As is understandable with any brand new set of rules, the New Russian Box of Death has been causing chaos with refereeing. Uncertainty will probably hang around for years before consistent conventions manage to shake themselves out.
But from the noise, some rather lovely patterns are already starting to emerge:
All of the calls in this video are from the men’s sabre team final between Korea and Italy in Gyor. Unfortunately, we have been unable to identify the referees, but the job they’re doing here is impressive. Calls are clear, consistent and razor-sharp.
Critically, they appear to be mostly mitigating the perils of the closer distance: that fencers are just going to run into each other with no margin for error. There’s one nasty guard-clash, but at least there’s no knee clashes (which is more than can be said for earlier rounds).
Attacks are being split very, very finely, but consistently. It didn’t feel like the refs were just calling things at random to avoid simultaneous hits.
It does appear that it is easier to separate actions in the closer distance, where there’s less time for the fencers to bluff.
Priority at the start is being awarded to attacks with early and aggressive direct extension of the weapon.
Any kind of holding, hesitation or pulling of the weapon is being heavily penalised. This is leading to a huge increase in the number of calls of preparation/attack.
Point hits > direct cuts to head > direct cuts to low line > cutovers > indirect hits to low line
Very small hesitations or decelerations are being called “attack no”. You can’t just bolt forward off the line, slow down, and maintain priority.
However, if you do make your opponent fall short on their initial attack, you need to move forward immediately to claim priority. Any hesitation will allow the original attacker to take over.
Attack was being called very liberally on actions where the attacker landed the foot before hitting, as long as the defender was in range and looked like they were unsuccessfully fishing for any parry (including parry 3).
This all added up to fencers committing early, extending blade early, hitting from greater distance and reducing the number of collisions. The match was fast and fluid, with plenty of spectacular exchanges.
Overall, we now have a clear idea of how Russian Box of Death should be refereed. If this is going to be the new convention, we’re looking forward to where it leads.
We’ve had our first major events in the New Russian Box of Death*, with start lines at 3 meters. The first was a mess in almost every respect, unless you’re a fan of fencers crashing into each other repeatedly at high speed. It was pretty much exactly what all the nay-sayers, including us, had feared.
The second was an unexpected joy.
One of the clearest explanations for the new distance was given last year by Stanislav Pozdnyakov, who argued that it would reduce the importance of “growth and special physical condition”. It was highly amusing, then, when the World Cup in Gyor was won by a 195cm Korean with the physique of a comic-book superhero.
After trying to wing it in Dakar, with predictably miserable results, the Korean squad had a much happier outing in Hungary, having rapidly adapted their signature idiosyncratic style to the new conditions.
The comp as whole was a fantastic display of fast, powerful, athletic sabre, thus demonstrating an important principle we’d kind of suspected, but not been able to prove:
The speed genie is out of the bottle: sabre won’t be slowed down.
Reducing the distance limits the usefulness of the lazy momentum hacks we’ve all been using for years to gain range in the 4 meters. Just as planned, it’s broken the Gu Bon Gil Special. But it hasn’t broken Gu Bon Gil, and it really hasn’t broken his younger and larger colleague.
It turns out that if you remove the lazy momentum hacks, the athletes are just going to compensate with more raw power. The energy efficiency drops, but the speed remains the same.
And this is excellent news. Slow sabre is boring sabre. The New Russian Box of Death has indeed brought us more spectacularity, if possibly not as its creators originally intended.
The main downside is that the Russian Box Of Death has been quite frequently living up to its name:
We’ll be following up with some preliminary notes on the refereeing trends we’ve seen (and liked) tomorrow!
*Author’s note: All articles from November 2016 onwards referring the “Russian Box of Death” are referring to the newer “clarified” version, with start lines market at 3m instead of 4m. The original rule referred to by the term in our older articles involved a start distance of approximately 2m, and remains a vile and absurd abomination which thankfully never saw the light of day. Our position on that remains unchanged.
Sabre has flaws. The conventional definition of attack in the 4m is a mess. But the conventional definition of attack outside the 4m is fine. Take priority, keep moving forward, and hit without missing or getting parried.
It’s simple, it’s clear, it’s easy to apply, and it works.
But sabre has just changed.
While much noise is made over the Russian Box of Death, which isn’t a done deal yet, the timing change has very quietly flown in under the radar. The lockout has increased from 120 to 170 milliseconds, giving us all an extra blink of an eye to finish actions. It was pitched as a minor tweak to get rid of dumb remises, and help indulge the intense fetish for parries that seems to be held by the Powers-That-Be.
It’s bad news for fencers who relied heavily on timing-based counterattacks, and good news for shorter fencers with active bladework and savage acceleration. We’ve been running it every day since May, and are happy to report that draw cuts, well-planned stop cuts, counterattacks with opposition and even sufficiently insane remises are all very much still things. Some preps you can drive a bus through, and 50 milliseconds ain’t going to change that.
On these terms, there’s no problems with it. It’s going to cut down on one-light hits a bit, which is a move in the wrong direction for a good spectator show, but it’s not a disaster.
But if it’s used as an excuse to change the refereeing conventions, it will be.
We have been hearing disturbing rumblings from the old guard of how relying on the scoreboard to determine a valid counterattack on the march has been a crutch, and we really should go back to properly defining an attack by looking at who started extension first. That we should reintroduce the call of attack-on-preparation, with two lights, outside the 4m.
