What do you do? The first, and possibly least often considered step, is to determine if you can attack. The key element here is whether or not you have the initiative and whether the rules and referees recognize that initiative. Initiative belongs to the individual who moves first. For example, if I step back and you follow me, I am pulling you, and the initiative and the ability to determine the action is mine. But if you step forward and I retreat in reaction, the initiative is yours and the ability to determine the action is yours. Because epee is the only weapon that retains the character of an actual combat weapon, this is true in epee. If I step back, drawing you into my envelope, and execute a quick attack as you advance, I have a real attack executed with the real initiative.
The situation is more complex in foil and sabre where referees assume that forward motion is the initiative. Practically speaking, unless the opponent makes a fairly obvious error, you cannot attack into an advancing opponent – you can only counterattack for one light (a reactive approach) or create second intention actions that allow you to take over the bladework to gain an initiative the referee will recognize.
The second key element is whether you can operate in your preferred tactical envelope. The tactical envelope is the combination of distance, timing, and movement, available target, and your preferred action or actions. If you achieve a position in your tactical envelope while denying the opponent’s ability to operate in their preferred envelope, you have the ability to do your preferred action with a high probability of success.
A second major step in deciding to attack is to determine the risk of failure or the probability of success. Risk calculations using pencil and paper are not necessary. But understanding the concept is. The traditional measure of risk is Risk = probability of success X the value of that success. As an experienced fencer you know that advancing without being prepared to deal with a counterattack has significantly increased possibility of being attacked in preparation (a low probability of success) and offers no real benefit. In contrast, advancing prepared to deal with a counterattack has a much higher probability of success and offers a touch added to your score as the value of the success.
With the determination of risk comes a decision as to how much risk you will accept. Suppose there are 10 seconds left, the score is 3-4, and the referee is calling “ready.” You can expect that your opponent will simply try to avoid you to run out the clock, and with 10 seconds left there is a good chance she can do that. To survive and win, you must tie the score, and then either score the winning touch in the one minute overtime or avoid the opponent if you win priority. What do you do?
What I have seen several fencers do, including Chinese women epeeists and a stateless fencer in the Rio Olympics, is to simply sprint forward with the extension out. This depends on catching the opponent who is running backwards to avoid the charge. Their risk calculation was very risky action with a chance of success by surprise – if successful the value of success is that they stayed alive for the one minute overtime. Let’s say a mathematical value of 5% chance of success times the value of staying in the bout of 3 (if we assume a regular touch is worth 1 and a really critical touch is worth 3). In contrast, simply advancing down the strip in the hopes of getting to advance lunge distance and scoring with a prepared attack against an opponent who is steadily retreating might offer a probability of success of 0.5%. So tucking your head down and running at them has a value of .15, not great, but far better than the .015 of advancing. As a reference point, doing nothing and letting the clock run out has a risk of 0.0.
Obviously, I have simplified a very complex risk situation, and professional risk calculators would probably disagree in some measure with my method, but it is reasonably simple and allows a quick estimation of the value of any action in a bout. Think of it this way – what is my chance of succeeding in what I want to do (high, medium, or low) and what is the payoff (no benefit, some benefit short of a touch, a touch, an important touch in the momentum of the bout, or a critical touch to win or survive)? High chance, high value – do it. Low chance, low value – don’t do it.
Finally, can I make the parts work? A successful attack requires the right distance – the assurance that your blade will reach the opponent when the attack finishes.
A successful attack requires control – smooth technique with no excess movement to allow you to put your blade on target.
A successful attack requires acceleration – the ability to increase your speed during the action to reach the maximum point/edge hit speed just before contact.
A successful attack requires timing – the ability to manage tempo to exploit the opponent’s speed, to continually apply pressure to their decision cycle, to pick the moment of their greatest vulnerability.
A successful attack requires integration – foot and blade work must be synchronized to deliver the right movement at the right speed at the right time.
A successful attack requires intelligence and assessment – the more you know about your opponent, the higher your probability of success. You must take every opportunity to increase your knowledge of the opponents you are fencing.
A successful attack requires planning – although there will be times when you attack apropos to exploit an instantaneous opportunity or execute an unforeseen action, the majority of attacks should be planned to exploit your envelope and to take advantages of lapses in his envelope.
A successful attack requires commitment – the worst attack executed with elan and full commitment of your mind and body will beat the best attack executed with hesitation and lack of confidence.
A successful attack requires belief in your victory – the fighting spirit of the fencer is critical to any success on the strip. If you go out to survive or thinking that the opponent might or will beat you, you might as well walk over to score sheet and write down 5 in his block and 0 in yours. If you do not believe in your ability to win, who else will? No one.