I recently was at a competition, and saw an epee match that really stood out from the rest of them. The event was boy´s epee, age category U15.

The first point was scored after 3 seconds, and after 10 seconds the score was 3-1. The match ended 15-12 after 2.02 elapsed time. The fencer who scored the first point went into attacking mode instantly after almost every Allez command.

That did not look at all as what I had previously seen that young man fence, so I asked him if I could hear his thoughts about this strategy that looked so unexpected coming from him. He said yes, and I also asked his parents for permission to ask him, and to post the responses to my blog, permission which they most graciously gave to me.

The young man told me that he had fenced against this opponent before, and in that match the opponent had chosen to establish a strong pressure, with high tempo, against him from the get-go. The young man who I spoke to had planned out a strategy in response to this before the match that I saw, and that strategy was to respond with the same, but even more of it. The rationale was to prevent the opponent from getting situations where the pressure was strong, and in one direction only. The young man also spoke of some observations on the psychological responses of the opponent that he had seen, and how he used those observations to fine-tune his strategy.

The young man was not aware of the concept of the OODA loop, but the strategy that he chose went straight to the Orientation step of his opponents OODA loop, and from there quite decisively degraded the functioning of the opponent´s OODA loop. This was done by defying the mental image that the opponent had of how the young man would fence, thus confusing him at the start. The extreme tempo throughout the match ensured that the opponent got very little time to figure out a counterstrategy, and was thus stuck in an overall strategy that was not working. The tempo also did its part in the Decide and Act steps of the OODA loop – with so little time available, decisions were arrived at just a little too late, and the technical precision in the Act stage degraded just enough so that the opponent missed at times where he was close to turning the match around. Finally: the high tempo precluded the coach of the opponent from giving any valuable input during the period break, since the entire match was over before the first period break. The young man might not have any prior knowledge of the OODA loop, but the match turned out to be a strategic little masterpiece anyway. By going for the Orientation stage, he got the most bang for the buck – not only did he degrade the functioning of the stage that he targeted, but both stages that follow it also.

Strategic is the operative word here. Both fencers drove up the tempo to the very limit of what they could do, so there were a significant number of tactical and technical errors on both sides. However, that worked to the advantage of the young man I spoke to – now there were a significant number of errors on both sides, and they were fairly evenly matched. Had he not chosen this overall strategy, the outcome would quite probably been that the opponent would have had a small number of technical errors and almost no tactical ones, while the fencer whom I spoke to would have had a large number of tactical errors of omission, and a significant number of technical errors.

I do not know what to call this type of overall strategy, but my first suggestion is: Respond In Amplified Kind, or RIAK for short. If anyone out there has a better suggestion, do tell in the comments!

Given the success in this match, one might wonder why RIAK is not the go-to solution all the time. My answer to that is, however well RIAK can turn out when it is the best choice, it is not without serious risks and limitations. In no particular order:

  1. The opponent might have a strategy which is based upon some action which you are not sufficiently technically adept at yet, or simply cannot do due to some physical limitation.
  2. The opponent might have trained against someone similar to himself at his own club, and in that case he will be adept at dealing with RIAK.
  3. By letting the opponent decide which overall strategy both fencers should be using during the match, it is quite possible that you find yourself in a position where your best techniques and tactics rarely come into play, if at all.
  4. Your opponent has trained quite a bit for the techniques and tactics that become relevant for that strategy, and will therefore have an edge in doing them well and fast at the same time – pure muscle memory.
  5. Your opponent might have shown off some strategy, which he usually does not employ, in the most recent match when you observed him in order to throw you off. Then he chooses a completely different strategy in the match against you, and your RIAK based on a strategy that you planned to counter against – but does not materialize on the piste – will backfire.

Quite a list of caveats. However, none of them were obviously the case in the match that this blog post is based upon, so in hindsight, the young man that I spoke do made a risky – but ultimately strategically correct – decision.

I also spoke to a former fencer whose competitive successes dwarfed those of everyone else in the room, combined. He had some quite interesting things to say about the most recent set of non-combativity rules. Let us hope that I can get him to put his thoughts to paper, as it were, in the form of a guest blog post!