No, no, no, no, no. Hell no.
Even in a hypothetical world where all refereeing decisions are perfect, this makes following the game infinitely more difficult. In the real world, this takes the disease that is currently crippling the 4m zone and spreads it to every inch of the piste and every moment of the fight. When sabre is trying to find its feet as a sport with broad reach, this is an appallingly bad idea.
This change was sold as no big deal. Please, don’t make it a big deal.
Keep it simple.
Or we can have a sport where every time this happens, there’s ten minutes of drama over whether the fencer on right extended first. Please, just no.
Sabre fencing is fantastic and we love it (obviously). But it’s not a well-understood sport, and there’s a lot of misconceptions out there. In the spirit of The Big Tournament In Rio this week, here are some answers to questions we get asked a lot.
What’s the basic aim of the game?
Hit and don’t get hit.
Seriously, though, at its heart it is about the control of distance. Sabre is a game of movement, timing and acceleration to hit. Everything else is built on top.
What is the value of of fencing as a sport? Does it actually teach you to sword fight? and/or I saw this one YouTube video/read this one essay by an angry old Italian man that said that modern sport fencing is totally stupid and doesn’t train The Art Of True Swordsmanship. What do you say about that?
You may as well ask the value of competitive archery to bringing down an elk with a compound bow, or biathlon to fighting Nazis in the Finnish winter, or sprinting 100m on a track to fleeing from a lion. Sure, it’s not the same thing, and a hardcore specialist will probably do it better, but the Olympic athlete will still have pretty solid skills and will be able to take on most random chumps in the real-world variant should push ever come to shove.
It’s a way to take a messy, chaotic and dangerous real-world undertaking and turn it into a game, where skills can be both safely explored and rigorously and consistently assessed.
What’s with the scoring rules? Why is it so complicated?
The modern sport uses a set of scoring rules derived from the original training drills used back when this was actually about winning a life-or-death fight. At their core, they’re fundamentally pretty pragmatic. Over time, they’ve evolved into a standardized way of determining who controls the initiative in the fight.
When you hit your opponent anywhere above the waist, your light on the scoring system turns on and the fight stops.
If only one person hits, that person scores.
If both people hit, the person with the initiative in the fight scores. This initiative is called “priority” or “right of way”. The ref has to decide who has priority based on a set of rules:
The first person to decisively attack at the start takes priority.
Once they take it, they keep it until the make a mistake. If they stop, or miss, or get blocked, their opponent can take the priority away from them. It flows back and forth in this way until someone hits.
The scoring system is rigged to reward speed: after the first person hits, their opponent has 120ms to hit back, otherwise they’re locked out and their light can’t be turned on.
If you chase your opponent off the end of the strip, you score.
If you’re watching the Olympics, fights will be first to 15 points with a 1-minute break when the first fencer gets to 8. Team matches are a relay to 45 points.
We’ll admit it’s more complicated than “the person who runs 100m fastest wins”, but it’s really not that hard. Come on, guys, cricket is a thing.
Why is it so freaking fast? What’s with the whippy car antennas you guys use instead of proper swords? Why don’t you just wear protective gear and fight with a real sabre?
First off, the blades aren’t nearly as whippy as they look in the TV replays. They’re made of steel, and they certainly don’t feel like a car antenna. The top athletes are very, very strong, and are hitting very, very fast, hence the flex.
Generally, top sabre fencers prefer stiffer blades as you have more control and accuracy, but some flexibility is necessary to allow full-power hits to be done safely.
There’s always going to be a trade-off in any combat sport between the ability to fight at full-speed and power, and the risk of injury, both catastrophic and chronic. There’s also a trade-off between mobility and protective gear. Sabre fencing has thrown everything towards the philosophy that if you use a light weapon that bends, you can get away with minimal armour and move naturally, and you can also hit as hard as you like without doing too much damage.
Most HEMA fencing, by contrast, throws the balance the other way, and emphasizes the use of realistic weapons, but the trade-off is that you can’t move as much, and full-power sparring is severely limited by the amount of damage you take every time you do it. In training, HEMA fencers have to pull their hits. We don’t.
Fencing sabres are derived from training weapons for fighting someone who isn’t wearing armour, and is moving very fast. The focus is on mobility and control of distance, and in the modern game there is an emphasis on agility and athleticism. This is descended directly from the original nature of the weapon.
Why don’t you just block?
Sabre fencers routinely lie about the target they’re going for (this is called a feint), so blocking is tricky. That said: parries, or blocks, are definitely a thing. They’re easier to see on slow-mo replays, because they’re seriously fast. They’re also usually done in combination with movement: either stepping out of the way, or stepping forwards into the attack, or ducking down, or jumping up.
Standing there and trying to make Big Dramatic Hero Block Like In Movies doesn’t work too good, because your opponent will usually disengage around it.
Are there weight categories?
Nope. Just men’s and women’s. Within the current open men’s events at international level, you’ve got athletes who are well over 100kg of power, and athletes who are 60kg dripping wet. When they fight each other, it’s not a foregone conclusion either. Weapons are the great equaliser.
What’s with all the French?
