The tactical options available to a fencer at the outset of the bout by far surpass those the criminal mastermind Vizzini has to consider in his Battle of Wits. Luckily, we have veteran fencer Joe Hoffman on our side to break the cycle by Stretching the Tactical Wheel…
by Joe Hoffman
The “Tactical Wheel” encapsulates the options open to a fencer, in a way that’s simple enough to apply in the high-stress moment before the referee says “Fence”.
If you choose an action that’s a quarter-turn clockwise of the action chosen by your opponent, you’ll get the touch. Your opponent is doing the same thing, trying to jump ahead by half a turn to put you a quarter-turn counterclockwise, so you lose the touch:
It’s simple, but it quickly turns into an infinite regression of “he knows that I know that he knows…”, which only Vizzini the Sicilian can fully comprehend.
How can we break this symmetry? How do we control where your opponent goes around the wheel? My students inform me that when I ask a question like that one, the answer is always “distance”. They’re right.
In most books, the tactical wheel is described in terms of actions that are intended to hit. But most actions aren’t intended to hit. Most actions are intended to set the opponent up, to draw a particular reaction. For these actions, we need to add a dimension to the wheel. Distance control operates radially on the wheel. Distance goes on the diagram like this:
Like so much of fencing, the perception of distance operates very deep in the brain. If my action falls short because I am too far away, my opponent can see it clearly. This keeps the stress level low, so my opponent can see it and make a plan to respond. Opponents are smart people, so when they’re not under stress, they make the right choice: They step one quarter turn clockwise of the action I’m showing. On the other hand, if the distance is close, the stress level is high and time for thinking is short, so opponents will tend toward the gut reaction.
For example, if I launch a straight attack from far away, my opponent sees the opportunity to parry and riposte. But if I launch a straight attack from close distance, there’s no time for that. All they can do is counterattack and hope. After a long-distance preparation, my real attack will be compound. (This is a basic lesson for beginners.) After a short-distance preparation, my real attack is a simple action from standard lunge distance. Since I’ve trained my opponent to counterattack, I’ll hit with right of way.
As you work around the wheel, the same situation applies, but things get more complicated. For example, it’s difficult to think of a compound attack from too-close distance. It might be a second-intention counter-riposte where I stay in my lunge to parry the simple riposte. Or something else that would be equally suicidal without preparation. But with preparation, the opponent is feeling pushed and will react too quickly. That puts him in the “wrong” place on the wheel, so I can repeat the action with correct distance and hit.
Put it all together and it looks like this. Red actions are from too-long distance; blue actions are from too-short distance. If I pick a colored dot to do my preparatory action, it inspires my opponent to move to a place indicated by the arrow.
Applying distance this way breaks the smooth symmetry of the tactical wheel. In order to grab the upper hand, the opponent must execute an action that looks and feels wrong. And if your opponent feels wrong, you’re doing something right.