Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Some Things Just Don't Mix

I double book a lot. Especially around the holidays. I think it is mostly because I rarely have just one thing going on - when it comes to planning a weekend, it is feast or famine. Same thing for last weekend - I had a company Xmas party that I felt compelled to go to, and my club had its December tournament that next morning. I just joined a new company, and skipping the party just seemed like a bad move. I had an excuse (my date dropped out, and finding another one was difficult at best), but honestly I need every advantage at work. I didn't want to miss the Southern Star either - after all, fencing is my favorite thing to do.

So, I did both. And just like my bright idea of visiting my fraternity brothers in Saint Louis AND partying with a flaky girl I knew - I had fun, but the experience would have been much richer if I chose one event and stuck with it.

Saturday morning I woke up at 8am - still feeling it from the night before. I sleep again until 11am, throw on some clothes, grab my gig bag and head to Dunwoody. My pool bouts were a disaster. I hate to think what I looked like out there - it was as though my opponents were thinking, "He's good, but he isn't taking me down. If I lunge, I will beat him." And I got killed.

I woke up for my first DE - and manage to get up 6-2 with a lot of straight lunges. I was tired, and I didn't have any more in me. Instead of hanging back and letting him come to me, I still brought the battle to him - I was just less scary, and therefore easier to hit. After the third double touch with the score now 14-13, I knew I was in trouble - because he only has to hit me twice to catch up, and I haven't made a single in a few touches now. So I lost that one 15-14, and my opponent's daughter was actually sad I lost.

If this was really all in fun - it wouldn't have mattered. But I did honestly want to do well. I really need to get much more serious about this stuff. The ironic thing is most of my friends think I am fanatical about it already.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Fencing, Coletrain, and RSS

I don't post here as much as I like - but I try to keep everything interesting and fencing related.

For those of you who are too busy to check my site every week - my newsfeed address is - http://feeds.feedburner.com/LordVaderFencesAllWeapons .

Click the link to add to your newsreader or My Yahoo news page. It will be fun!

In other news, I got beat down at the AFC Open last weekend. Back to the drawing board.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Results from Memphis NAC

I just got back from the NAC A in Memphis, and it was a pretty good time.  I finished 39th in Div 3 Men's Epee, and not so well in Div 2. Apparently, I need early mornings and no food to fence well.  Memphis is a nice town, if difficult to get around - and Beale street was almost as loud as Bourbon Street.  Too bad I was exhausted Saturday night and headed to bed after only one drink and a movie.  I will have to return with reinforcements.
The NAC was run really well, although there were some issues.  I was a bit spoiled by the 80% advance rule from Nationals - it forces people to actually try in the pools.  It also would mean that my 14th seed after pools would mean something.  I lost my first DE, even though I had a bye - so I was a bit bitter. 
The other significant issue was a nice life lesson for me.  Curvy and hot directors are not necessarily good directors.  Although the fact that this particular director didn't call corps-a-corps - thereby turning a gentleman's game into something akin to the WWE Hardcore Championship match - didn't bother me, it was that I didn't find out until I got touched after I stopped where a halt should have been called.  The "let them slug it out" school of fencing works in my favor, but I prefer not to clock people with a right cross after attacking in prime.  It wouldn't have been so bad except an older gentlemen directed a few bouts in my pool, and the difference in quality was dramatic.
Lots of fun, and I learned a lot about my own style and how I need to improve.  Next time, top 8.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Fencing On A Plateau

First off - it has been a while since I last wrote, which makes sense because of the break in the season after Nationals.  I didn't do too bad in Div III Men's Epee, 125 out of 211 is reasonably respectable for my first time.  My pool bouts were more difficult than I had anticipated, but the 80% advance rule most likely contributed to that.  The upside is that my pools weren't deceptively easy like they can be at locals and the NACs.  I won a couple DEs, and lost to a left hander who had a good day. 
However, ever since then I have been on a bit of a plateau while I see my clubmates continue to improve.  This plateau means losing in the round of 16 in highly rated tournaments, and in the round of 8 in Div3s.  My technique and strategy seems to work - I just miss a lot more.  Now, I am not disparging my opponents - I can tell when they have successfully fooled me.  But when I do an action, and you give me a response I anticipate, and then I respone with my real attack and I glaze your uniform - then I tend to beat myself up a little bit.  Especially when those glazes are costing me DEs and more importantly, my next rating. 
Being totally clueless feels comfortable.  Expecting only to win one pool bout makes for good cheer.  Expecting to win it all, and the field supports that expectation, only to fail - is miserable.
I am not sure how to get out of the rut... so far I am just trying to practice and work out a lot more.  It's just as well, I need to lose weight anyway.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Is Fencing "Real?"

