I recently saw an epee match in which the lower-ranked fencer (from now on abbreviated to LRF) got off to a 2-0 lead, before losing 2-5. That got me thinking: what went right in the beginning, and what should the fencer who got off to a lead have done in order to maintain it, and ultimately win?

My conclusion was that the LRF was able to direct the attention of his opponent in the beginning of the match. In the beginning, the LRF showed no hesitation in advancing fairly closely to his opponent, despite the fact that the opponent was significantly taller. In those initial fencing phrases, the LRF made his blade as threatening as possible, by a combination of beats, and a blade movement that was fairly small, but simultaneously jerky. The beats directed the attention of the opponent to his blade, and the combination of very quick, but fairly small, movements that kept blade simultaneously in directions from which there was a credible threat while at the same time not in a place where the opponent knew where it was kept the attention of the opponent there.

The LRF thus forced the attention of the opponent to the blade of the LRF, which had the consequence that the opponent devoted too little attention elsewhere. That is what set off the chain reaction of events.

The LRF is shorter than his opponent, so the LRF always has to solve one problem in constructing a strategy for a match like this: “How do I get through the dangerous zone in middle distance where my opponent can extend and hit me, but he is still out of range for my straight extensions?”

In this case, the answer was: “Direct his attention to a perceived threat by me, so that he does not launch an attack, and at the same time does not focus on the fact that I am stepping in to close distance.”

In this case, the attention of the opponent was a limited resource, and the LRF was able to get his opponent to misallocate it. Once within range, the LRF could launch an explosive beat-attack that scored before the opponent was able to step back, or counterattack.

The problem with this approach is that it takes guts, lots of it. The LRF has to be brave enough to get close to a taller, higher-ranked opponent, and once there take the initiative for some time without getting afraid and start running backwards. In my estimation, that is where things went wrong for the LRF. He probably saw that a victory was a possibility, but that he would have to hang on to a fairly small lead for quite some time. Subconsciously, he probably got the balance of not getting too close so as to be an easy target for a straight extension, while at the same time close enough to be able to present a credible, attention-demanding, threat with his blade a bit off. The balance was tilted in favor of too long a distance, which made it possible for the opponent to carry out his overall strategy, and also gave him time to parry-riposte as a response to beat attacks from the LRF.

Another way of seeing the beginning of the match was that the LRF got the opponent stuck in the OO parts of the OODA loop – the opponent was constantly observing the exact position of the LRF blade, and evaluating whether each blade movement was a bluff, or a preparation for a real attack.

The lessons in list format:

  1. Attention is a limited resource. If you can focus your opponent´s attention wholly on one thing, then he will not see other developments until it is too late for him.
  2. A deficit in reach and height can be overcome by explosive accelerating movements.
  3. The shorter fencer must always be aware of the dangerous middle distance, and have a plan for how to traverse it.
  4. If a fencer is forced to spend too much mental effort to make sense of what he observes, he can do little else.
  5. Overcome your fears. Once you do not look afraid to get close to an opponent who thinks himself to be better than you, he might well start wondering whether there is something that he has overlooked.
  6. As long as one approach is working, stick to it unless there is a compelling reason to change up things.
  7. If you can move your blade in such a way so that your opponent simultaneously can see it being still, and cannot execute a beat against it, he is liable to become mesmerized by it – and thus lose focus on other things.

There is quite a bit of overlap among those seven points, but I thought that pointing out similar things from different angles is a good way to explain myself here.