All of the official refereeing and much of the coaching terminology in fencing will be in French. Historical legacy issues. Sorry, not much to be done there. If it makes you feel better, there really aren’t that many terms to learn and most of them are fairly similar to English.
So what’s the point of it all?
It’s crazy fun to do, it can be super exciting to watch, and if you’re lucky it can be superbly beautiful.
The following is a thorough and in-depth analysis of the Rio men’s sabre field, based on only the finest in armchair-quarterbacking, internet rumours, random encounters in nightclubs, and gossip overheard at tournaments. It has been delayed by several weeks due to the machinations of WADA, CAS, IOC and FIE, thus proving that we’re fundamentally pretty naïve at heart because we though the field might actually change. Haha!
The field this time around is noteworthy for the sheer percentage of dirty old fencers who are in it for one last desperate shot at glory before the game gets thrown down the toilet by the upcoming rule changes, which will ruin everything well past the point where a 30-something with sore knees and decades of finely-tuned responses can be bothered trying to adapt. The Olympics is traditionally won by some fresh-faced young hotshot, but we have a feeling this time will be different. So who are the contenders?
1. ALEXEY YAKIMENKO (RUSSIA) Age 32, World rank 1
An ugly brawler with a unique prep game which for some reason nobody else on the circuit has ever been able to pull off. Has had an astonishing season so far, largely based on his willingness to use whatever means may be necessary to get that hardware. The result has been the World Championship title, a world cup hat trick and a stack of podium finishes. To see his name against you on the tableau is to see the crushing weight of inevitability. Just let it happen.
2. JUNGHWAN KIM (KOREA) Age 32, World rank 2
A fragile speedster carrying a decade of injuries, it will only take one big hit or bad landing to ruin Kim’s day. On the plus side, he’s a lunatic street-fighter and is the most likely one there to be simply too crazy to bow to the weight of inevitability listed above. Got a strong lead-in with gold at the final Grand Prix of the season in Moscow, and, unusually for him, does not appear to be starting this event with any damage worse than an unfortunate haircut. Will finish the day either on the podium or in a fetal position on the floor.
3. ARON SZILAGYI (HUNGARY) Age 26, World rank 3
The defending champion and universally beloved golden boy, he of the most exquisite technical repertoire and collection of wounded-but-noble facial expressions for his video appeals. He’s perfect and beautiful in every way, but unfortunately since 2012 he just hasn’t been very good at coming first at tournaments. He’s got good odds of finishing on the podium, but the probability of lightning striking twice just ain’t that high. It’ll all be excellent television though
4. BONGIL GU (KOREA) Age 27, World rank 4
An alien cyborg sent to Earth with an inexplicable mission to win all of the sabre medals, Gu was an unstoppable powerhouse for the last two years and then just… stopped. I mean, he’s only won a single world cup this season. Pathetic. Either he got bored, or he’s in an extended reboot cycle after a firmware update. Will it be completed in time? That question will determine the gold, because when he brings the fire he can and will eat anyone else on this list for breakfast. If not, then he’ll have to extend his mission a bit longer, and we’re not going to object to that.
5. VINCENT ANSTETT (FRANCE) Age 34, World rank 5
The dark horse in the top 8, Anstett has muddled around the middle ranks of the OK-that-guy-is-pretty-good-I-guess fencers for years before exploding into the top of the scene with a series of strong results in 2016. He’s out to prove to the kids of today that sometimes, you just need to take things a little more seriously. They might not like it, but he’s brought the data. He gives hope to everyone who wants to believe that a normal human being can win at sabre. We’re expecting good things, even if his stop cuts make us cry a little inside.
6. TIBERIU DOLNICEANU (ROMANIA) Age 28, World rank 6
Tibi is one unit strong nice sabre fencer. He is the undisputed master of the eternal, grinding 4m slog game, but if you cut all that out of his videos then he is a thing of magnificence. He’s had a rough season filled with injury so far and it will be interesting to see if he’s able to bring it back to full power, because if he does he could smash them all. Then it will be time for us to hit the editing again, because man it will be pretty. Totally misleading, but pretty. If you’re planning on watching his fights live, bring a good book.
7. MAX HARTUNG (GERMANY) Age 26, World rank 8
Even Hartung admits he’s not a nice fencer. The big German relies on the weird, the awkward, and the brutal, plus a line in kicked-puppy video appeal expressions that would give even Szilagyi a run for his money. That said, he’s refined things a lot in the last year or so and it’s all starting to gel together into something that occasionally passes for spectacular. So far in 2016 he’s made a strong habit in coming 5th in just about every tournament. It’s admirably consistent, but it’d be nice to see a break in the pattern.
8. NIKOLAY KOVALEV (RUSSIA) Age 29, World rank 9
On a good day, Kovalev is an unstoppable beast, a tour-de-force of lighting reflexes and dazzling high-energy footwork. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have that many good days. More commonly, he’s just a little bit too jittery to carry off the hype. That being said, he did stage a massive upset in Seoul by knocking junior colleague and all-round team darling Kamil Ibragimov out of his Olympic spot, thus totally ruining our previous predictions for this event. He was the favourite for London but dropped the ball at the last minute: maybe with a little more of the mellowness of age he can pull it off this time. Or maybe he’ll start giggling maniacally in the middle of matches again.
