Historic Martial Arts Research


This is an article I wrote several years ago, before I began studying HMA. I still like the article and the premises are sound. I may eventually revise it so that the terminology is more consistent with what I use elsewhere on this site. I still stand by the idea that fencing is not that different than Monopoly or chess.

One of the things I find most amusing here is that I touched upon a lot of the ideas that appear in the "Rapier Fundamentals" paper, but I either didn't know what to call them at the time or I just brushed the edge of the idea without really getting a hold of it.

Gaming Strategy as Applied to the Art of Defense

 

 

By Signor Dante di Pietro

(mka Darren Di Battista)

(2003)

 

Disclaimer: The following is intended to be reflective of a tournament mindset, i.e. one where winning, as such, is the primary goal for participating in an individual fight. This is mentioned only because of the difference in mentality between "trying to win" versus "trying to learn/teach" or "having silly fun." While teaching, one will often leave openings intentionally to see if the learner will discover them; while being silly one will often try things that are not immediately or directly related to winning and will often get one killed in the process; when the object of the fight is to win and advance, fighters will generally be more direct in their simulated willful murder. The author recognizes that this mindset is not found in all people at all tournaments, but is choosing to focus on the most "lifelike" methodology for the sake of brevity. The author also recognizes that his own understanding of what is meant by "brevity" may be marginally different than the reader's. Finally, the author has used the pronoun "he" exclusively, as this has been the gender neuter pronoun as well as the masculine in English since what we SCAdians would term "early period."

 

The purpose of this essay is to examine rapier fighting according to the basic principles of gaming strategy, which apply to any situation where there are a set of victory conditions and an adversary of some sort. While the exact list of principles could be a matter for debate, I have isolated what I feel to be the Fundamental Principles that govern all games, be it chess, Monopoly (and we stampede out of period almost immediately), poker, and yes, fencing. The repeated comparison of rapier fighting to a live action chess match by other fencers in the SCA gave me the inclination to finally put words to that theory in an extended form. While I do not expect to be revealing anything revolutionary, it is my hope that I may be the catalyst for at least a handful of fencers having a "Eureka!" moment and possibly providing others with a new perspective.

 

What follows are my own thoughts on the ebb and flow of a duel, as derived through my own experiences and observations in the SCA and being a gamer of a fairly dedicated sort off the field. As they are with what I am most familiar, I will be using Atlantian conventions when discussing valid and killing blows, although a very simple modification in wording should make these basic principles appropriate for any system of rules.

 

Premise:

The objective of a fencer in a duel is to attain the victory conditions while avoiding injury to himself.

Victory conditions are in this context defined as death, first blood, or disinclination. Some tournaments may have other conditions, but these are the most commonly accepted and anticipated. As you can see, this premise is predicated on the idea of a period duel where it would have been a very real and equally deadly weapon being moved at one's vitals. We have the advantage of being able to survive a missed parry, but I do not feel this fact should allow us to become lax in our education or practice.

Fundamental Principles:

1) Interaction should be minimized.

This idea is perhaps best illustrated by making mention of another out of period game, namely baseball. In baseball, the game that one wants to see if one is concerned solely with one's team winning is the "no hitter," where a team is able to win without the other team getting on base. The pitcher has been able to successfully prevent the other team from interacting, both with the ball and by extension his teammates. Conversely, the more interaction your team has with the ball, the more opportunities you have to attain the victory conditions. Of course, as you only need one run to win, interaction can be kept to a bare minimum even when it is necessary to win.

Another good modern example of this can be found in boxing, which translates well to fencing because the two have similarities as combative sports. Imagine for a moment that you are in a boxing match—clearly your goal is to knock out the other fighter as quickly as possible, while being hit as few times as possible in the meantime. Again, interaction is minimized to the detriment of the opponent.

I posit that this will be true for any competitive endeavor barring those that may offer some kind of reward for interacting with one's opponent at length. Even in a sport such as wrestling, where points may be awarded for attaining control over an opponent, it is most expedient from a perspective of achieving victory to simply pin them and be done with it as soon as possible. Scoring a pin fall gains more team points in this case, and I have witnessed a wrestler lose by pin after dominating his opponent at all other points in the match.

