Endowed in perpetuity by the Glenna Luschei Fund for Excellence

3:33 Sports Short #55 // Mind Games by Amaris Ketcham

I started fencing about a year ago. In addition to learning a thousand and one new French vocabulary words, that is possible to avoid being immediately stabbed every single time I squat en guarde, I have learned some of the standard ways that fencers talk about the sport to non-fencers. The most common comparison they use? “Fencing is like a physical game of chess.”

Now, I admit that I don’t know much about chess, but I assume fencers mean both have a strategic and a tactical element. Strategy is about long-term thinking, setting up positions for certain advantages later. You can watch how someone plays and devise exactly how you’ll win when you play them next.

Even in a bout that goes to five points and lasts maybe—if you’re lucky—three minutes, you can train your opponent to let you score. Say you point your sword tip at their chest and lunge. They will sweep their sword across their chest to knock yours out of the way. If you aim for their chest and let them defend two or three times in a row, then their body might automatically start to move that way before your sword occupies the same space. You can whip underneath their sword and land a touch on their exposed arm. Et voilà! You have just strategized to take advantage of the human tendency to learn things.

Tactical thinking is about immediate maneuvers. For every defensive move, there’s an offense that can get around it, and for every offensive move, there’s a defensive one that can block it.

Strategy and tactics go together. Tactics accomplish what strategy has set in motion. I am still untrained enough that I don’t have much in the way of strategy or tactics, but sometimes I have a small break-though and I realize how to score a point on someone else. There’s something beautiful about that sensation, like figuring out a riddle.

There are other similarities to chess: you must stay focused. Two players face off in a constrained space. They represent armed conflict. A kid can be as skilled as an adult. The Russian teams are very good at both. When someone is good enough to teach, they are referred to as a “master.”

Here’s how fencing and chess aren’t the same: you couldn’t play well by correspondence or online. A bout could never last six hours. Hopefully, IBM will never train a fencing computer that could beat a Russian master, because that would surely signal the beginning of the world’s takeover by AIs.


Amaris Feland Ketcham is a regular contributor to the arts and culture website Bark, which is affiliated with Willow Springs magazine. She has recently been published in the Los Angeles Review, the Rumpus, and the Utne Reader and has work forthcoming in Creative Nonfiction and the Kenyon Review.

Categories: