Chess With Knives
Can I master fencing, the sport for vicious brainiacs?
Despite my confusion and lead-footedness, the giggler was the only one of my classmates to actually laugh at me. As we paired off weekly to execute the series of moves Finkleman taught us, most tried to coach me into hitting them properly—it's a more interesting challenge if your opponent isn't just standing there, looking like the Pillsbury Doughboy with a long cake knife. Even the giggler finally took pity on me and tried to talk me through our sequence.
I finally decided I needed more individual help than could be had in a class of 15 people, so I started taking private classes with instructor David Livengood. Like many fencers I met, Livengood had participated in the sport in college, dropped it for decades, then picked up again. He's 72 and has been fencing for the past 20 years. One of the appealing things about fencing is that as one's physical skills decline, a lifetime of wiliness can compensate. Livengood, now retired, was chair of the department of neurophysiology at the National Naval Medical Center, and he assured me that if I stuck with fencing, my brain would sprout new dendrites. He assessed my skills and said we would start by getting my hands and feet coordinated—which would be a first in my sporting career.
We faced each other on the fencing strip, our swords touching, advancing and retreating. When I felt the pressure of his sword ease, I was to use one of the moves I had learned to strike. Slowly, I started to develop a rhythm and with it the first glimmering of the pleasure of fencing. There is something stirringly atavistic about the clang of blade against blade.
Livengood offered advice as we went. For instance, if I realized I was doing the wrong move, it was better to complete it than to just stand there like a giant bull's-eye. He also said my style was too cerebral. OK, he didn't actually say that, but he said he could see my lumbering thought process at work. Instead, I needed to take action. "You're being attacked! Defend yourself!" That really helped, as it allowed me to harness some of my hostility. Now when he came at me, I murmured behind my mask, "No way, Athos."
I thought it would also help if I saw real fencers in action, so I went to a tournament. Fencing is not a big spectator sport, demonstrated by the fact that my husband and I were the only people watching who weren't related to the fencers. Americans, who have traditionally been to fencing what Jamaica is to bobsledding, had significant victories in the last Olympics, with the women sweeping the individual sabre competition. Each year after an Olympics, there is a stirring of interest in the sport, but even so only about 22,000 fencers—almost 70 percent of them men—are registered with the 600 clubs recognized by the U.S. Fencing Association. Craig Harkins, who runs a fencing information and equipment site, estimates another 70,000 people fence for fun.
Since it has aristocratic roots, fencing still carries an elitist reputation that American fencers would like to shed. Still, the fencers I met confirmed the stereotype that this was a sport for agile brainiacs. I talked at random to three women competitors whose professions were biostatistician at the National Cancer Institute, naval engineer, and director of a think tank.
I asked several fencers why they are drawn to the sport. They all mentioned that it was good exercise, but they were much more interested in the intellectual discipline. Fencing requires finely honed mental reflexes, enjoyment in being intimidating, and a love of deceit. They liked that there was no reliance on a team: instead, it's one person alone with a sharp object trying to defeat another. I bet college fencers read a lot of Ayn Rand.
My group classes drew to an end, and for our last one, Finkleman set up a mock tournament with all of us competing in a round robin of three-minute bouts. When my turn came to stand on the strip, it was the first time I held a sword in my hand without an instructor giving me directions. My instinct was brutish—I simply advanced and lunged. This was ineffective as my opponent parried my every crude attempt. Belatedly, I realized my best approach was to retreat and wait for him to attack, giving me the chance to parry. This was how I made my only touch. Of course, retreating has its limits as a strategy. If you keep retreating, you forfeit the match due to ending up in the parking lot. I lost four touches to one, and when Finkleman ranked us as a group, I came in dead last.
All athletes apply the lessons of their game to life, and though I would never be a fencer, I knew what I learned about deception and craftiness could serve me well when I daily faced down my opponents. There might even be a book in it: The Fencer's Guide to Family Life.