One necessary caveat to this principle is that interaction is fine if that is the means by which one attains victory in the situation in question. Playing Monopoly, we quite rightly want a level of interaction—namely, we want our opponents to interact as much as needed with the hotel we have on Boardwalk for them to go bankrupt. Even here, however, the principle remains intact, albeit in a modified form, for we still want to avoid landing on our opponents' property.

The important thing to remember here, insofar as it applies to a fencing match, is that the longer a fight lasts the more chances there are for you to lose. Simply put, if you, as a fencer, are capable of consistently successfully parrying 99 out of 100 attacks, then it is far and away in your best interest to win before the math catches up with you. Therefore, in a tournament setting the ideal strategy is to kill one's opponent with the first attack sequence whenever possible.

Now, I will concede that this is not always possible, but if your goal is to kill your opponent with minimal risk to yourself this is clearly the best strategy to seek to employ at the beginning. This will hold true in all situations, whether you are an experienced fighter who would only be at risk from bad luck or if you are a newer fighter who is less likely to win the long fight against a more experienced opponent. It does not make for exciting fights necessarily, but it does make for victory without injury.

It is worth noting here that this is why dagger fighters are generally considered to be blazingly insane. This has yet to stop any of us, however.

2) Victory is best achieved through resource management and resource denial.

I will again refer you to Monopoly at first in this case, where one's initial resources are a few thousand dollars in play money. Play the game a few times, and you will quickly notice that money is much, much less important than property as a resource. It is because of this that it is generally a good strategy to buy just about everything you land on that you can afford, even if you have to mortgage properties to do so. The effective management of your monetary resources creates a situation where you have superior board position (see Fundamental Principle #3 for an explanation of this term), which allows you to effectively deny the opponents' resources, namely first their liquid assets and later their real estate. By purchasing all available property, you are also denying them the later use of that same resource.

Returning to the idea that a fencing match is like a game of chess in many ways, there are many good examples of this rule to be found in chess. For example, it is generally considered to be a bad trade to lose one's queen for an opponent's pawn. While I am sure that some situation exists where that is in fact the correct move to make, rare exceptions do not disprove a generality. Conversely, if my opponent is very good with knights or tends to employ strategies in which knights figure prominently, it may be a good idea to sacrifice a bishop or other equally powerful piece to deny my opponent the use of his or her favorite resource. Of course, it is quite clear that losing a pawn to take any of the higher level pieces is a good trade to make in most cases. In each situation, resources are being managed to maximal output and the opponent's resources are being denied as much as possible.

To keep in line with this method of thinking, the resources to be discussed in fencing are the contents of a fighter's hands: namely, his sword and whatever else he has taken with him to the fight. These are the resources that must be managed and denied the opponent for a successful fight. A buckler can give a superior resource for defense, a dagger a superior resource for close range offense and a strong resource for defense as well. Knowing the capacities of each of your weapons and understanding how to best make use of them to attain victory while keeping one's defense intact is the successful management of those resources.

Taking an opponent's hand or arm is the most obvious method of resource denial, and anyone with practical experience knows that losing one's hand and the weapon therein against a fighter of equal merit puts one at a significant disadvantage. There are other methods of successful resource management and denial, but those will be discussed later.

3) Board position is the most effective method of dictating the flow of resources.

As I mentioned earlier, having the most property in Monopoly gives you something I have termed "board advantage," which is basically a way of saying that you are the one with the high ground, or whatever the functional equivalent of that might be in context. In that game, having the most real estate is a distinct tactical advantage that allows you to better control the flow of resources into your wallet. This becomes especially more apparent the greater the divide in board position becomes; if you are the only player with the ability to own houses, you are clearly at a significant advantage. If you are able to own adjacent monopolies, such as the red and green squares, once houses have been built on them it becomes a fiscal death trap for any metal hats unlucky enough to dice their way through town.

Chess is again an excellent example of this principle, because one may dictate an opponent's moves by controlling board position. This can be something as simple as moving him into check so that his next move must be to escape, or something much more complicated like organizing one's pieces in such a way as to paralyze certain of his pieces or even to lock down a section of the board to prevent the opponent from moving into an area. In each of these cases, board position has dictated each side's ability to effectively manage and deny resources.

I consider board position in fencing to take the form of a fighter's footwork and his manipulation of terrain. Given the assertion of the Third Principle, I feel justified in using this definition. If one's resources are one's weapons and parrying devices, then these are most effectively managed through proper footwork, positioning, and range. Consider a more extreme example of how range and footwork come into play: the situation of a single dagger versus a single rapier. If the dagger fighter can control board position and close, then he or she has effectively enabled the resource of the dagger offensively and effectively denied the resource of the rapier. While it could be argued that a dagger's range as an offensive tool should be said to start the moment it is capable of bringing the rapier off target so the dagger fighter may close safely, I am choosing to define offense as when a blade may make contact with flesh, as a blade bind can be escaped with footwork, which is the whole point of the Third Principle.

However, if the rapier fighter is able to use his or her own footwork to keep the dagger fighter at a farther range, then the resource of the dagger becomes wholly nullified as an offensive tool. It is also possible in this situation for the rapier fighter to attempt to minimize interaction by acting to bring about a quick kill, or attack the dagger fighter's legs in an effort to prevent them from having any control over board position whatsoever. In this case, board position plays such an important role in resource management and subsequently threat delivery that it may be considered a victory condition in itself.

To use a less hyperbolic example, imagine a situation that we have all been in at one point or another on at least one side, and that I sincerely hope we will all be in on both sides in our careers: the relatively experienced teacher versus the relatively inexperienced student. Let us even be generous to the student and say that he has adequate bladework to be considered proficient with his weapon of choice, so the question of resource management and denial will not play a significant role in predicting the outcome of the fight. The difference, however, is that the teacher has nearly flawless footwork and the student exhibits most of the bad habits that one might see in a newer fighter: leans forward, feet not squared up, legs straight, legs too close together or too far apart, you name it, the student is doing it. Now, remember that their bladework is going to be about even in skill.

Who will win?

Almost certainly the teacher, since the student is going to be able to parry and make limited attacks, but only the teacher will be able to control range, positioning, angle, the use of nonlinear movement, and thereby dominate the management of resources. Moreover, the teacher may be able to make use of the First Principle to demonstrate the importance of proper footwork. Imagine that you are fencing someone who will never lunge, nor be able to retreat quickly. No matter how good his bladework is, you should be able to make easy work of him merely by lunging and keeping your vitals out of their limited range.

The successful manipulation of terrain may include the use of physical obstacles that may be present, taking advantage of ground that is not level, or moving so that the Sun is in your opponent's eyes. The first and last examples of this are fairly straightforward, but the use of the ground is something that should be carefully considered. The most common terrain modifier to arise is a slanted field. Should this be pronounced enough, it can make the head or the feet a very attractive target depending on which side of the slant you are on. The high ground would seem to be the most favorable, as it provides an advantage in range and an increased likelihood of striking a victory condition, especially the head. The low ground can make it more difficult to attack the victory conditions and lessen one's effective range and should therefore be avoided. It is noteworthy, however, that most people do not guard their feet well enough and this can be exploited should you find yourself holding the low ground.

Corollaries to the Principles:

1) All attacks should be designed to minimize risk to the attacker and should be protective in nature.

Note that I use the word "protective" rather than "defensive" here; this is to show a distinction between the defensive act of blocking a thrust with a buckler and the offensive act of using a buckler to bind a blade while making an attack, thus protecting you from harm as you make an attack. Similarly, a good thrust will be made around the opponent's blade in such a way that prevents him from making an effective counterattack.

A noteworthy example of this can be seen in the act of hand sniping, an instance of attempted resource denial. While I am certain that it is possible, I have never witnessed two fencers attack each other's hands and both be successful. It has been my experience that if one is making a good attack to an exposed area of the hand, the other fighter is going to be nearly incapable of returning in kind at the same time. He may make an attack elsewhere, but one's hand should remain protected by simple virtue of geometry, particularly if a closed guard is in use. Essentially, assuming that you have made the correct decision in taking a shot at someone's hand (by which I mean that it is in fact exposed and that you have the point control to hit the target area reliably), you should be protected in making this attack from any kind of effective reprisal. Even if he chooses that moment to strike at you, you should still be able to hit his arm before he can land a blow—one of the benefits of being the proactive fencer, seeking to minimize interaction in this way. It is also worth noting that a lighter calibration is favorable when making an attack, as only achieving a minimum of pressure requires less of an extension and therefore increases one's range. To hit hard, one must lunge inches deeper than one really needs to kill.

