Zero Against: Fencing the Perfect Tournament

How often has this happened to you? Winning a tournament without allowing a single touch to be scored against you. Fencing the Perfect Game!

Caleb True recounts the one tournament where  everything went right for him.

by Caleb True

In the weeks leading up to the tournament, many of my peers were showing exceptional form. My form was okay, but not shining; I was being uncharacteristically trounced in juried practice assaults. So I found a friend who was willing to be a spadaccino and work on the simple stuff with me.  Parry-riposte. Feint-disengage. Un-deux. I tried not to bout at all in the last two practices leading up to the tournament, not because of some grand plan, but because another defeat, even in practice, wouldn’t help my psychological readiness for the tournament.

Achieving a Perfect Zero is not something to expect, and it is not something I planned for. The CFSSDA Grand Invitational in April, 2005 was my eighth competition. I had won another, in 2003 in Milwaukee. I had numerous second and third-place finishes. Generally, I did not fight for the Perfect Zero, I fought tournaments to win. The concept of fencing without being touched seemed too much to desire. It was too ideal. Strategically, in the context of a tournament, it seemed a haughty or impractical plan, even though now, when I consider it, fencing without being touched is the purest, simplest distillation of tournament strategy: Don’t get killed.

It’s extremely rare to fence for seven or eight hours and not suffer one touch against. Such a feat is a literal survival, where, in the real world—the world of sharps, that is—one would suffer greatly from even an off-target touch. A perfect score takes an advanced fencer, but not necessarily someone with astounding mastery of the forms. A fencer seeking a Perfect Zero must realize that their functional repertoire is relatively small. Only the essentials are necessary: excellent footwork, a fast, customizable lunge, the parry-riposte, the feint-disengage, and the un-deux. That’s it. Usually, that is, almost always, the feint-disengage and un-deux will be part of a riposte, so perhaps it is more important to emphasize a fencer’s trained compulsion to take the riposte—and to have a fast lunge ready—once an opponent’s attack has failed.

The parry-riposte is key to the perfect-zero strategy, if I might call it a “strategy,” because in the parry-riposte lives the idea that the attack is subordinate to the defense. The parry-riposte is probably the simplest, deadliest action if it is fast and accurate—even at advanced experience levels.  Some might contend that the straight thrust is simpler and quite deadly, but it is also much riskier than the riposte, because it is initiative not responsive.

And, perhaps even celebrating these few moves—parry-riposte, feint-disengage, un-deux—all part of blade conversation, is to emphasize too much. If one wishes not to be touched at all, a mastery of footwork is paramount.  Footwork provides a defense safer than any parry. Once the blades engage, much is at risk.

So, I had three allies when I entered the Salle on tournament day. More would assist me as the day progressed.

My three allies were the parry-ripose, feint-disengage, and un-deux. I had drilled and drilled these moves and they were sharp. My point accuracy was not perfect, but it was adequate. I had perhaps some other things going for me besides these three well-drilled moves: I was young, so I was “naturally” fast, naturally springy; I was left handed, making my profile peculiar to the usual right-handed profile.  But there ends the advantages of youth and power. In the end it was the small bag of tricks—the three well-drilled, simple moves—that won me the tournament.

There were five rounds in the tournament. The first round consisted of pools.  Each pool contained approximately five fencers each, of varying experience levels.  Each fencer in each pool was to fence every other member of their pool.  Thus the potential of the pools was great. One could easily start the day off with 5 or more touches against—in fact, any score from five to ten against was considered a low (good) score.  Additionally, the pool bouts were not over at three touches against, they were timed. So in theory, a fencer of novice skill could suffer terribly when paired with a demon. My group had at least one other exemplary fencer who could riddle me with touches, but I believe that bout ended without any touches against either of us.

I fought in the pools very strategically. In every bout, I did not fight accordingly to my opponent’s skill. I fought consistently defensively. I whittled down my five-minute bouts with plenty of footwork. There was some bladework, some riposting, and lunges to penetrate, but a lot of time was spent warming up and trying to have a fencing conversation that was less than deadly for both of us.  Any time spent within my opponents reach meant potentially a touch against, so I entered the zone carefully.  And while I was not planning on a Perfect Zero, I certainly was planning on having the best score possible coming out of the pools.

The second round tallied the scores from the first round, and here is where my score of -0- began to show its handiness. In round two, fencers with the highest scores were paired with fencers with the lowest scores. Thus, I fought none of my early round bouts with those folks from my Salle who, in the practices leading up to the tournament, soundly took me apart.

All those dangerous people had wonderful scores coming out of the pools—scores generally around ten against—but nearly all found themselves in the great middling section of fencers in round two, who, as high and low scores were paired off, had to fight each other! What a bloodbath. In comparison, my bouts were uninteresting, so one-sided and devoid of desperation, showboating, and risk-taking.