9. DARYL HOMER (USA) Age 26, World rank 10
Every so often, Homer has a day where is actually fences as well as he should, and when that happens it’s the best thing ever. He’s dynamic, he’s powerful, and he’s pretty. He just needs to chill out a bit. The whole Olympic Games thing could either throw him one way or the other. Either way, there’s going to be a fair bit of drama by the end.
10. ALDO MONTANO (ITALY) Age 37, World rank 11
The Greatest Of All Time, according to the internet, and who can argue with the internet? This maniac ageing gym-rat has been been out since January after having his shoulder patched together with carbon fibre and adamantium, which is the only reason he’s this far down the rankings. Montano has made good use of his rehab time by posing for ludicrously sexy Hot-Fencer-Of-The-Day bait in Italian fashion magazines and owning everyone else in the field on Instagram. Sure, he’s a bit out of practice at the whole tournament thing, but he’s been doing this since 2004 and it’s in the blood. Not to be underestimated.
11. ELI DERSHWITZ (USA) Age 20, World rank 12
The first of the fresh-faced rookies on the list, Dershwitz had a very good day in Seoul over Easter with his first big senior title. He’s exactly the kind of fencer we’d usually expect to do well at an event like this: young, fast, strong and kind of weird. Gets just a little bit too worked up, and is almost guaranteed to be the loudest one in the room, which is no mean feat. Could get lucky.
12. DIEGO OCCHIUZZI (ITALY) Age 35, World rank 13
Everyone wants you to believe Occhiuzzi is the bad guy. His villain schtick been around for so long it’s a cliché. When you get past the drama and look at him, he’s fantastic: a caring family man whose sabre game is unfailingly sharp, brilliant and beautiful. The inevitable blow-ups are almost an obligation now, and honestly there’s worse offenders around these days. We love him, and we love seeing him cause trouble.
13. MOJTABA ABEDINI (IRAN) Age 31, World rank 15
The most exotic and rare of creatures, Abedini is a normal moderate fencer with good technique and sensible tactics. Has quietly snuck up into the upper echelons of the ranking list with a series of solid results against much more flamboyant opponents. He’s there with a job to do.
14. ALIAKSANDR BUIKEVICH (BELARUS) Age 31, World rank 16
The slowest fencer in the world, Buikevich takes the tall-lazy-leftie thing and elevates it to an art form. Noteworthy for starring earlier this year in The Worst Sabre Bout Of All Time against #15, Sandro Bazadze, for which both of them stand eternally in disgrace. Can actually fence OK when he wakes up.
15. SANDRO BAZADZE (GEORGIA) Age 23, World rank 19
Much scream, very drama, wow. Look out for his famous “big screen” video appeal signal. Actually quite a clean fencer when you edit out the hours and hours of simultaneous attacks and posturing, with a draw cut that will take your arm off. Could cause some serious trouble for the big dogs if they don’t watch out.
16. ALI PAKDAMAN (IRAN) Age 25, World rank 21
Not a particularly subtle fencer. He’s big, he’s strong, and he’s very good at treading on people’s feet.
17. RENZO AGRESTA (BRAZIL) Age 32, World rank 22
Home town favourite who will probably have the wind at his back all day, and will need it.
18. MATYAS SZABO (GERMANY) Age 24, World rank 25
Szabo should be way further up the list than this. A notorious prankster with gorgeous delicate footwork, he is for some reason Gu’s kryptonite. Is almost certain to ruin someone’s day.
19. ANDRIY YAGODKA (UKRAINE) Age 28, World rank 29
We’re not saying Yagodka’s counterattack game is the reason for the timing change, but it’s the best excuse we’ve heard. A massive, ungainly kid with a wingspan more typically associated with exotic soviet cargo aircraft, his sabre is so hideous that it’s kind of cool.
20. JOSEPH POLOSSIFAKIS (CANADA) Age 25, World rank 30
Polo’s career best result was a top-8 at the 2015 Moscow Grand Prix, which was sustained with a sprained ankle. Maybe someone should hit him in the kneecaps with a baseball bat before Rio. Aww, just kidding, Polo, we love you.
21. SEPPE VAN HOLSBEKE (BELGIUM) Age 28, World rank 32
For all the noise about the importance of height in this sport, there are not many people on the men’s sabre circuit who, when met suddenly around a corner, cause us to go OH JEEZ YOU’RE REALLY BIG. Van Holsbeke is one of them. He’s also sadly renowned for building crushing leads and then losing on a heartbreaking 15/14 for the stupidest of reasons. Would be nice if he could get out of that habit. Has his own website, which is pretty slick.
Author’s note: At this point, we largely plunge out of the territory where we can make informed comment on the fencers, besides as guys we’ve seen the big dogs beat up in the first round at worlds. We’re very sorry about this, but there are only so many hours in the day and we have jobs. If anyone would like further coverage, please submit a portfolio of your most spectacular hits and/or an entertaining personal bio to firstname.lastname@example.org for consideration. Thank you. If any of you guys win, we promise to buy you dinner.
22. THANH AN VU (VIETNAM) Age 23, World rank 33
Fast, tense, and holds like crazy. Will probably love the new timing next season.
23. ILYA MOKRECOV (KAZAHKSTAN) Age 32, World rank 39
Loves him some 4m forward parries. Not the most graceful thing we’ve ever seen, but at least it’s ambitious.
