A fencer´s chances of winning are higher if his opponent does not have a clear picture of his abilities and weaknesses. The fencer can deal with this fact in two ways: either let his opponent get that clear picture without any active hindrance, or attempt to disturb the opponent’s formation of a truthful evaluation of his abilities and weaknesses.
Both choices are in various cases valid ones; the first one frees up mental efforts that can be used elsewhere. Also, if your opponent is bad at evaluating opponent at the spot, there is less extra value in misleading him since he will probably not form a correct – or at least useful – opinion anyway. If your opponent is pig-headed enough and previously has formed an opinion of you that works against him, you might consider it for the best to hope that he will not come to his senses during your bout.
However, this non-interference with your opponent´s evaluation of you can be considered a default setting, so I will not deal with it further in this blog post. Instead, consider the case where you have chosen to actively interfere with how your opponent sizes you up.
Roughly, there are two parameters which can be used to classify your actions intended to interfere with how your opponent evaluates you: the level of your abilities and which those abilities are. Those two parameters gives us four possibilities:
- Overestimation of offensive capabilities
- Underestimation of offensive capabilities
- Overestimation of defensive capabilities
- Underestimation of defensive capabilities
Possibilities #1 and 3 mean that you attempt to get your opponent to think that you are better than what you in reality are, either in attack or in defense. That is difficult – if you are able to put up a show of being so good, why are you not doing that all the time? If you could do that, it would not be a ruse, it would just be your actual level of capability. For that reason, I disregard those two possibilities for the rest of this blog post.
Possibility #2 comes with problems of its own. If you try it when you are leading, the fact that you have managed to score more points than your opponent should tip him off that your offensive capabilities are not to be underestimated. If you do it when you are trailing by points, he can react by simply taking up a defensive mindset and let the time run. The longer that goes on, the harder it becomes for you to make up the score deficit. Also, if your opponent reacts to this by going on the offensive, you will not have a clear idea of which specific attack he will be most likely to do before he commits to that attack.
This leaves us with the fourth and last possibility. The point of this is to make some aspect of your defense appear so bad to your opponent so that he chooses to exploit this perceived vulnerability by you. However, this is not a vulnerability – it is a trap set by you. You can predict with some certainty which attack your opponent will choose, and armed with that knowledge, you can pre-plan a parry and riposte, to be sprung once he falls into the trap by attacking you. Note the difference between this and the second possibility – you will have a better estimation of which type of attack your opponent uses before that attack starts in this case. The remainder of this blog post is about this.
Early on in my time as a fencer I read about this in some old book where it was called the invito. Intrigued, I tried to use in practice. At first, I failed, but I put that down to lack of experience and thought that with more practice I would gain proficiency. So, I tried again, and again.
Just about all of the times, I got the same result – things did not go my way.
After enough of those failures, I came to the conclusion that this was not working out for me, and that I should take it out of my personal toolbox. I did not at the time know why it was not working, which irritated me.
Quite some time after this, I thought this over again, and came up with an – in retrospect – simplistic analysis of the failures. It went like this: Either my opponent is weaker or stronger than me. If he is weaker, I should be able to overpower him without tricks. If he is stronger, me leaving some part open will just give him the opportunity to score with a straight attack.
Since this analysis seemed to explain my earlier failures, I did not try it out on the piste again. When replaying those sequences in my head, there were a few that were especially infuriating: I had opened a target to invite an attack to it, but my opponent had not taken the bait. Instead, I had gotten caught up with reacting to his actions, and forgotten to readjust my defensive stance – with the result that my opponent now had an unguarded target that I momentarily had forgotten about! No wonder his straight attack worked!
However, I have since come to the conclusion that my first analysis needs some serious revision. My invitos were failing because they were quite badly done, not because the concept is inherently bad.
They were excessive, both in space and time. I showed more than enough target area for far too long. For the trap to be effective, the target should be shown so much and long enough so that it is noticed by the opponent, but not much more. Once that showing becomes excessive, the opponent will sense that something is off, and that will lead him to caution.
On the other hand, a small show or target that disappears quickly can be interpreted by the opponent as a minor mistake by you, but something that he should not expect to see again – and therefore nothing that he should prepare to search for in order to have an open target to attack. If that is his interpretation, then the invito has failed its goal – without him trying to attack into it, you cannot parry and riposte.
So, some happy medium must be found between the big show that gets correctly interpreted as a trap, and the small show that gets discounted. The problem is that if you spend too much mental effort fine-tuning the extent of the show, you might well spend too little on some other part of the bout, causing you to lose that way.
Instead of fine-tuning the extent of the show, there is another way. Use small and transient shows, both to limit the risk of a successful straight attack and to limit the risk of your opponent understanding that a trap is being set up. Then increase them in order to prevent your opponent from discounting them – but increase them in number, not in size.
A good way to do that is to do something like this:
- Figure out which your opponent´s preferred attack is.
- Figure out which target on you should be shown in order to trigger such an attack.
- Figure out which parry and riposte should be used to score against such an attack.
- Show small and transient targets – but choose them so that your opponent is not awarded an open line into the attack that he prefers. Repeat this, with different opened targets. Do this from a distance just outside of your opponent being able to score with a simple action. The goal here is to get your opponent to think that you repeatedly open targets, and that he just has to wait to an opportunity until you sloppily show his preferred target. It is not to trigger him into action – just get his anticipation up.
- Once you have gotten your opponent to think that you are defensively sloppy and have primed him to look for just the opening that makes his preferred action easier – then get closer and give him just that opening. If all goes to plan, he will attack, which is then followed by your pre-planned parry and riposte.
- If it does not work after the first opening, stop it and retreat. You do not want your opponent to realize that all of this is a ruse.
Obviously, there are a lot of this not to work out, among them the risk that your opponent realizes that you are setting an elaborate trap. Instead of me going into even more detail, let me boil it down:
In order to appear sloppy, you must take care to do so.
The details of how to do so, and whether to focus on this instead of some other way of winning over your opponent, are topics for later blog posts.