The perspective of a tournament organiser

Keith Farrell receiving a hit from Gordon Love at the AHA Glasgow Broadsword Tournament 2016. Photo by Andy Lawrence.

Keith Farrell receiving a hit from Gordon Love at the AHA Glasgow Broadsword Tournament 2016. Photo by Andy Lawrence.

About a month ago, the Academy of Historical Arts ran a broadsword competition in Glasgow, with a new rule set that was quite a significant departure from other rules we have used in the past.

In this article, I would like to share my thoughts as the tournament organiser, to discuss what I was trying to achieve with the event, and what some of the results and learning points were at the end of the event.

In June this year, at Fechtschule New York 2016, the organisers ran a competition where the intent was to give everyone a lot of fights, but to restrict the number of exchanges in each fight. So often in competitions, people have three minutes, or ten exchanges, or whatever, to suss out their opponent and beat them at their game, or otherwise to recover from a bad decision or two. Instead, the purpose of this tournament was to give everyone just a single exchange against each opponent, to get right to the heart of the matter over a huge number of fights.

This system means that each fight is “to the first hit”, effectively, which is a format I usually don’t like. This kind of format can mean that one bad decision has a disproportionate effect on a fencer’s ability to place well, but more importantly, bad judging calls are amplified in terms of their effect. I feel this is a crucial flaw in a “to the first hit” system with relatively few fights, because even if a fencer performs correctly, a judging error can cause entirely the wrong outcome. The way that many tournament formats reduce the impact of poor judging calls is by offering many exchanges in each fight, so that over the course of the competition, there is a large enough number of judging calls per person that one or two bad calls are averaged out and will not have a significant effect on anyone’s progression.

However, by running a competition “to the first hit” and trying to offer 20 or more fights per person, the effect of poor judging calls could be reduced, and it would also test an individual’s ability to stay focused for a long period of time against many different opponents.

Furthermore, to even the playing field further, I wanted each fencer to judge as many bouts as they fought. Making judging part of the fencers’ own responsibilities, providing only a referee as tournament staff, would have many benefits:

1) It would show each fencer just how hard it is to judge, and therefore increase compassion and understanding towards others in that role.

2) It would give each fencer an equal stake in the quality of the judging of the event, and also perhaps an equal stake in the number of bad calls that would inevitably happen.

3) It would hopefully reduce the complaints afterwards that the judging wasn’t good enough.

4) It would hopefully give the impression that the whole event was a community event with everyone participating in its execution, rather than people just turning up to fight and being upset when inevitably something wasn’t quite to an individual’s taste.

After going through a trial run of the rules a couple of weeks before our competition, participants of the trial run suggested that it would be most fun if we just ran a straight round robin so that everyone could fight everyone once, and to make things as simple as possible. So we did just this for the actual event.

The rules were relatively simple. A clean hit would result in a WIN for the person who gave the hit and a LOSS for the person who received it. A double hit would result in a LOSS for both fencers. There was a second of time during which afterblows (potentially plural) could be made after a hit was given; two afterblows to the head, or two afterblows to the “anywhere else” would still count as a double LOSS. However, since hunting the forehead is a long-held tradition in British swordsmanship, I wanted to include a nod to tradition in our rules. So if the first hit went to the head and the afterblow went anywhere else, then the head hit received the WIN and the other person received the LOSS. If the first hit went anywhere else and the second hit went to the head, that bought the chance to refight the exchange. Once a fight was concluded, the fencers became the judges for the next round and vacated the ring.

I kept the “ring” very small, just two metres wide by four metres long. This meant that fighters began just out of distance, but were completely within measure in just a couple of short steps. It allowed for a little manoeuvring, but was again a nod towards the British tradition of being able to fight in confined spaces or with rules regarding footwork. It was forbidden to initiate grapples or and body-to-body contact, other than a successful disarm. It was also forbidden to step out of the ring with both feet.

With just one exchange per fight, and with such a small ring, I was intrigued to see what strategies people brought to the competition. How would people conduct themselves during fencing? What adaptions would we see? Would any one strategy become dominant?

Generally speaking, people tried one of two strategies: either fencing in a parry-riposte fashion, as described by so many of the broadsword treatises, or trying a single “trick” to surprise an opponent and take the advantage.

Strangely enough relatively few people managed to receive a WIN through an afterblow situation (hitting the head, then receiving an afterblow to anywhere else). However, there were several fights that had to be refought because of the afterblow landing on the head.

This seems perhaps a little strange, but perhaps it can be explained: almost everyone had success keeping their heads safe from attack, and therefore many of the hits scored were to the leg or body. It was relatively easy for people to tempt their opponents’ defences upward, then to deliver a hit below. however, this situation also led to many afterblows going to the head, following a hit to the leg or torso, which seems to explain matters.

What was my learning point from this? Well, when put under the kind of pressure that comes from the first (and only!) exchange being all-important, people tended to fight somewhat conservatively, and on the whole, people took fewer risks than I tend to see in other competitions where single mistakes have less effect on the final score. However, some people did put all their eggs in one basket, and try an unpredictable “trick” to score the point – sometimes it worked, and sometimes it didn’t, but it was interesting to see that this remained a viable tactic under the parameters of the rules all the way through the tournament.

It could perhaps be said that a “first hit” mentality is a good example of being too “sporty”, by prioritising the touch too much. However, from another point of view, it seems that the mentality brought out a very cautious approach in many fencers, who became very interested in their own defence, and who didn’t want to give up the first exchange to their opponent. This could be equated broadly with the mindset of an individual going into a duel, or a single combat of some description: the desire, and indeed the need to make the first hit, but still a desire to survive the fight and come out unscathed.

I think the rules were balanced enough to give people some interesting decisions to make, without becoming too “sporty”, and without making defence irrelevant. The one second during which one, two, five or eight afterblows could be made (if the fencer was fast enough!) meant that charging in recklessly was a poor strategy, as it almost always resulted in an afterblow and a LOSS for the fencer who was too eager.

During the course of the tournament, I saw quite a lot of skilful fencing and prolonged exchanges that I don’t see very regularly during sparring or in other broadsword/sabre competitions. I believe everyone went home with an interesting new experience under their belt, with learning points to match. Certainly, everyone had smiles on their faces!

And therefore, I feel that I managed to accomplish something of value with this tournament and this rule set, by giving the participants and their clubs a new learning opportunity and a new avenue to develop skills further. This matches my general philosophy of using tournaments as teaching/training tools and as community-building events. Competition for the sake of competing or winning yet another medal is not something that interests me, but concrete, positive developments in a community, that arise from an event of any sort, can only be a good thing.

There will be a few small tweaks in the rules, but they will remain largely unchanged, and we will definitely be running another event like this in the future.

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