24. FARES FERJANI (TUNISIA) Age 19, World rank 40
Never seen this kid fence, so who can tell?
25. TAMAS DECSI (HUNGARY) Age 33, World rank 51
Wait, what is Decsi doing down here? He’s a beast. If he turns it on, he has an attack almost indistinguishable from a runaway locomotive. You might get the attack on prep, but it ain’t gonna save you. Could do some serious damage to someone expecting an easy first round.
26. YEMI APITHY (BENIN) Age 27, World rank 56
Has terrible taste in nightclubs. That’s all we’re saying.
27. WEI SUN (CHINA) Age 23, World rank 72
Got some range on him. Might be good for a shock upset if he’s having a strong day.
28. KENTA TOKUNAN (JAPAN) Age 28, World rank 75
Has a nice line in foil counterparries. Quite fun to watch.
29. MOHAMED AMER (EGYPT) Age 19, World rank 85
We’ve never seen this guy fence except in training, but he’s the youngest one in the comp so that’s pretty cool.
30. JULIAN AYALA (MEXICO) Age 24, World rank 123
(We’ve never seen this guy fence)
31. YOANDRY IRIARTE GALVEZ (CUBA) Age 30, World rank 142
(We’ve never seen this guy fence)
32. PANCHO PASKOV (BULGARIA) – Age 22, World rank – wow, there are that many guys on the FIE ranking list now? How nice to see the sport grow.
We’re not really sure who this kid is. There’s a rumour his mum got him in to the Olympics, and we guess that’s as good an explanation as any. Hey, if you can manage it, why not?
SO WHO WILL WIN
The scientific answer:
There is absolutely no way to tell. Anyone in the top 20 or so could take it with a good day and a prevailing wind.
Draw names out of a hat.
The sports-wonk answer:
The Olympics is a weird tournament due to its small field and extensive advance notice of the draw. The ability to spend up to a week planning for a known set of opponents traditionally gives younger, less well-known athletes an edge over the guys who’ve been on the circuit for years and had some nerd in Australia make compilation videos showing all their cool moves (SORRY GUYS).
According to this logic, it’ll be someone young, good enough to have at least a couple of serious world cup results under their belt but not enough good results to be a major target yet. Also by this logic, the fencers who rely on the awkward and the random may have an edge. Look for Dershwitz, Bazadze, Yagodka, Sun, Szabo, maybe even Hartung if he keeps his head down.
The sentimental answer:
We want one of the wily old bastards to take it, in this last tournament under the good old rules.
Anstett, Dolniceanu, Gu, Kim, Kovalev, Occhiuzzi, or best of all Cyborg Montano: show the kids how sabre is done right before the FIE blows it all to hell.
The cynical pragmatist answer:
Yakimenko will win.
He just will. We’re putting money on it, just to make us feel better when the inevitable happens.
ENJOY THE SHOW
If you’re watching, we hope this guide enhances your spectator experience. Pick a favourite or two, heckle loudly and throw stuff if appropriate. Depending on who your favourites are, having a stiff drink and a shoulder to cry on may also be advised, but hey, that’s part of sport.
If you’re fencing, have fun on the piste, and may the odds be ever in your favour. You guys are all awesome, and we’re very sorry if we said anything mean, unless it’s true. You’re still pretty awesome though.
For those of you who don’t make a habit of following the pronouncements of our glorious overlords in Switzerland, a quick catch up is due: there are new rules for sabre! Here’s a short FAQ.
What’s the new rule?
Under current conditions, the fencers start 4 m apart, with their front foot just behind the engarde line (ie: with the fencers just outside “the box”). The Russian Federation, in their infinite wisdom, have decided that things would be much more exciting if we started matches without nearly as much room to move. Here’s the official phrasing:
For sabre, the referee places each of the two competitors in such a way that the back foot of each is 2 m from the centre line of the piste (that is, in front of the “on guard” lines).
This puts the fencers anywhere between 2 m and 3 m apart, depending on the size of your fencers.
We’re calling this the Russian Box Of Death.
Where will this apply and why do I care?
This is currently a test, which will be carried out at all FIE tournaments, in all age categories. World Cups, Grand Prix, the works. After that, they’ll decide whether to make it permanent.
Application as follows: the tests have to be done after the Olympic Games and until December 31, 2016 and, according to the ad hoc Commission, the Executive Committee will decide if the rule will be applied for the rest of season 2016-2017.
It will also be implemented at all USFA events from August to December.
20 club fencers at Sydney Sabre, ranging in experience from 1 month to 15+ years national and international competition, in a standard-format tournament.
The German Men’s Sabre Team at their training centre in Dormagen, messing around behind their coach’s back.
We filmed as many matches as we could, then cut them down to the starting actions. Data in hand, we sat down to do a frequency count.
And we ran into a problem, which can be summarised here:
Nobody knows how to ref under these conditions yet. Definitions of “simultaneous” and “attack/counterattack” and “attack on preparation” have taken years to evolve to their current form in the existing rules, and that’s all just been thrown out the window.
But there’s a further problem.
The implementation is going to be based on opaque machinations of the FIE COMEX which are way above our pay grade, and are not likely to be influenced by some stats from a bunch of random Australians. So we’re not going to waste our time.
Instead, we made a video.