Most of my friends are interested in martial arts, even my female friends. Whether it be shotokan, PRIDE fighting, judo, or even bread and butter stuff like boxing or shooting - they love sports that approximate battle. So when fencing comes up, they want to know - does modern Olympic fencing have anything to do with fighting someone with a sharp sword?

It's a simple question with a complex answer. The question, as short as it is - really asks a couple questions. The first is how well does modern fencing approximate dueling with sharp weapons. The second is how well does fencing prepare you for an actual sword fight. The third is are the weapons in fencing suitable for actual fighting (if they were sharp).

Let's start with the last question, since it is the easiest to answer. The modern foil, whose design is determined by the Federation Internationale D'Escrime (FIE), is no more a real weapon than a similar sized piece of rebar. The blade is rectangular, allowing no edges, and its flex refuses to send any amount of force into its target - making it ideal as a safe weapon for beginners as well as competition. Only when the blade is broken does it become anywhere near life threatening - but in that state the techniques used to wield the weapon become useless. (Although I know one demented fencer who keeps a sharpened foil near his bedside for protection.)

The sabre, with a grip that facilitates the cut, is similar to the foil. Again, its flex and square cross-section makes it useless as an actual weapon - unless the blade breaks. And then it is QUITE dangerous.

The competition epee, however, was always designed to accurately approximate a real dueling sword. Aldo Nadi, a world champion fencer, famously dueled with his competition epee sans pointe d'arret. The weapon's heft is strong enough to leave deep bruises even when the opponent is properly attired in a fencing uniform, and many styles of blade have only enough flex to prevent accidental breakage - but no more. So it seems out of the three key weapons in Olympic fencing, only the epee would be suitable for combat if sharp.

The next question in increasing difficulty is whether or not the movements in Olympic fencing resemble a real swordfight. Only those who fence AND remember the days of fighting with yardsticks when the teacher was away from the classroom know the answer... and it is absolutely yes. While an observer might simply see two people hacking at each others blades - a combatant has a clear intention of parrying an impending attack - whether that attack come by fencing sabre, sharp broadsword, or yardstick. An advanced technique that was developed by broadswordsmen and still used by fencers and schoolboys everywhere is the feint and the second intention attack. A second intention attack simply means I am going to convince you I am attacking in one line (or area of your body) or feint , draw your parry to that line, and then attack another newly undefended line. While in modern fencing this strategy may or may not always work - it was highly effective when fighting in suits of armour. The combined weight of the sword and the armour insured that a missed parry or counter attack sealed your doom. Here the second intention attack is quite deadly. So yes, most techniques you learn in fencing today would directly apply to most types of actual swordfighting.

Now that we know that an epee but not a foil or sabre is useful in a real fight, and the techniques in fencing are applicable to sharp weapons - now we can answer if fencing would prepare you to handle yourself in a real fight. The answer is not necessarily. For a sport that is designed around time honored techniques used to kill people, it is very safe. Materials with the same properties as kevlar are used in the uniforms - and the tips are flat and round to the point that successful fencers rarely cause their opponents any pain. Due to the rules in fencing - getting hit is also not necessarily a bad thing. In foil and sabre, if you are hit off target or you hit off target before your opponent touches you - there is no point scored. In epee, a double touch means both sides get a point - and if you are winning, then simply attempting double touches until the bout ends is a reasonable strategy. As Aldo Nadi noted, thinking like this in an actual fight is going to get you killed. As someone who fences and has been in a knife fight (many years ago thankfully), the mindset is completely different between the two - and one doesn't prepare you for the other. While the techniques are similar - sport is not war.

So is fencing "real?" In most ways that count, yes it is.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Gotta Love Fencing in Atlanta

From Fencing.net:

Overheard in the venue:

Fencer: "Check it out! White boy in handcuffs! White boy in handcuffs!"

Fencer's Mom: "And even better, the cops are black!"

Made my day.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Getting Ready For Nationals

Living in the venue city for Summer Nationals has a few advantages. Chief of which is that I can check out things whenever I please, and take care of purchases and weapon checks early. On Saturday I bought a brand new Leon Paul epee - and since I didn't bring my equipment bag with me I had to carry it around. No less than three people stopped me: one of my former opponents who made fun of the rain gutter look (I prefer it to my STM FIE, screw 'em), a ragged looking guy on the street who begged to hold it, and one of my attractive neighbors who recognized it and wanted me to show it to her three year old son. He was so careful holding the handle, and I asked if he wanted to learn to use it someday and he yelled "YES!!" Awesome. Nothing like encouraging stylized violence and emptying a parent's pocketbook all at the same time.

Speaking of pocketbooks - I try to avoid spending a whole lot of money on this sport. Cost is an issue when I look at clubs, and I buy lessons when I know for a fact that I need them and they will help. I buy weapons based on their reputation and reliability - while at the same time I am always on the look out for a deal. My uniform is a LP Atlanta Range FIE, and I spent the money for two reasons. First, I spent $180 or so on my old club Santelli and it was literally falling apart at the seams after three years. Second, the elastic in the knicker braces was loose, making my knickers fall below my waist, and the stretch jacket was bunching up. I looked like a joke on the strip. Paying $400 for a comfortable uniform that will last for years and look good seems like a wise investment. There is a huge mental component to this sport - and sewing seams every weekend and pulling up my knickers and pulling down my jacket after every touch doesn't help.

My mask however, a Santelli, hasn't given me much problems. It smells, but it smells like me. The bib folds up, but I fold it back down and we are good. It's rusty, but not where it matters. So when I am getting my masked checked this morning, I really wasn't interested watching the armourers bemoan the state of my mask, deride me and it and suggest I buy a new one. I like my mask, it works, and if you want me to buy a new one - fail it. Of course it passes the punch test (which is all I cared about), and I get my stamp and go on my way. I love the look of the new LP masks with the comfort disk and all - but if my current mask is rated for competition, why bother?

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Nationals in Three Weeks

6000 fencers. 65 strips. 96 events for heaven's sake! This could be the largest fencing tournament the world has ever seen. Literally. Guiness will be showing up. Hopefully they will bring a keg.

I am competing in Division III Men's Epee, and Senior Team Epee. I have no clue how the team event will go, but for DIII - I am playing to win the whole damned thing.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Holding On To A Lead

Even though I was only seeded 39 out of 57, Georgia Games was an unmidigated disaster. I had a tough pool - two Bs, two Cs, and a U (who beat me); but my record of 1-4 with a -9 indicator was inexcusable. Especially since in two of the lost bouts I was up 4-2 at one point. I really need to learn to hold on to a lead. The same thing happened in Reno; I would get ahead, and I just couldn't push through to get that last touch. The other losses were less annoying: I lost 5-2 to a B06 fencer who has owned me for a while, and I lost 5-0 to a C06 fencer from my club. He is normally beatable, but not when he is fresh off a triumph and I am still rubbing sleep out of my eyes.

Between now and nationals if I learn one thing - it will be to hold on to a lead till the end. A 3-2 record would have made life a little easier on me in DEs, and at the very least I would have finished with a respectable place.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

I Nearly Lost My Head

Today I fenced the first half of Dunwoody FC's May Melee - and I am in so much pain. Tomorrow is Open Epee (possible B2) and Team Epee.

Fencing sabre is a lot different than the other two weapons. The distance is completely different. What may appear to be dangerously close but still safe distance in epee - is still distance in sabre. Especially since all the guy has to do is whack you. Out of the three weapons, I never would have guessed the sabre is the whippiest of them all. Even on a clear parry-riposte action, the intial attack could still wrap completely around my blade and touch me.

The best was during my DE - when my opponent was making a cut to my quarte and slashed me across the neck. My mask was knocked clean off and I almost came to my knees. Dammit - I thought I was about to give up the Quickening. My head is still ringing hours later.

If I can find a cheap helmet and lame I will probably keep up with it. It was a great time, especially since I won two pool bouts (out of six).

My only regret is that all the energy put into sabre could have been redirected into getting my D06. I lost it in a DE to a guy who was beatable, but was very tough. I've had my E for about six months or so... and I have re-earned it three times. I think I need to push myself to get to the next level.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

A Woman's Hand Stops the Blade - Mercy in the Arab World

I just read a powerful exerpt about Saudi executioners from Lew Rockwell's blog. In it, Charles Featherstone relates the story of a Saudi executioner - who beheads his victims with a sword. However, Saudi executioners are not just deadly swordsmen, they are counselors to the victim's family and often try to convince the family to give clemency. Apparently in conservative Islam, the victim's family can stop an execution at any point - even as the sword is raised above the convict's neck.

