Refereeing is learned through empirical observation

You can’t learn fencing from a book.

Every few weeks, we’ll get a keen fencer at SSC who asks if there is a book that explains some aspect of fencing, like how to make a cut, take a parry, or what to do off the start line. We get these requests a lot, and we generally refer them to the stack of fencing manuals that we have strewn around the lounge.

It soon becomes readily apparent that while books can provide a lot of background information on how to fence, there is no substitute for actually doing it. Detailed explanations on the bio-mechanics of the lunge are a poor substitute for actually practising lunges and having someone knowledgeable refine your form.

The same goes for refereeing. There are plenty of fencing rules (check out for the English translations of the official FIE rules). The fundamental role of a referee is to apply these rules to the bout.

Problem is, the rules don’t provide enough detail to cover all the richness of what happens in a real bout. No set of rules is ever likely to do this.  So real-life referees have standardised interpretations of the rules that they apply in bouts. These interpretations cover the nuances in real life bouts that the written rules don’t, or can’t.

Take the classic example of attack-counterattack at the start of the bout. From the FIE Technical Rulebook (translation courtesy of British Fencing):

T.7.1 The attack is the initial offensive action made by extending the arm and continuously threatening the opponent’s target, preceding the launching of the lunge or flèche (cf. t.56ss, t.75ss).

T.8.3 Counter-attacks are offensive or offensive–defensive actions made during the offensive action of the opponent.

T.75.1 Any attack properly executed (cf. t.7) must be parried, or completely avoided, and the phrase must be continuous.

T.80.1 When during a phrase both fencers are hit simultaneously there is either a simultaneous action or a double-hit.

T.80.3 The fencer who is attacked is alone counted as hit:

a) If he makes a stop hit on his opponent’s simple attack;
b) If, instead of parrying, he attempts to avoid the hit and does not succeed in so doing;
c) If, after making a successful parry, he makes a momentary pause (delayed riposte) which gives his opponent the right to renew the attack (redoublement, or remise or reprise);
d) If, during a compound attack, he makes a stop hit without being in time;
e) If, having his point ‘in line’ (cf. t.10) and being subjected to a beat or a taking of the blade (prise de fer) which deflects his blade, he attacks or places his point in line again instead of parrying a direct hit made by his opponent.

T.80.4 The fencer who attacks is alone counted as hit:

a) If he initiated his attack when his opponent had his point ‘in line’, without deflecting the opponent’s weapon. Referees must ensure that a mere contact of the blades is not considered as sufficient to deflect the opponent’s blade.
b) If he attempts to find the blade, does not succeed (because of a derobement) and continues the attack.
c) If, during a compound attack, he allows his opponent to find the blade, and continues the attack while his opponent ripostes immediately.
d) If, during a compound attack, he bends his arm or makes a momentary pause, during which time the opponent makes a stop hit or an attack while the attacker continues his own attack.
e) If, during a compound attack, he is stop-hit one period of fencing time (temps d’escrime) before he makes his final movement.

Whew! There are plenty of other sub-rules defining simple, indirect and compound attacks but the main rules are above. So – have a crack at separating the calls in the video below based on those rules:

Plenty of tough calls were made in that video, calls that less experienced referees would have abstained from or called ‘simultaneous’. These calls are tough because they require a referee to recognise actions that are not easily described by written rules, relying instead on interpretations that say that this action is a preparation while another is an attack. Further, these interpretations must be the same across all FIE referees.

So if the interpretations are so important, why aren’t they written down in the rules?

One reason is that there are so many situations that the interpretations cover that trying to write them all down is impractical. Another is that, like with other aspects of fencing, the written word is a poor substitute for actually seeing it in action. A third reason is that the interpretations change from season to season – how bouts were refereed even in 2008 is markedly different from bouts in 2012, a single Olympic cycle.

The upshot is that there is no substitute for refereeing under supervision and watching calls being made correctly by other referees, on a regular basis. Bad referees read the rules and try to apply them from first principles to the situation. Infuriatingly bad referees take interpretations from previous seasons and refuse to update their interpretations for the current one.

Good referees make a lot of regular, up-to-date empirical observations so they can correctly apply the  rules to the situation they see before them. With the current availability of sabre videos from top competitions freely available on the web, there is no excuse for any referee, even those in the murkiest backwaters of the fencing world, to be less than competent in making the right calls in sabre.

Go practice.


Trends in refereeing 2014: Decisions from the Athens World Cup

Just got back from the Athens A-grade Senior World Cup a few days ago and spent most of my time there hanging out with referees and taking videos. The refereeing has changed significantly in the last couple of years, with a strong element of rewarding fencers for accomplishing the actions that they attempt, while penalising incidental hits or gaining priority. Here’s a video that summarises the changes for an experienced sabre referee:


Below is a summary of refereeing and fencing points I made while on the road. I’ll follow up with a more comprehensive analysis of current sabre tactics and refereeing guidelines over the next couple of months as I digest some of the other videos that have been coming out of the Chicago world cup.

