Being a sabre referee in a fencing club with not enough sabre activity in order to keep my reffing skills sharp by club refereeing alone, I frequently look at high-level sabre bouts on Youtube and try to call my decision faster than the referee at hand. Thought being that if I manage to come to the same conclusion that the referee who was invited to that high-level FIE event did, then I must be doing something right.

To that end, I just looked at a men’s team sabre event from a World Cup in Moscow in 2013. Here it is. Have a look at the end of the final, score being 39 – 43 Russia vs. Hungary. That happens from the time 02:18:20 to 02:24:30 into the streamed event.

World Cup event, finals in front of the home crowd of the opponents – apart from the Olympics or the World Championships, it does not get any tenser than this. With that score, the Hungarians need only to score 2 points, in contrast to the 6 needed by the the Russians. Put otherwise: as long as Hungaria scores better than once in each of the four next scoring phrases in the remaining part of the match, they are on path to a win. Good odds, on the look of it.

Johan Harmenberg pointed out, in his book Epee Fencing 2,0, that when fencers are faced with high-stress situations, they tend to revert to what they think that they are most accustomed to. Given that the nature of sabre rewards attacking over defending to the extent that it does, that “most accustomed to” thing will be the same for a lot of sabre fencers: straight attack from the guard line at the “Allez” call, with speed prioritized over any sort of complications. When both fencers go into that mode, we will see a lot of simultaneous attacks inside the guard line box. In this example, we see one fencer not doing that, and it the process almost losing a game in which he had a significant lead.

Simultaneous attacks give no points in sabre, and they cannot run out the clock. Therefore, someone has to win by scoring points.There are four ways of doing that:

  1. Hoping for luck – sooner or later the ref will call an attack and a counterattack instead of simultaneous actions. Assuming random luck, the team with the scoring advantage will probably win. Pro with this approach: Simple. Con: it does not prepare the fencer if his opponent manages to break out of his pattern.
  2. Attention to detail – Do the attack better than before, so that one manages to create attack-counterattack phrases instead of a bunch of simultaneous attacks. Pro: strategically and tactically simple. Con: if your opponent is so good so that you end up in a situation like that, chances are that it is going to be hard to improve your technique to the degree needed so that you start winning most of the remaining phrases.
  3. Break the pattern – manage to do something that catches the opponent off guard when he is expecting a quick attack straight from the guard line, such as a stop that causes the opponent’s attack to fall short, and your counterattack then getting priority. Pro: relatively high chance of a single light, no need to worry about whether the referee will agree with you on priority. Con: If done wrong, big risk of a single light in the other direction!
  4. Waiting for the opponent to break – keep on doing the straight attacks from the get-go, but at the same time being on the lookout for your opponent to break under pressure, and therefore doing something foolish that you can exploit. Pro: can be combined with options #1-2. Con: You are not taking proactive control over the situation, and there is a risk they your opponent will win by using option #3. (This is a better option in epee, where your opponent has a ticking-down clock to contend with.)

So what happened during the last part of that team match? At first, Russia scored three straight points, up to 42-43. Hungary, in the person of Aron Szilagyi, tries to set up a distance feint which the Russian fencer sees right through – point #40. Then both of them come out with straight attacks, but only the Russian one scores – it appears that Aron attacks from low to high, and his blade gets deflected by the Russian bell – point #41. Point #42 starts out as a Russian offensive action, and Aron is caught between attempting to parry it, or to counterattack – and in the end, does neither. So, three straight single light

Aron then goes for the straight attack, which results in two simultaneous attacks. Not coming any closer to the win, but at least he stopped the Russian momentum. Third time over he hesitates a little, and the Russian can parry-riposte. 43-43. The Russian using option #4 here.

Three more straight attacks resulting in three simultaneous attacks. Both seem to be nervous, and a slow Russian attack is no match for the parry from Aron; 43-44. Then a copy of the phrase that gave Russia point #41, now up to 44-44.

Two more simultaneous attacks and quite a bit of posturing where both of them try to get inside the head of each other.

Then a simultaneous attack again, but this time the Russian does not score – 44-45, Hungarian win.

I strongly suspect that if Aron, when the score was 39-43 in his favor, would have stuck to straight attacks then he would have prevented the early run to 42-43, thus depriving the Russian of a feeling of momentum. Instead, he went with option #3 from the start (of the end of the match) but failed at converting it into a point, setting up a Russian run.

Lesson learned: If you are in a lead, it is probably best to go for any one of options #1,2,4 – or some of them in combination. Save option #3 for when you have a unassailable lead, or when you see that your opponent already has broken mentally.

That is it for now! It is my suspicion that the general Harmenberg observation holds for all adversarial single-person sports, since it is based on human psychology, and is not dependent on something fencing-specific. Do list youtube examples in the comment section if you know about them!