Can I master fencing, the sport for vicious brainiacs?

Humiliating myself for fun and profit.
June 5 2009 2:57 PM

Chess With Knives

Can I master fencing, the sport for vicious brainiacs?

Fencing. Illustration by Nina Frenkel.

I stepped toward my opponent, aimed my sword at her heart, and lunged, causing to pour forth from deep in her chest a stream of giggles. She blocked my attack with a lateral parry quarte, and I tried to riposte to her high inside line. My riposte missed its mark, and my opponent easily hit my blade away, then struck me, provoking more hilarity from her. There's something about being laughed at from behind a disembodied fencer's mask that is particularly infuriating. I was now so flustered that I forgot to extend my arm before lunging, allowing her to hit me again. She said, "You just get worse and worse! A-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!"

Emily Yoffe Emily Yoffe

Emily Yoffe is a regular Slate contributor. She writes the Dear Prudence column. 

This prompted my own revelation: Fencing is the reason guns were invented.

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Did you ever watch the Olympics and wonder what it would be like to put on that dashing, all-white fencer's uniform—the one that makes you look like you've shown up for duty on the nuclear reactor cleanup crew—and actually know what to do when the referee says, "En garde"? No, neither did I, since, like most Americans, I ran to the kitchen for a snack when fencing came on for the five minutes the networks allotted it. But for this Human Guinea Pig, a column in which I try strange jobs and odd hobbies, I decided to see if I could at least master the fundamentals of a sport aficionados refer to as "chess with knives." It didn't bode well that I've never tried chess since I always lose at checkers.

Now, after seven months of foil classes (fencing has three weapons: foil, sabre, and, so beloved of crossword puzzle aficionados, epee), I was starting to think of fencing not as chess with knives but as algebra with footwork. As in algebra class, I felt I was listening to a series of instructions given in an esoteric language that could only be deciphered with a brain module I was missing. It wasn't the fault of our instructor, Ray Finkleman, who has been successfully teaching in Washington, D.C., at the Chevy Chase Fencing Club for more than 30 years. One of his current students, 15-year-old Katharine Holmes, was a winner at the 2009 Junior Olympics.

The problem was fencing called for three skills I lack: the ability to think strategically, master arcane rules, and make your hands and feet move independently. But I had one quality I thought might overcome these deficits: an endless supply of free-floating hostility. Unfortunately, it turns out, as with much of life, getting incensed doesn't get you anywhere in fencing.

Fencing is one of the few sports that have been a continuous part of the Olympics since its modern revival in 1896. But its origins as a deadly blood sport go back to prehistory. Sure, the Bronze Age produced an improved plowshare, but that must have paled in comparison with the discovery that stabbing with swords was so much more satisfying than hitting with clubs. The idea of turning this into a sport is also ancient, with sword contests being depicted on an Egyptian carving. By the 1400s, there were guilds for fencing masters in Europe, and by the 1600s, fencing rules had been formalized. Dueling became the way easily offended aristocrats resolved their disputes. During the 20-year reign of France's Louis XIII, there were 8,000 dueling deaths.

Today, fencing is rule-bound and safe, but its overlay of violence and cunning still animate the imagination. The history of the cinema would be entirely different without the sword fight, from the earliest swashbuckler movies, through Seven Samurai, to the Star Wars light sabers, and the fencing battle now on-screen between Sulu and the Romulan in Star Trek.

Our language is also surprisingly full of fencing references: to the hilt, the sword's handle; foible, the weak part of the blade. But mostly the terms that have spilled over recognize how a fencing match is like repartee, with the tongue replacing the sword. So we get parry, riposte, rapier wit, and touché.

But each week after I suited up—peering through the mesh mask gave me an insight into the compound eye of the housefly—I felt my sword had a speech impediment. I was incapable of using much of Finkleman's advice. For example, he said effective fencers are able to see if their opponents fall into patterns. "If they always do a lateral parry quarte, and never a semicircular octave, that gives you an opening." I thought my secret weapon might be that since I couldn't remember a series of moves, I had no pattern (except for my tendency to forget what to do and freeze in place). But this advantage was canceled by the fact that since I can't even follow the action on a football field, there was no way I would detect patterns in the flicks of the wrist that make up a fencing match.

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