Ever since I started fencing in the 1960s, I have heard references to fencing as “physical chess.” The problem is that fencing does not closely resemble chess – it more closely resembles poker.
How can I say that? Chess is a game in which players study and learn a series of openings, defenses, and attacks and the physical positions on the board in which these actions are successful. If you are a serious chess player, there are, and have been for a long time, literally hundreds of books to study that present these combinations ranging from the beginner level to detailed studies of the openings, gambits, defenses, and endgames at the world championship level. The whole game and all of the possibilities are displayed on the board for all to see and there is very little to no luck involved in the outcome..
Poker, on the other hand, is a game of concealment. Neither player knows the complete contents of the others’ hands (unless they have marked the cards or are superb card counters). In some variants of the game, the players do not know what their hand will consist of at the end of the game. Risk assessment, the bluff, the ability to make the most of what is dealt, head games, morale, and decision making in betting in an uncertain environment rule the game.
So, which one sounds more like the decision environment of fencing? Yes – poker. We try to conceal our preparation and execution of techniques, we constantly search for unexpected and unpredictable courses of actions, we livew by the risks associated with our actions, etc. So let’s look at some poker concepts that are highly applicable to our sport.
First, the issue of skill and luck. When you hit your opponent, what is that the result of? Not the actual result, but what you think is result. Of course – it is your skill, a combination of training, practice, etc. Some of us will admit from time to time that we were just really lucky to get the touch, but the vast majority of the time we believe that we are very skillful. On the one hand such belief is important to our self-confidence, but it can be destructive when it is delusional.
When you do not hit, or are hit yourself, what is that the result of? The natural tendency is to think “I was unlucky.” This allows you to shift the blame from your performance to the referee, the slickness of the floor, a noise eruption on the next strip, the cowardly opponent’s retreat, etc. If you are unlucky, then surely you remain a highly skilled fencer … you just had bad luck. And you can persist in doing what did not work, because you know your luck will change.
If you have ever fenced an opponent who continued to repeat unsuccessful actions on which you inflicted a hit, you are either fencing someone who knows only one technique, or you are fencing someone who believes that they are just unlucky. They keep doing the one technique because they know that if they go faster or use more force their luck will change.
There are two types of things that happen on the strip – those that you can control and those that you cannot.
On the strip there are some, even many, things you cannot completely control – a referee who is ignorant of the rules or who is cheating, the surface of the strip, the bout order, the lighting, the time between bouts and between the pool and the direct elimination, the technical-tactical skill of your opponent, whether that opponent is right or left handed, whether the opponent has a cheering section or a coach providing instructions, etc. Those factors are a matter of luck of the draw. But you at least partially can control for these items. If the referee consistently awards the opponent the touch in two light situations, go for one light hits. If the strip is slick or sticky, adjust your footwork. If the opponent is skilled in an action, find a way to take that action away from them. Reduce the opportunity for luck to be the decisive factor by proactive action.
There are things you own and can control. The quality of your training is controlled by the level of the work you do and by the quality of your trainer – the higher the quality, the higher your skill level, and the lower the impact of what you cannot control. Your physical condition is controlled by your conditioning for the sport, your general diet, and your pre- and post-event nutrition and hydration. Your psychological condition is controlled by disciplined practice to develop both strength and resilience in your mental processes. Working on these increases your skill and reduces the impact of things you cannot control (the luck items).
All of this requires that you eliminate luck as an excuse for failure, learn to control for the things you cannot control, and maximize skill as the factor in victory.
And when the opponent hits you, understand that is not because she was lucky and you were unlucky. In most cases it will be because she was using her skills in a more effective way than you were. Understand what happened in the period between halt and fence, adjust your game, and score the next touch.
It is also important that you be able to predict your opponent’s actions and use that knowledge to guide your tactical decisions. If you know he has five techniques that he uses habitually, and he has only used three to get to 4-4, what is likely to happen on the next touch? One of the two missing techniques may be what appears next. Similarly, if you see a sixth technique that she has not used previously in your experience, you now have a wider range of things to be prepared for.
Finally, for this discussion, it is critical that you understand risk. If you believe there is a 75% chance a certain action will work in a situation, you execute that action, and it does not work, was that a bad choice. Well, lets do the math. If the chance of success is 75%, the chance of failure is 25%. That means that in aggregate if you do this technique 4 times, you will be successful 3 out of the 4. When it did not work this time, you fell into the 25%. This does not mean that the technique was a bad choice (assuming distance, timing, speed, etc. were correct for its employment). It just means that either your assessment of the risk was incorrect, or that statistical probability got you.
If, in a quick review of the failure as you come on guard, you recognize that you did everything correctly, you may be able to use this technique another time in the bout and be on the 75% side of probability. However, assuming your opponent has not understood what you tried to do, lowering your probabilities of success, is dangerous. This sets the stage for an interesting game of wits a la Vizzini (the Sicilian in The Princess Bride).
… YOU – I can hit him on this, have done so before, he is not smart enough to have noticied what I did …
… HIM – he used his favorite technique, and did not score. He will certainly use it again, and I be ready …
… YOU … but he will probably expect that I will try again so I will use it as a feint …
And etc., etc., etc.
These are not the only similarities between fencing and poker. There is a very good little book on the subject of making decisions with limited information Thinking in Bets by Annie Duke, a very successful professional poker player. A thoughtful and quite worthwhile read.