General refereeing points
  • Be clear, decisive, consistent.
    • You must make the call with absolute gut confidence. Don’t think about it it or even give the appearance of being swayed. Remember you are also playing to an audience as a totally impartial and authoritative referee, think poker face.
    • You should be cool, calm collected and have confidence in your calls.
    • If you don’t have confidence, fake it. If you appear weak, fencers will exploit this. Remember that the fencers will often be intimidating and quite forceful. Ambiguity is a big no-no.
  • Calls are initiated before the fencers gave a chance to speak or call. The first hand gesture should be initiated before the fencers actions are completely finished.
    • You must make the same call regardless of the score, at 14-14 as at 7-4. 
  • Do not be apologetic about giving out cards. Failing to give out a card means that you are being selective in your calls. It gives the appearance of favouritism.
  • Always make hand signals so that the audience can understand the call without audio from behind you. Big, clear and simple gestures. Keep each gesture stationary for 1-2 seconds before moving to the next one.
    • Remember that hand signals have been standardised internationally. A fencer from another country who doesn’t speak English should be able to understand your call by hand signals alone. Learn them and apply them. 
    • Keep fingers together when making a call.
    • Fingers bent at 90 degrees to indicate the side inititating attack.
    • Closed fist and pull when indicating preparation.
  • Keep the language simple. There is only attack, attack simultanie (pas des touché), attack-no, parry-riposte in the first instance, and takeover/beat in the second instance (attack au fer, or even just ‘attaque’). 
  • What we are calling ‘attack in preparation’ should be either called simply ‘attack’ or split into two calls being ‘preparation…attack’ with appropriate hand signals.
  • Competitive referees should be doing it in French. This will distinguish them from club referees.
  • Calling halt is enforced very strictly.
  • Line rules are enforced very strictly.
    • One foot over the side line is cause for an immediate halt.
    • Starting early off the line is an instantaneous yellow card. No warnings, even if potentially both are at fault. One person is always at fault.
    • The start of the bout is at the end of ‘allez’ or ‘fence’, not at the start of the word.
  • You can card both fencers. Provocation – feinting start with shoulders but not feet also counts as a card able offense. (See Kovalev vs Bazadze DE).
  • Do not get caught up with the timing of the hits themselves – even if there is a small delay between the hits landing if all other actions are the same it is still simultaneous.
Rule changes from prior SSC practice
  • Attack-no reprise: if one person stops the attack but the other person keeps moving back, the attacker can initiate a reprise of the attack.
  • If both fencers ‘stop’ (usually by an attack no and a pause in taking over by the fencer who was going back) then the action simply starts again in a way similar to the 4m; priority is up for grabs.
  • Attacker can stop or even move backwards if the defender seeks counterattack or beat, while maintaining priority.
  • Benefit of the doubt is given for attack au fer vs. beat takeover.
  • Benefit of the doubt is given for beat takeover vs. parry by attacker.
Clarification of simultaneous actions and other notes
  • Deacceleration constitutes attack-no
    • Any hesitation after after first step then fast lunge is counterattack. Examples include step lunge, ballestra lunge. (Some Koreans were being caught out on this).
  • Absence of acceleration, particularly hand, is preparation.
  • Any attempt at opposition is a counterattack.
  • Ballestras are always preparation.
  • Attack-no is called as soon as the front foot touches the ground, but if the opponent searches for blade and does not get the parry, the remise of the attack is given priority over the riposte/counterattack.
  • Absence of hand extension with acceleration is preparation.
Fencing notes
  • Lots of compound parries being taken, especially from Quinte
  • Quarte parry is preferred over Quinte when retreating
    • Quarte parry riposte is a single action
  • Seconde is very common and taken from high line. Counterpart to circle tierce from low line. Sometimes seconde is taken with a jump.
    • Riposte from seconde is taken quickly and either to flank or belly (latter with opposition).
  • The acceleration for advance lunge is very abrupt
  • Guys like Kovalev and Szilagyi make a point of keeping their weight on the back foot even up to the lunge so that they can convert advance lunge to an additional advance for the march.
  • Attack au fer is very common in all lines but particularly with beat and seconde.
  • Hand is usually kept high even though most actions are to low line.
    • Personally need to watch out for dropping hand in the 4m which is called preparation.
  • It is very common to see flat hits to flank and belly.
  • Short guys flunge, with huge acceleration (no preparation). Especially from the fall short.
  • Stances are very low and weight is on ball of back foot.
  • Fall short is followed by pause, then very fast acceleration for advance lunge.
  • Defence is very active and biased towards parry and stop cut rather than attack on preparation.
    • Some people step forward with the parry especially seconde.
  • I don’t know if they are using peripheral vision or looking at the hand in the 4m, but the other fencers are very ready to take the parry from the start. My suspicion is that they use peripheral vision and always keep track of where the opponents blade is, with the intention to finish the attack but able to sense if the opponent is rushing or hesitating.
  • Dudes are massively built in the torso and legs. I’m the same height but half the bulk of Daryl Homer.
  • Hand is kept bent and very far back on the attack with lots of takes by the blade.
  • Hand is extending but kept bent for the final extension in the 4m. Don’t drop and extend the arm.
  • Hits are always leading with tip, even cuts to flank.
  • Flat hits are surprisingly common, especially from high line to chest/belly (vs. through-cuts), or as stop cuts to the outside of the opponent’s arm.