While Saudi Arabia and North Africa have horrible reputations for dispensing corporal punishment, the fact that they put clemency in the hands of a victim's family is quite ingenious. If an advocate for the accused can convince a family member that he should not die for his crime, then he certainly deserves to live.

Also interesting is that the executioner has a special sword on reserve when he must behead more than five people in a short time. Wow.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Living By The Sword - Relay For Life

Last Friday I spent most of my night hanging out at the Pattonville Stadium in my knickers. Lovely. Myself and three fencing students from Georgia State were on site to do a fencing demonstration for Relay For Life. Basically we were a bit of entertainment for those who were out late for this event and for those who were staying over in tents on the grassy field. We were quite a site for the people even though we spent most of the night just standing around. It seems that most people have seen fencing on TV - but few have actually seen people who refer to themselves as fencers up close. A lot of the younger kids would come up to me asking about the weapons, how everything works, and of course if they could try it out. I was more than happy to talk to people about the sport, why it is a lot of fun, and to hold my $150 Uhlmann FIE epee - but you are not about to play Zorro with it.

Around midnight we were finally allowed on stage - and we fenced to the hottest beats of the 80s, 90s, and now. On a wet stage. So there we were, slipping and sliding, trying to encourage all the kids to get into the sport. I of course was stiff after standing around all night, and it was all I could to give everyone a good show - and not get my ass kicked in front of a crowd. The biggest crowd pleaser was the two sisters who fenced each other - all the moms and daughters got excited, and nearly begged for autographs after they were done.

It was a bit ironic... I was giving up my Cinco de Mayo celebration (i.e. Cinco de Drunk-o) to do this thing with a girl who I nearly yellow-carded at Rome's Clocktower Open the weekend before for trying to fence with an oven mitt. The guy from GA State was actually pretty good, and it took some effort not to look like I was getting killed - I am a pretty cautious fencer, and cautious fencing doesn't please crowds. But if it gets more people into the sport, I am all for doing it again.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Competiting in Sabre - Hack and Slash, or Precise Art

When I think about fencing, I have two images in mind - epee or kendo/kenjutsu. I began fencing using foil, and then later added epee and just for fun - I bought a pair of shinai to practice with at home. (I'm a great date!) Sabre never really entered the equation, especially since I noticed that there were rarely a lot of sabreurs at any practice or competition I ever attended.

However, after talking with my coach, I decided to preregister for the E and Under Sabre event at DFC's May Melee. I will be borrowing equipment from an old coach, so I think I am all set. Except for the fact that I have only touched a sabre about three times, bouted with one only once, and the closest thing to practicing with my sabre has been using my shinai. They are both cutting weapons, right? Shinai fencing in kendo focuses on cutting with the right amount of force in time with the right spirit (whatever that means). I thought that would prepare me enough for and E-Under event, until I started researching historical sabre fencing.

In my research, I decided to see what General George S. Patton, a famous Olympic sabre fencer, had to say on the sport. I was shocked.
In the Peninsula War, the English nearly always used the sword for cutting. The French dragoons , to the contrary, used only the point which almost always caused a fatal wound. This made the English say, "The French don't fight fair." ...At Wagram, when the cavalry of the guard passed in review before a charge, Napoleon called to them, "Don't cut! The point! The point!"

The point is vastly more deadly than the edge. While it might be possible to inflict a crippling blow with the edge (were the swing unrestricted by the pressing ranks of the charge or by the guard of attack) the size and power of the blow is so reduced there is grave doubt it would have sufficient power to do any damage to an opponent's body, protected by clothing and equipment. And even should the blade reach the opponent, it's power to unhorse is dubious.
So according to Patton, who cares if a sabre has an edge for cutting - the thrust and the point is still the name of the game. In fact, in his famous manual on sabre fencing, not only does he not teach cutting, he doesn't teach the parry! Patton even says that using the cut in a sabre fight is akin to biting in a fist fight - it may be necessary from time to time, but not worth teaching.

Well, I have no rating to protect in this sabre event, so I am going to practice and take Patton's advice. I am sure to post my findings!