If this is what you want from this sport, well, then that’s fine. In our humble opinion, it is garbage, and it produces vile sabre.
But does it actually cut down on simultaneous actions, or make attacks easier to judge?
Maybe? But even if it does, do we really want to sabre to devolve into a series of 1-second exchanges where both fencers jump at each other and the one who jumps slightly faster wins?
Our hypothesis is that any change in the rules leads to a temporary drop in simultaneous actions as fencers experiment with the new conditions. As they figure our the highest probability actions, however, the frequency of them both making the same move at the same time will go back up.
Do you guys have an alternative?
We have several.
1. Leave it alone, and let nature take its course. It’s a continuously evolving arms race, always in flux. The current 4 m simultaneous deadlock is unlikely to be permanent.
2. As proposed by CyrusOfChaos: we go back to the refereeing conventions of the 2009-2010 season, where attack on preparation was enthusiastically called in the 4 m and thus making your opponent’s initial attack fail was substantially easier than it is today, where long trundling “continuous attacks” are favoured.
Sabre is an amazing sport. It’s fast, dynamic, flashy, brilliantly complex in execution and brutally simple in principle. Over the last three years, I’ve taught over 5,000 people with no previous exposure to the sport to play, ref, and understand the game. We’ve published videos to introduce the soul of sabre to a wider audience, and we’ve fought against the idea that this is an esoteric and unapproachable sport of the elites.
But sabre has a glaring weakness.
The vast majority of exchanges in any match, from club to elite level, look less like this:
The problem of simultaneous, ambiguous or contested calls in the 4m is widely acknowledged by everyone, including the FIE Executive. A number of proposals will soon be considered by the FIE Congress, including starting fencers closer together and widening the lockout time on the scoreboard from 120 to 180ms. The timing change is ostensibly to reduce simultaneous 4m actions by reducing the importance of fast preparation and allowing more time for complex defensive actions like parry. The altered starting positions is ostensibly to break Gu Bongil… we have no idea.
While field tests have apparently been done, no results have been published to show how either of these suggestions work in practice.
Regular readers of this blog may guess that this bothers us a bit.
We’re not in the position to test the widened timing, which requires hardware updates beyond the scope of a club at the ends of the Earth. We’ve run a test of the close starting positions, a rule we’ve been calling The Russian Box Of Death, and the less said about that, the better.
But there is another proposal not yet before the FIE Congress, which completely eliminates the problem of 4m simultaneous actions with one simple change to the rules.
A Radical Proposal
We copy tennis. No, really.
One of the core rules in fencing is that both fencers start neutral. When the ref says go, nobody has the advantage. This ain’t tennis.
But what happens if we ditch this rule?
The following is based on a suggestion posted on Facebook by Tim Morehouse:
This Ain’t Tennis/Morehouse Rules
At the start of the match, priority is randomly allocated to one fencer (Fencer A).
Fencer A “serves”, or starts with priority, for a “set” of four points.
After a “set” of four points, priority is shifted to Fencer B. This four-point cycle repeats for the remainder of the match.
Winner is first to 16, with a 2 point margin of victory.
If the score gets to 15-16, then the priority is switched every point.
We decided to give it a go.
Here’s how we implemented it:
We used the scoreboard priority function to assign priority at the start.
The way we explained the starting priority to fencers and refs was this: just act like Fencer A is midway through a marching attack. If there’s a double-light hit and Fencer A has not lost priority through normal means (attack no, beat, parry, point-in-line), then Fencer A will get the point.
There are no restrictions on what actions either fencer can attempt. Fencer B can move forward, attempt single-light attack on prepration, or do whatever they like.
The two-point margin is designed to increase the amount of time in the bout spent at the really exciting bit, the final deciding points, while also reducing the potential disappointing random screw-ups or other dodgy outcomes.
Sounds complicated. But hey, so is refereeing a dozen or so simultaneous attacks on 14-14.
What could possibly go wrong?
It was a busy night with 16 fencers, including some fiery competitive types, when we tested this at our club. I was nervous. Were we going to break the game?
Not at all. Here’s a silly video featuring a bunch of 15 year olds:
Match results were about what I’d expect for each of the match ups we tested. We recorded nine matches in detail, and the results show that while starting with priority was an advantage, it wasn’t overwhelming:
61% of points were scored by the fencer who started with the priority. 39% of points were scored by the fencer who started on the defence.
This is what we see if we break the results into the outcome of each 4-point set. The most common outcome was for the set to finish 2-2: attacking and defending fencers won two points each.
Here’s what the match scoreboards look like. Red means priority.
Bear in mind this was with fencers who have been fully trained in conventional tactics and had no exposure to this rule set before the start of these matches.
Matches were fast, fluid, and almost totally free of the usual refereeing drama. The proportion of spectacular actions (single-light counterattacks, parries, counterparries, crushing marching attacks of death) was much higher than usual. Observations from the fencers included:
“From the referee’s perspective it brought about clarity, much easier to adjudicate.The fencing was lots of fun, makes you work on your defensive game. A most satisfactory arrangement!”
“I was wasting far less effort on repeated 4m advance lunge, so even though the bouts involved a lot more extended exchanges, I had more energy for actions. I was much less tired after the bout.”
“Very few controversial 4m calls. Calls were clear and decisions weren’t unpopular. Actually (in my case) made fencing more tactical, as the tactics used were of a broader scope. Also really fun. But: makes it much harder to get a landslide victory!”