A converse example to this is to attempt legging one's opponent, where if one is not exceedingly careful one will expose one's head, shoulders, and arms on the downward thrust, making it difficult to exercise adequate protection during this sort of attack. One caveat to this is that many fencers are not prepared to deal with attacks to their feet and this lack of preparation can often make the attack almost without risk at all.

A Quick Note on Double-Kills:

This seems to be a consistent issue with less experienced fighters; I was certainly guilty of it for a time. This arises from the fact that a new fighter can feel very outclassed when facing someone with three, four, or even ten years of experience on him, which translates into probably hundreds if not thousands of fights. The new fighter will assume that his own death is inevitable, or at least very likely, and he will stop worrying about it. This will lead him to neglect his own defense in favor of a fully aggressive attack which will often result in both fighters dying. This is in poor form, not only because it is a departure from the realism we try to achieve, but also because it does not encourage the new fighter to improve certain aspects of their repertoire that need improvement. It is worth including, however, that once a new fighter has enough confidence in his ability to kill, he will often begin to develop more confidence in his ability to live.

2) Defense should be able to turn to offense quickly and easily.

If the first Corollary focused on proactive measures, the second focuses on reactive measures. The riposte is the most common example of this, where a parry is immediately chained into an aggressive move designed to end the fight then and there. Other examples of this would be following a dagger parry into a bind, and then completing the sequence with a thrust at a vital area. This Corollary will deal mainly with parries that turn into binds and/or ripostes, but body voiding can also play an important role, especially if one has strong footwork with which to control board position. A simple body void followed by a step to the side can open up the opponent's oblique to a lunge.

3) Victory conditions must be preserved over board position, which must be preserved over resources.

For the purposes of this discussion, these terms are defined as follows:

            Victory Conditions: The head, neck, torso, and the second hand.

            Board Position: The legs and feet.

            Resources: The first hand or arm.

Keeping in mind that the ostensible goal of a tournament duel is to win, it is quite clear that the last thing one wants to do is lose. Losing not only keeps you from winning, but it also grants victory to your opponent, who is the last person you want winning any duel in which you are fighting. To this end, the head, neck, torso, and should you have suffered an injury to one hand or arm already, the second arm must be preserved at all costs, up to and including sacrificing the first hand or if necessary the legs.

Similarly, the first hand must be sacrificed before the legs. The hand, while two are functional, is a resource, and the legs are the means by which those resources are managed. This holds true in practice as well as in theory; given a choice, who would sacrifice their legs over a hand or an arm? The loss of a hand may not even have a noticeable effect if the duel is single rapier, but the loss of the legs is more often than not a precursor to defeat. While it is certainly possible to win a fight legged, the odds are against you in most cases. This is even truer in the case of dagger fighting, where the legs are essentially a victory condition as well.

Therefore, while escaping combat victorious and uninjured is always the objective, the first hand should be readily sacrificed to preserve the integrity of the legs or the victory conditions. This is made particularly easy by the fact that our blades are not intending to genuinely harm, though I would make the case that were someone trying to kill me with a sword, I would gladly lose a finger if it meant keeping my life. This does not mean that the hand should be thrown away recklessly; it should only be brought into the opponent's range if it is going to perform some function other than being a fish in a barrel.

Deductions and Notes from the Three Principles and their Corollaries:

  • Resources contain the least risk to attack, but carry the least benefit with a successful strike.
  • Board Position carries the most risk to attack, because doing so can expose victory conditions while not attaining victory in and of itself (although a legged opponent in a melee can be considered to be functionally dead); however, the risk here can be minimized by a willingness to sacrifice resources—which is an example of proper resource management and denial by losing a pawn to take a rook.
  • Defense should be one's priority, as losing is different than not winning; one can always win later as long as one has not lost right now. This is not to say that one should be a reactive fighter, however.