Monday, May 01, 2006

Fencing in Popular Culture

Fencing is definitely one of the most prolific sports available today. Here are some examples of fencing conquering language and film in popular culture.
  • Touché - Popularly used to acknowledge a strong argumentative point or defeat, is also used in fencing to acknowledge one is hit. Traditionally, it is the responsiblity of the defending fencer to announce if he has been hit - both in practice or if there is a dispute in competition. In my brief four years of fencing, rarely have I seen someone not acknowledge a fair touch against them.
  • Forte - This term (pronounced fort) is commonly used to describe ones strong suit or skill. In fencing, it is the thickest part of the blade, and the area of the blade used to parry an opponent.
  • Foible - A foible is the opposite of a forte in language, it is your shortcomings in your behavior or character. In fencing, the foible is the part of the blade between the point and the middle area - and it is this area you must hit with your forte to achieve a legal parry.
  • Darth Vader - Scenes of Darth Vader, the baddest and blackest man in the galaxy, slicing up mofos all over the place are burned into the minds of a generation. Few know however that a guy named Bob Anderson, swordmaster and British sabre champion, is the one under the black suit in Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. The bladework in Star Wars is actual sabre fencing, and has inspired thousands of people to actually give the sport a try. Anderson has also either doubled or consulted on films for Errol Flynn, The Three Musketeers, The Princess Bride, and Highlander. So even while actual fencers poo-poo these movies as fake - the actors were taught to fence by Anderson before the director even shouts "action!"
  • Bruce Lee - While many remember Bruce Lee's moves in Enter the Dragon and his teachings on the two-inch punch, not many know that Lee was an avid fencer and most of the footwork from his Jeet Kune Do style is taken directly from Western-style fencing (as distinguished from kendo). Additionally, Bruce's brother Peter was a high-level competitive fencer.
  • Sunshine - This poignant movie is a story partially based on the lives of two Jewish champion sabreurs, Attila Petschauer and Endre Kabos, who tragically died in the Holocaust. Not only do you see some great fencing, it is tells a brilliant anti-state tale.
  • Die Another Day - This James Bond movie not only prominently displays fencing (although no fencer ever says "let's do this the old-fashioned way"); you can even purchase the Leon Paul uniforms and equipment used in the film.
So there you have it, a quick guide to fencing's influence on contemporary culture. And I wrote this entire post without even mentioning Zorro! See you on the strip!

Fencing - The World's First Sport

People are always surprised when I tell them that there are at least 12 active fencing clubs in the Greater Atlanta Metro area. They are surprised because the general perception towards fencing is that it is a rich white man's game. Never mind that there are many African American fencing champions throughout the game's history, or that as the sport expands - prices on everything from equipment to club dues are becoming more competitive. Much of the blame for that perception lies with the clubs and governing organizations that had color bars and other exclusionary devices. Thankfully, these devices are a thing of the past, and there are more women and minorities fencing competitively than ever before.

Another issue that has hindered the sport is its style of teaching. In the past, one was not allowed to even touch a weapon until after six months to a year of training in footwork. While footwork is the most important part of fencing (just like the ability to move the ball down the field is the most important part of football), this restriction is not how you build widespread interest in the game. If you sell the sword fighting aspect and get a weapon in the kids hand the first day - it may take him longer to build discipline, but at least he will stick around to learn it. Great bladework plus strong footwork equals fencing that is fun to watch, and that will build interest in the sport. And the US Fencing Association would love nothing more than to get a brief 10 second highlight on Sportscenter.

There is plenty of reason to start paying attention to this sport. Most popular sports have their basis in war - whether they are teaching strategic and tactical thinking, or they are building up the necessary conditioning to do battle under extraordinary circumstances. Looking at it this way, fencing is the ultimate sport - and the most intuitive. Give a kid a football, and he will not be able to throw a spiral on the first try. Give two kids a couple yard sticks, and you will see one kid do a great parry three to protect himself from the kid trying to whack him in the head. Only some refinement, discipline, and footwork are needed to turn that natural killer instinct into a proper fencing skill.

For a great fencing overview - check out Wikipedia's article.

Sunday, April 30, 2006

Fencing in Rome - Veni Vidi Vici - I Came, I Saw, I..

I would love to say I conquered, but that would be lie. At the 3rd annual Clocktower Open in Rome I made the top 8 in E and Under Epee and the top 16 in the Open. In the E and Under I lost my focus in the last DE - which has taught me never rush to end a bout in the second period with the score at 14-13. It rarely ends well. I felt I fenced better in the Open in spite of my place, and I gave heady chase to some very good fencers.

My main problem was that I didn't power through my opponents whenever my point stopped short against them. I would get within two inches of a touch after an attack or an attack-lunge, and if I couldn't stretch it, I would just retreat. The smart thing to do would be a forward recover, and lunge again while keeping my point in the same line. If I had of done that, I could have beaten at least two other people in each event today.
Lesson learned.