“The game took away all confusion in the 4m and the stress of splitting simultaneous whilst being shouted at by two fencers. The calls were also very clear for the fencers. The game (even though it seems to limit choice) made fencing more tactical. It made fencers stop going for simultaneous 100 times in a row.”
“Much better than a timing change!”
Honestly, it hurt to go back to normal rules. Watching the Tbilisi World Cup and the first few “Advance-Lunge-Scream-Fistpump-Argue” sequences of the evening, all I could think of is “Why is this still a thing?”
An established model
This is not new. Allocation of priority in sabre was going on in bouts in the pre-electric days, although it had to be preceded by a simultaneous hit first.
Turning this into a mature rule set to completely eliminate ambiguity off the start line is new, but we’re taking a basic principle from one of the biggest sports out there.
While we’re on the subject of tennis, let’s have a quick look at the kind of advantage wielded by the player with priority serve:
Service games won – 79%
Return games won – 25%
Stats are from ATP, average of all players post-1991 on all surfaces. Tennis nerds feel free to tell me if there’s a better stat to use, I’m not an expert.
What I can see, however, is that an 80% win rate based on a structural advantage to one player in certain periods of the game is not considered to be a catastrophic problem. Our stats showing a 60% win rate for the fencer with priority look balanced by comparison.
Further research is required
A Friday night bouting session at one club in Australia does not a comprehensive test make. But we’ve shown that allocating priority from the start does not break the game. What we’d love to see is further development of this idea from large competitive clubs. If nothing else, it’s an excellent training exercise.
We are convinced that this has genuine potential to fix the biggest weakness which currently holds back sabre as a major mainstream sport.
Under these rules, I’m confident that I could get a someone with no exposure to sabre to the point where they could follow a match with about one minute of explanation. If we’re serious about making this a proper televised spectator event, this is exactly the sort of thing that needs to be considered.
In the mean time, I would seriously recommend that anyone running a display or demonstration match for the general public use these rules. They make sabre clear, elegant and fun.
The movement starts with the front foot. The toes are lifted and the front swings forward with an extension of the knee. The front heel advances, skimming the floor, as the rear leg pushes with a vigorous extension of the knee.”
-Istvan Lukovitch, “Fencing, The New International Style” (1958)
If you’ve had a technical fencing lesson with almost any coach in the world, I’m prepared to bet you’ve been taught something along these lines. It’s near-universally accepted as the correct way to do footwork, and hours upon hours are spent on drills to train lifting the toe and flicking the heel along the ground.
If you’re like me, you probably struggled with this, and found it counter-intuitive and kind of unnatural. If you’ve ever queried it, you may have heard explanations like “You have to pick up your toes, so you don’t trip over them.”
You may well have then got on with your fencing career without really thinking about it, only to occasionally be pulled up by an indignant coach and told off for doing it wrong. Or, if you’re made of sterner stuff, you may have drilled it and drilled it until it became your default action in footwork, the toes lifting cleanly and the foot bouncing off the heel in snappy staccato actions. Lovely.
In either case, you may look with some confusion at the frequent action shots coming out of A-grade tournaments, which show things like this:
This is a badass athletic pose, but what is the action? If you ask an experienced fencer or coach, you’ll probably hear something like “He’s running” or “He’s about to cross his feet, like he always does, the fast little bastard” (actual quote). It’s certainly nothing that fits in the lovely classical cannon of toe first, heel second.
It’s also the the way a human body is built to move. This is how you put power to the ground to accelerate forwards.
So how does this apply to fencing?
We were running some drills with Kevin Moore, our visiting biomechanics guy. The aim of the drill was to destabilise your centre of mass forwards and allow yourself to start to fall, and then have the legs naturally do what they needed to do to stop it. While this was going on, I was snapping a few photos.
There’s that badass pose again. Dr Chow looks like he’s about to run off, like the fast little bastard he is. But what’s the next part of the action?
Let’s clean that up a bit so he’s not actually in the process of falling over:
Could that really be what Mr Kim is doing in the first photo above? I pulled up literally the first slow-mo video I could find of him launching a lunge where the feet were visible for the whole process:
Now, John Chow is a scientist at heart who is very happy to try out crazy things if they might work. Kim Junghwan is well known in Serious Coaching Circles as a hideous abomination against all that is good and right in fencing. They’re doing it wrong because, I don’t know, it might make them go 1% faster or something, and they don’t care if they make nice fencers cry.
Let’s look at Mr Perfect Lunge himself, Gu Bongil. Surely he does things properly.
Ok, ok, calm down. The Koreans are weird. Everyone knows that. They’re doing some kind of nutball thing that goes along with the bouncing and front-splits and god knows what else it is they get up to.
I went to have a bit of a dig around.
Show me the data
At this point, it’s more efficient if I just let the footage speak for itself.
And I warn you. What is seen cannot be unseen.
That, ladies and gentlemen, is what you see.
They’re doing it wrong. But what is “wrong”?
Nobody, and I mean nobody, does the toe lift thing in a real fight. Nobody. I went through close to a hundred lunge samples in men’s sabre, and I couldn’t find it once, even in cases where the lunge is launched from a stationary position. Everyone lifts the heel first, even if it’s only a slight lift.
