The standard feint of straight thrust/cut has in most cases six options for defense: (1) counterattack, (2) pulling distance to make the attack fall short, (3) lateral parry, (4) circular or change parry, (5) if the feint is high-low or low-high a semicircular parry, and (6) to choose to ignore the feint and parry the final. Six options sounds like a lot of options. However, this number can be significantly reduced. If you are not working a high-low-high combination, you can ignore the semicircular parry if the opponent is in the same vertical line. If you have a good feint and the opponent is not a sophisticated opponent, he or she will probably not ignore the feint. If the movement pattern and timing is correct, the opponent’s chance to pull and make the attack fall short is less likely. And reconnaissance and observation may further narrow this field.
This means that partly foreseen actions can be planned to reduce the risk involved by being prepared in advance for the partly known as opposed to unknown final. To take our feint of straight thrust/cut, this means that we have to be prepared to (1) disengage or coupe the lateral parry, (2) counterdisengage the circular attempt to take your blade, and (3) straight thrust/cut with acceleration against the stop hit or the opponent who is simply surprised by the feint and unable to react.
Being eyes open against opponents of the same or slower speed as yourself works. It is less clear that it works against significantly faster opponents. In this case, you may have to run your compound attack as a play, essentially making it a known-known action based on your, hopefully correct, assessment of the probability that the opponent will react as you desire.