In the end, the final rounds spell doom for the fencer who has been “cruising” through the tournament dispatching fencers at the opposite end of the experience spectrum from their own. Inevitably, I was paired up with someone who is really, really good, and really, really dangerous.

Kim Moser had, in tournaments past, destroyed me in ultimate and penultimate bouts. So, once again, at the end of a promising day I found myself paired with a man twice my age and thrice my experience. And he was of slight figure, like me, and he was fast, like me, so my natural advantages meant little. Kim was not left handed, but this did not seem to matter, as he had put me out of commission with little hesitation in years past.  I saw the pairing on the dry-erase board, and expected to go home with another second place trophy.  As the last bouts of round four wound down, people took off their jackets and pulled up chairs to spectate.  I watched as the pair fighting for second and third place duked it out, then took my position along the piste.  The director announced what place we were fighting for, the four judges around us vocalized their alertness, then we saluted.

There are long periods of time during a tournament when you’re not fencing, but waiting to fence. Sometimes the wait is long. Anxiety is up. Anticipation is up.  After the initial pools, where I warmed up very well, very gradually, the tournament structure really kicked in, and from then on the day was mellow save for brief interludes of frightening intensity. Between each bout there was ample time for me to cool off, to unwind, to allow soreness or stiffness to set in.

This downtime is both a blessing and a curse. There was a catered spread at the tournament, too, and plenty of opportunity to eat too much (or too little) while waiting for the next bout. Or drink too much, or too little. All these innocent choices have to be considered, as they can all affect your ability to perform.

I did fine between bouts.  I drank enough water, not too much; I did footwork to keep warm, I found a doorknob and did articulation drills. One other thing I did: shortly before each fight, I stepped onto a wet paper towel to improve the friction on the bottoms of my shoes. They have decent traction most of the time, but on that particular day, on that particular floor, my lunges were slipping—bad news—so after the first round of pool bouts, I kept a wet paper towel on the floor in the corner to step on before each fight.  This was essential.

Kim and I donned our masks and began the requisite footwork dance.  With Kim, I had to maximize each trick I was pulling. My parry-ripostes were as fast as I have ever made them. I dug deep to muster extra speed. I took advantage of his wide lateral parries.

The first hit I got against Kim was exactly the same as the next two. It was a parry-feint-riposte combination. After the first touch was awarded, we took our places at the center of the piste and began again. His lunges were fast and his bladework extremely honed and dangerous. My best defenses were footwork and the ready riposte, which gave him enough trouble that I could handle each attack one at a time. The only chink in his armor was the wide lateral parries, and I used them.

After my second touch, Kim’s offense brought me down the length of the piste towards my end line.  There was an extremely tense moment, followed by an audible gasp from the audience, when Kim’s blade point found its way past my defense.  Time slowed to a creep, and I turned my head to watch as his bladepoint grazed the length of my chest and found nothing but air behind me. An instinctive body evasion had saved my neck last minute. I don’t even remember if a halt was called, as the passé was so clean it might not have warranted one.

I struck back and the conversation of swords brought us back down the length of the piste towards the center of the room. My final un-deux combination found Kim’s open inside line through a long lunge. There could not be any doubt about this final touch. As time wears on in a nervous final bout, so too does anxiety and desperation. For my own good I had to get three clean touches in a timely manner, or my careful form and precision would start to break up. Kim had experience and a seemingly untapped reserve of calm on his side. My final touch was a clear hit, and it was all over.

I didn’t think about the tournament in 2005 for a long time, until my Salle announced, five years later, the introduction of a Perfect Zero prize for anyone who could replicate the feat.

The announcement made me think about the tournament victory as a “feat,” and I wondered if it was me, or luck, that played a bigger role in the achievement., After the tournament, someone commented that my final bout, the most difficult one of the day, “lasted about 90 seconds.” And there were other people I did not fight that day who could have knocked me out of the tournament in about as much time.  So was it me or was it luck? To achieve the Perfect Zero, you will definitely need some luck. It took me seven years of fighting Grand Invitationals and eight years of fencing before I was able to do something perfect with the bit of luck I found that day.


3 responses

  1. Caleb’s performance that day was exceptional and indeed was the catalyst for us starting the “True Zero” prize for all our future events.

    One clarification, the touches accumulated during the honor pools are used for seeding into the first rounds only and afterwards each fencer’s total number of touches against are reset to zero. While this in no way diminishes what Caleb accomplishes it does reduce the possible number of cumulative touches against a fencer could acquire. For example, fencers who, unlike Caleb, show no restraint in these honor pools frequently end up with a total score of up to 30 against. Once we reset total scores to zero and enter full rounds each bout is fought to 3 touches, which standardizes the possible touch outcome.

    I enjoyed Caleb’s retelling of this day. It was a successful event in many ways and Caleb’s performance was certainly the highlight.

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