180211 Skill and Luck

I have been reading a very interesting book by a poker player (Annie Duke’s Thinking in Bets) that has significant insights that apply to fencing.  A poker player?  What could someone who plays with cards know about fencing, an athletic endeavor?  Besides, we are physical chess, not a silly card game.

Leaving aside the reality that you can make real money playing poker (millions of dollars, and anyone who relies on fencing for a living makes at best a moderate income), poker players live in an environment more similar to ours than do chess players.  Chess is a game based on computation and position – and these can be learned and the tactical processes trained by study of thousands of games of chess.  The board is there for both players to see.  The games can be analyzed afterwards at your leisure to determine where you went right or wrong.  Poker is a game of uncertainty, risk, and deception in which the player never full understands the play of the cards because much of that play is concealed.

Duke argues that assessment of results in poker is based on skill (when we win it is always because of our skill) and luck (when we lose it is because the opponent was lucky in either the cards they drew or in how they played their cards).  Fencing is a bit more complicated because we tend to assess based on:

… our skill when we win (either natural or developed through great practice),

… our luck when we lose (either just bad luck or bad calls by the referee),

… and from time to time an opponent who is better than we are (I am a U and he is an A, so what did you expect?).

The difficult point is that these replies are largely delusional.  Victory on the strip depends on coming to the strip with conditions as much in our favor as it is humanly possible to make them.  It is tempting to think of this as preparation through individual lessons, group lessons, and bouting.  However, that is only one component of the overall system.

For example, when a weapon fails, the tendency is to assign that failure to bad luck.  The fencer who does so is also the fencer who does not maintain his or her weapons in the best possible condition, who does not clean and test the weapons before a competition, and for whom routine inspection and repair is an unknown concept.  By doing so the fencer accepts that there will be one of two outcomes, a failure when initially presented resulting in a card or multiple cards, or a failure on the strip resulting in a (1) disruption in the fencer’s game to replace a weapon, (2) a missed touch, or (3) if not detected in a series of free touches against for the opponent.  This is not luck, it is an absence of skill and the mental resolve to be successful.

For example, when a referee makes an egregiously bad call, the tendency is to assign that failure to bad luck (or the special sub-excuse of bad refereeing).  The first bad call (any call against us is a bad call) may be an unpredictable event, but subsequent bad calls result from one of two causes:

… the fencer does not adapt and fence a game that plays to the referee’s prejudices or ignorance of the theory and rules of the weapon.  If the referee cannot recognize a point of line and interpret its use correctly, persisting in throwing out a point in line is a failure of skill in tactical decision making.  Only the first case is bad luck in the refereeing assignments.

… the fencer does not adapt and fence a game that prevents a dishonest referee who is manifestly cheating for the other side by two key actions: (1) fencing for one light and only one light and (2) checking and rechecking the score sheet (and the direct elimination seeding) so that it is not altered after the fencer signs it.  Yes, that does happen; it has happened this season to one of our fencers.

The excuse that the opponent was better is a different problem.  It is essentially a mental failure through defeatism.  Of course, fencers will have to fight and lose to opponents who are better; any competitive (and most recreational) fencer over the extent of a career will lose far more bouts than he or she wins.  A losing bout in which you maximize your indicators (and thereby minimize your opponent’s) (5-4 versus 5-1), a losing bout in which you hold the opponent to less than a full 5 touches (or more touches in a team match), or a losing bout in which you learn something important about either your game or your opponent’s game is a loss in the record books, but not necessarily a tactical or strategic loss.  If the opponent is better, you win by maximizing your outcome.

So how do we break the skill/luck analysis?  The key is three fold.  First, recognize what is happening and how you are deceiving yourself.  Second, deliberate practice – slow, careful practice to continually correct errors in performance has been demonstrated to lead to excellence, time and time again.  You simply cannot be good at this sport unless you do deliberate practice.

Third is the key focus for this blog.  You must do deliberate bouting.  Every bout you fence is an opportunity to do two things.  Identify what you do well, and refine and maintain that competency.  And identify your errors and fix them.  You have to be thoughtful and absolutely honest with yourself.  You cannot make excuses for losses, or suboptimal wins.  If you do, you will never reach your potential. Period. End of your story.

So how do we do deliberate bouting?  At the end of each bout, analyze (1) what happened, (2) how your opponent scored on you and what actions on your part permitted this, (3) how you failed to score on the opponent and what actions on both the opponent’s part and your part resulted in those failures, and (4) how you scored, and why were your attempts to score successful.  Make notes – do not trust your memory.  The good thing is that, if you have been doing our standard 5 second drill, you already know a lot of this data.

And at the end of the event, whether practice session or tournament, go over your notes and make a plan of action to fix the problem areas, including both deliberate practice and bouting in which you focus on these techniques as the sole basis for your game.  If your parry 4 and riposte are abysmal, then fence practice bouts in which you do not attack, only invite 4 and parry and riposte.  You will lose 5-0, 5-0, 5-0, and then 5-1.  That one touch means that you are turning the corner; keep it up until you are winning just by your parry 4 and riposte.

At the same time work on maintaining, smoothing, and automating the actions that worked.  If it works, it needs constant practice for it to continue to work.  Otherwise the skill will decay.

There is another lesson here.  Most fencers do not read books about fencing.  They are essentially illiterate about their sport.  Don’t do that.  Read everything you can about fencing.  But read more widely.  The literature of management decision making, games, and other sports is a constant source of excellent information on how to make you a better fencer.  In the past year I have found useful concepts and ideas that I have applied to my lessons in books and articles on historical fencing, classical fencing, mixed martial arts, business management texts, sports vision, sports psychology, poker, etc., etc.  Read, learn, apply!


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