This ain’t tennis: Testing a radical proposal to fix the 4 meters

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:

and more like this:

It’s even a meme.

in sabre everyone thinks its their touch

Long runs of mirror-image advance lunges followed by screaming and posing happen in almost every bout. These simultaneous actions confuse spectators, exhaust and injure fencers and increase the difficulty (and subjectivity) of refereeing.

Don't we all want to be this ref right now.
Don’t we all want to be this ref right now.

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.

Hooray, the problem is solved forever!
Hooray, the problem is solved! (sample photo from our test session)

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:

FFN point stats

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.

FFN set stats

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.

This aint tennis scoreboards
(Click for full size)

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.

Our observations

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?”

Whyyyyyyyyy?
Whyyyyyyyyy?

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.

These guys don't seem to have any trouble getting people to understand the rules.
These guys don’t have too much trouble getting the average punter to understand the rules.

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.

Although we'll kind of miss the posing.
We’ll kind of miss the posing, but we suspect the casual spectator won’t.

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.

While we're on the subject of fun, thanks to the Avengers U15 sabre squad for their participation in the study.
While we’re on the subject of fun, thanks to the Sydney Sabre U15 team for their participation in the study.  L-R Nick Pastore, Vincent Zheng, Ethan Pastore. Watch out for these guys.