If you ask these guys what they’re doing when they lunge, they’ll mostly tell you what they’ve been taught: that they’re lifting the toe first and the heel last. They’ve been drilled in it, for thousands of hours in some cases. But their bodies are overriding their minds.
And that’s OK.
In any fight between your brain and your foot about movement, your foot is going to win.
– Kevin Moore
Fencing footwork should be based on natural human gait, and natural human gait involves lifting the heel first and the toe last.
I have never been presented with any kind of real argument for why lifting the toe first provides an advantage in terms of speed, power, energy efficiency, injury risk or indeed anything besides possibly a slightly better chance of adjusting distance mid-action, which I’ve always found a bit dubious in the heat of a fight.
It is, as far as I can work out, a convention based on what the biggest and most obvious part of the action is when viewed with the naked eye. I can see why people believe it: I believed it for years too. The flick up of the toe is what jumps out at you when you watch the action, particularly if you’re already been told to look for it.
But it has no basis in science.
What we’re seeing in the video, therefore, is not the messy pragmatism of combat. This isn’t people’s nice technique falling apart under stress. This is athletes listening to their bodies, even if totally subconsciously, and moving the way that is most effective.
What these guys are doing in bouts is more correct, in a pure technical sense, than what they’re doing in footwork drills. It’s a better movement.
So who the hell am I to tell you what’s correct?
I am acutely conscious that as an amateur fencer from a new club at the ends of the Earth, I don’t really have what you might call an established position to be throwing around claims that everyone is teaching footwork wrong. I am, however, a scientist by training, and unfortunately we get raised to believe that stuff like established position doesn’t mean squat in the face of data, even though that can get highly uncomfortable at times.
Luckily, this is not one of those times. We are by no means the first to make this observation.
The origins of this sport are in combat, real combat. The guys who were trying to kill each other weren’t going to mess around with arbitrary training conventions about toes unless there was at least some kind of observational evidence for an advantage. Surely this practical attitude fed into fencing as an Olympic sport?
The right toes leave the ground last, the right heel touches the ground first.
-Aldo Nadi, “On Fencing” (1943)
And there you have it. You can argue with me all you like (although I’ve got a lot of data to wave at you). But you want to argue with this guy?
So what? What should we all be doing?
If you dearly love bouncing along on your heel in beautiful sharp staccato actions, eh, it’s probably OK I guess. You’re a bit of a weirdo as far as I’m concerned, but whatever floats your boat, I’m not here to judge.
But if you’re like most people and you struggle with that kind of thing, the good news is it’s almost certainly pointless and you can throw it out the window without losing a single thing. This frees you to spend your training time and effort on stuff that’s actually going to be effective. Make your footwork light and soft and springy. While you’re at it, go check out the most adorable training video ever (noting the light, soft, springy footwork from Mr Nazlymov).
On a more serious note, there may very well be much more important implications to all of this. We will develop this further over the coming months, as we continue our collaboration with Reembody.
But for now, my advice is to let your legs move the way they want to move, and stop feeling guilty for not conforming to some arbitrary movement standard from 1958.
This was considered by many to be mildly demotivating. Yes, doing amazing stuff on the piste is fun and winning is cool. But what hope is there for the enormous majority who can’t dedicate 16 hours a day to intensive physical training (plus naps)?
We decided to get out and talk to some other successful teams.
Let’s start with the guys who beat Korea in the 2014 World Champs. They seem like a good data set.
We had a chat about training schedules with Max Hartung, who’s about to finish a politics and economy degree, has been interning in the European parliament and won bronze in both individual and team at Moscow.
FC: When did you start fencing? When did you start taking it seriously?
MH: Age 8. My coach was very serious about it from the start and I won my first competition as a kid. Very serious 9-year-old business after that.
FC: How much did you train when you were in school?
MH: I practised 5 times a week for ca. 2 hours when I was 13. Practice and training camps on weekends more and more until I graduated high school.
FC: Did you play any other sports seriously at any time?
MH: No. There was not time from the start.
Aw, not true. I played in the varsity soccer high school team in Minneapolis and got second in the state championship.
FC: What sort of cross training do you do?
MH: Running, athletics, jumps. Stability, core, power exercises. Short exercises, no marathons.
FC: What age did you turn pro? What exactly did that entail?
MH: I turned pro after I became junior world champion in 2009 and was in an army sports program. After 2012 I decided that I wanted to pursue my professional career as well, so I dropped from the army and started uni.
This year I took my fencing more seriously and my preparation for worlds started in April.
FC: What was your training like in the lead up to worlds? What’s your normal schedule?
MH: 2-3 times a week athletics. 5-6 times a week fencing and fencing related exercises. Each session is 2 – 2.5 hours.
A regular fencing practice is warm up, often soccer, and footwork, exercises from easy to complicated and fencing after. I get three lessons 30-45 minutes a week.
FC: What’s your rest and recovery program like?
MH: I try not to have too many gin and tonics.
There you have it, boys and girls.
Of course, it helps if you’re 190cm tall, a champion athlete, train at a dedicated facility with a professional squad and a full coaching and support crew, and started your competitive career at the age of 9.
In our next instalment, we’ll be looking at options for those of us who maybe are more than 25 years old and don’t physically resemble something out of a comic book.