Is Fencing Like Chess?

Well in many ways the answer to this question is yes, it is. So why exactly did fencing get the nickname “physical chess”, or as it’s sometimes also described “chess at 100 miles per hour”?

In this article we’re going to cover what it is about fencing that makes it such a strategy based game.

Is Fencing Like Chess?

Perhaps an even more accurate description of fencing would be to call it an extremely advanced game of rock paper scissors.

Unlike a standard game of rock paper scissors however, fencing has a huge number of options, leading to layers upon layers of trying to beat what the other person decides to do. It also has an extra component – speed and physicality.

With fencing, you can do “rock” for example at many different speeds. These two pieces combined can elevate fencing into having infinite possibilities and options to try for each person to beat the other.

In this way especially it is like chess – the possibilities for how the match is going to develop may start out simple, but by the end of it both players have been taken on a wild adventure.

The Different Options Of Fencing

Overall the aim of fencing is to hit the other person – very simple. However as the saying goes in fencing, the problem with that is that your opponent exists.

They aren’t going to let you do that if they can help it. The other important thing to remember is of course to stop your opponent hitting you.

This situation leads into the real fun side of participating in fencing – the mind games. One way the options you have in fencing are presented is using the tactical wheel.

The aim of this is that you rotate clockwise. The move listed clockwise will beat the one behind it, and then the one listed after that will beat that move, until it goes full circle.

In this simple example below, the four options listed are Simple Attack, Parry & Riposte, Compound Attack, and Counter-attack.

Let’s examine what each of these actually is, and why each one is beaten by the next option, but still beats the option behind it.

Option 1 – Straight Attack

This option is exactly what it sounds like. You just attack your opponent and try to hit in one action, without trying to do anything compound (we’ll get to that).

Sometimes people will also call this a “direct attack”. You pick a spot to hit and when you think it’s the right time and the right distance so that you’ll be able to hit them, you do an attack: Example of a straight attack below:

Option 2 – Parry & Riposte

A parry and riposte is when you block the attack of your opponent with your blade (the parry), and then hit them yourself (the riposte).

This beats the straight attack so long as you don’t try to do it too early or too late. A good example from the 2012 Olympics is below:

Option 3 – Compound Attack

What’s the difference between a compound attack and the simple attack we mentioned already? A compound attack is designed to get around the parry.

.A perfect example of this is shown in the Ota vs Sanzo match from the 2008 Olympics below. In this clip, Ota the fencer on the left, pretends to attack Sanzo, who tried to parry.

At the last second, Ota moves his blade out of the way of the parry and hits Sanzo in a different place to where it looked like he was going – this was Ota’s plan the whole time.

Sanzo tries to parry in the new place, but is too slow. This is how compound attacks can be used to beat parry ripostes:

Option 4 – Counter-Attack

A counter attack takes advantage of the weakness compound attacks have. They take much longer than a regular straight attack does.

The extra time taken to move the blade out of the way, maybe even to do it twice if it’s a complicated compound attack, leaves time for the opponent to do something, which in this case is counterattack.

This is when instead of trying to parry the compound attack, you just reach out and hit them while they are attacking you.

Option 4 - Counter-Attack

For example below, look as the fencer on the left attempts a compound attack, but the delay means the fencer on the right can just hit and get away (counterattack) to win the point.

Contrast this with the Ota hit where Samzo tried to parry, and you see the tactical wheel in action.

Full Circle

And so this brings us back to step one. What beats a counterattack? A straight attack, the first action in the tactical wheel. This is because a straight attack is fast.

If you try to counterattack a straight attack like it’s a compound attack, usually you are not able to get away in time, and they still hit you.

Then this means you have to deal with the straight attack directly, for example with a parry riposte, and on and on the tactical wheel goes.

The real trick of fencing is not to fall into your opponent’s cycle. I.e. You don’t want to be the one who tries to parry, and gets hit with a compound attack, and then tries to counterattack but gets hit because now your opponent did a straight attack.

You want to be leading the series of events and moving through your different tricks to get points.

So imagine it – your opponent hits you with a straight attack. You know that an answer to that could be to parry riposte. But the issue is, your opponent also knows that, so maybe they will do a compound attack next?

On the other hand, perhaps you could try your own straight attack, or your own compound attack. Sometimes both people even end up trying to do the same thing:

This is what leads to so much chaos and so much trying to outthink the other player in a fencing match.

Going through layer after layer of “if I do this”, “what if they think I think they’re going to do that” and so on, is the reason why fencing is indeed similar to chess in many ways.

This is how it developed all of these nicknames over time – the difference is in fencing you use your legs and arms a lot more!
Christopher Anderson
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