When a fencer and his opponent fence a competition match, their respective capabilities can be classified in 5 groups:

  1. The opponent is considerably better than the fencer
  2. The opponent is somewhat better than the fencer
  3. The opponent and the fencer are roughly evenly matched
  4. The opponent is somewhat worse than the fencer
  5. The opponent is considerably worse than the fencer

Here, the fencer is the competitor that you as a coach (or yourself!) are responsible for, and whose actions you can at least somewhat influence.

The strategy and tactics differ depending on which type of strength level the bout falls under. Let us get the easy cases dealt with first – cases #1 and #5.

In case #1, victory is not a realistic option. If it is a poule bout or part of a team match, the realistic object of the fencing should be to limit the loss, thereby keeping the indicators good enough for promotion to DE matches or an overall team win, respectively.

In case #5, a win should be fairly straightforward, and the fencer should focus on avoiding unforced errors that his opponent can capitalize on.

In both of these cases, the relative payoff, measured as expected change in result per coach time, is low. The coach should devote himself to bouts featuring cases #2-4 if he has any such bouts to attend to. That of course does not apply to personal coaches whose responsibility is one fencer and him alone.

What then of the relatively close bouts that arise when the fencer´s relative strength indicate cases #2-4 above? Here, one can as a first approximation limit oneself to case #2 – that is the hardest case of those, so it stands to reason that any way of dealing with those bouts should be useful to the other two cases.

From a coach perspective, this leads to the conclusion that it is a good use of your time – a finite and strongly limited resource – to identify bouts that appear to fall under case #2 as soon as the poules are announced, and then plan on moving from piste to piste so that one can effectively coach as many of those bouts as possible. (That is a mathematically hard problem, so one should not expect to be able to figure out the best schedule of a coach in the very limited time available from poule announcement to start of poules. If a club has several coaches but not enough to cover all pistes on which it has competing fencers, the problem gets harder still. It is in all likelihood the best approach to think it over and then choose whichever is the first allocation that one can think of that does not have any obvious bad problems, and then stick to that. Attempts at optimizing solutions to NP-hard problems in which the parameters change in real time are going to fail, unless you get miraculously lucky.)

Back to case #2: Now that we have decided that we are dealing with a case where your fencer is weaker than his opponent, but not massively so, what then? It is my observation that such bouts can be divided into three parts:

  1. Start of the bout – the fencers are to a considerable extent trying to size each other up
  2. Intermediate part of the bout – the fencers are focused on the next point
  3. The closing part of the bout – the fencers are trying to win, or avoid defeat.

Now, it is useful to consider how the points are accumulated during the bout. Consider a diagram in which the number of points that your fencer has scored is noted on the x-axis, and the number of points scored by the opponent is noted on the y-axis. Then the progress of the bout can be traced from intersection to intersection in the diagram. In epee, you also have the possibility of diagonal steps when double hits are scored.

Here it is obviously so that you want the progress of the bout end with a point on the right vertical of the diagram, below the upper righthand corner which obviously denotes 5-5 or 15-15. Bouts that feature two fencers of greatly different strengths – cases #1 and 5 above – will most likely feature a progress trace that follow the vertical or horizontal axis.

For the bouts between two fencers of roughly equal strength, the progress trace is more likely to follow the diagonal – if they  are more or less evenly matched, it is not that likely that one of them will amass a big lead. The principal exception to that is when a somewhat better fencer has held a small lead through the beginning and intermediate part of the bout, and when his opponent is down on points and running out of time, that opponent will take big risks, resulting in easy points for the fencer in the lead. Those bouts will have a bout progress trace that closely follows the diagonal, and then deviates either way close to the upper righthand corner.

There is also a type of bout that are entertaining to watch, but evidence of at least one fencer fencing below his true capability: the bout in which the score swings wildly but returns to even (or near-even). Such bouts will feature a bout progress trace that deviates a lot from the diagonal and might overshoot it. However, such bouts are not of interest here, where we are trying to establish the best set of tactics in a case #2 bout. If you can take a great lead, you are probably not in case #2 to begin with. On the other hand, if you are better but find yourself badly trailing, your tactics and strategy were obviously badly lacking to begin with. However, if such a bout is studied – preferably with video – it can prove useful in another way. There will probably be some bad choices by your fencer (either when he lost a big lead, or started trailing badly). Once those are identified, they can be corrected in training. Do so, and your fencer will be less likely to find himself in a hole, and will instead win bouts comfortably.

So that leaves us with bouts that belong in case #2, and follow the diagonal, more or less. Which one of the possible bout traces is the best one? Obviously, if you are the somewhat weaker fencer, you do not want the other fencer to take a lead, since that makes a difficult situation harder still. Even more imperative is that you end up winning the bout, which decides the last part of the bout progress trace. So, we get the following goals for the different stages of the bout:

  1. Start of the bout – take the lead before your opponent scores a point
  2. Intermediate part of the bout – do not allow your opponent to take the lead
  3. The closing part of the bout – hold on to the lead, and do not do anything dumb

The perceptive reader will of course have noted that the training setup described in the previous blog post (timed and handicapped bout) trains the fencer in doing what he should in the closing part of the bout.

How does not then define the various stages of the bout, so that the are clearly defined so that all involved are on the same page? I suggest that the following definitions should be used:

  1. Start of the bout – At least one fencer has not yet scored
  2. Intermediate part of the bout – criteria for the other two stages are not met
  3. The closing part of the bout – at least one of the following criteria apply: less than 30 seconds left of the bout, en fencer has 4 points in a poule bout, one fencer has at least 13 points in a DE match, or one fencer is one point away from finishing off his leg in a team match

Let me describe an example of what should not be done in the closing stage: I saw a fencer whom I know fence his last bout in the poules. He had lost all his previous bouts, but not by huge margins, so a big win in the last bout could conceivably mean promotion to the DE stage. However, that fencer had so far in the poule fenced considerably better, so it seemed as a uphill battle. Lo and behold, my acquaintance scored the first point, then another. His opponent was in an obvious bad mental funk, and my acquaintance managed to build up a 4-0 lead after 2:38 of fencing time, 22 seconds left to fence. However, my guy attempted to finish the deal, and made a long lunge from too long a distance when he tried to finish off the bout. Instead, he managed to badly sprain his leg, and was reduced to standing fencing. The opponent seized upon this, and managed to score 5 points unopposed in the last 20 seconds. The conclusion is that my guy did a very bad tactical choice at that time: he had time working for him, and did not need to press his luck or score any more points. He should have let the better fencer try to score at least 4 points in 22 seconds, something that would have been preventable if he would have been mobile. Had he done so, his opponent would have been forced to either accept defeat, or come at him and close distance so that the opponent would have been in reach. Both are bad tactical choices for the opponent. (Note: if your opponent finds himself in a situation in which all of his tactical choices are bad, you might well have executed a good strategy! Study that bout and repeat it!) Indecision on the opponent´s part could easily have ended the bout in the favor of my guy.

So what to do in the opening and intermediate stages? That will be covered in further blog posts, do check back!