Examples of Defense Chained to Offense:

  • Parry, followed by a Riposte with the same rapier.
  • Maintain Point on Target, as fencers will often run their head or hand onto a stationary blade while making an incautious attack. Possible to do while retreating.
  • Stop-Thrust, as above but with movement designed to halt or kill an aggressor.
  • Body Void and step to an Oblique Lunge.
  • Defensive Parry with the secondary weapon and then Bind, followed by a Riposte.

Examples of Offense with Protection:

  • Hand Sniping
  • Bind, either with one's primary or secondary weapon, and Thrust with one's primary.
  • Deep Lunge at extreme range.
  • Oblique Lunge and Thrust
  • Insist or use Multiple Intentions to bring the opponent's blade away from your true attack, though be prepared to turn a feint into a real attack if the opportunity presents itself.

I think these are all excellent examples of the practical applications of my Three Principles and their Corollaries. Each of these movements utilizes the basic strategies which I have outlined earlier in different ways, and I believe that each adheres to the idea of resource management and denial as the best method for attaining victory.

Something to Avoid:

Being A One Trick Pony

No matter how good your trick is, it will eventually be figured out by someone and then it will work less and less the more often you use it. Always work toward becoming a more complete fighter; versatility and strong fundamentals will make your trick even more effective when you only use it on special (or desperate) occasions.

A Final Remark on Resources:

While I did not include it earlier, there is one additional resource that I think is very important and is worthy of mention. While it is not best managed by good footwork, since my life is not on the line in an SCA duel I would gladly sacrifice a vital area before I lost this resource, for a single good thrust to my chest ends that duel, but a wound to the other may ruin me for my next dozen fights.

The resource of which I speak is, of course, a positive attitude. As clichéd as that sounds, it is also a truism. Never mind the importance of a good attitude for having fun fencing, which is really the whole point of doing it, but if someone does not believe that he can win then he will not.

If the goal of a duel from a technical standpoint is to attain victory without suffering injury in return, then a fencer must be fully confident in himself so that the resource of attitude can be fully utilized. Now, I am not recommending that everyone become arrogant jackasses and stop being nice, but I am strongly recommending that no one ever consider himself doomed when they step into a fight. I have been killed by just about everyone I have ever fenced at least a few times, and I have killed just about everyone I have ever fenced at least a few times. No one is unbeatable, and no one is unable to win.

I recently had a conversation with a fencer that went something like this:

Dante di Pietro: "How did you do in your last round? I was fighting at the same time and didn't see."

Anonymous Fencer: "I was paired up with Fencer XYZ, so I lost."

Dante di Pietro: "That's no way to look at it. You've beaten me, right? I know you have because I was there. And I just fought Fencer XYZ and I beat him. You can beat me, I can beat him, and so you should be able to beat him too."

Anonymous Fencer: "Yeah, but look at how often I can beat you."

Dante di Pietro: "Frequency doesn't matter. Even if you can only do it one in twenty times, you always have to go out fighting as if it's going to be that one time."

Attitude and confidence are the most vital resources we can have, and while there is much to be said for being realistic in your appraisals of your own ability, there is also much to be said for being too determined to care if the odds are against you on paper. Once this resource is properly managed, I have found that everything else begins to fall into place significantly faster.

Thankfully, I have never encountered a fencer, Atlantian or otherwise, who has sought to achieve victory by attacking this particular target.

Appendix:

I hope that this has proven to be a worthwhile exercise for you; it certainly was for me. I have often heard some refer to fencing as a game of live action chess, and while I found the idea intriguing I was unable to find any writing expanding on that idea. After a while, I began to toy around with the idea more and more, and finally came to the conclusion that if such a piece was going to be written, I would have to do it myself. As I began to outline the work, I noticed that not only was I in fact describing my own ideas about rapier fighting exactly, but I was also not using just chess metaphors but adhering to the basic Three Principles of gaming strategy which I have derived from far too much time playing games of strategy and opposition. All of the work and ideas here are based on my own experience and to the best of my knowledge do not originate from any other texts, barring the obvious things like fencing terminology and techniques. I hope that it was useful to you or at least provided a different perspective or insight into the Art of Defense. This essay may be reproduced as long as it is done so giving proper credit to the author.

Last updated: October, 2003

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