The information contained herein is drawn from notes that I took during a 6-month period in 1989-1990 when I was taking lessons from a Ukrainian coach, Victor Bukov. At the time, I had been involved in fencing for over 20 years and had just participated in the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, Korea. Even after all this time in fencing I found that right from the first lesson Victor provided new insights into foil fencing. Knowing that Victor was here only temporarily, I decided to take copious notes. Since then, I have read the notes over and over and have drawn from them in my own fencing as well as in my coaching.
Because I have found the information so useful, I decided to write this monograph. The material is simply a compilation of what I learned from Victor. It is not an attempt to describe an entire system of fencing or to promote a particular style. It is simply some ideas, ideas that now seem simple and self-evident, yet at the time seemed revolutionary. I am fairly certain that whether you are a fencer or a coach, this simple piece will contain material that is useful to you.
In the winter of 1989-1990, I had the pleasure of taking lessons from Victor Bukov. When I first met him, I did not know much about him, other than hearing that he had been the coach of Smirnov, the great Russian foil fencer. Given the plethora of European coaches who have inflated their credentials, I was skeptical of his skills. Also, since Victor just sort of appeared in Philadelphia, without plan or fanfare, his credentials and skills seemed uncertain. Apparently, Victor came to Philadelphia to visit friends. The son of one of his friends was a member of our club, the Fairmount Park Fencing Center.
At the time our club, which was founded by Abdel-Monem Salem and Kathryn Lewis, was meeting in a dry swimming pool in the historic Memorial Hall in Fairmount Park. One night Victor simply showed up and was introduced (through his friend and interpreter) to us. He indicated that he would be in town for at least 6 months and would be interested in giving some lessons.
On a lark, I decided to try a lesson with Victor. I was at a point where I had just completed my competitive fencing, quite happily so, having participated in the 1988 Olympic Games as a foil fencer. With my competitive days behind me, I was enjoying recreational fencing, was taking no lessons, and was not looking to start with a new coach. Since I was getting interested in coaching and wanted to learn what I could, I thought a few lessons couldn't hurt, although my expectations were not high.
However, I was surprised to notice immediate improvement in my fencing after the first lesson and more improvement after the second lesson. Since I had never experienced such immediate results from lessons, I was quickly becoming aware that Victor was a very special coach. By the way, at this point I became interested in finding out more about Victor's past and learned that he had, in fact, been Smirnov's coach. During the next 6 months, Victor helped to renew my interest in improving my game and motivated me to make significant changes to my fencing style.
Early on, when I realized how much I was learning, I decided to take extensive notes. The materials below summarize my experiences with Victor. Also, understand that Victor spoke almost no English; almost all of the information was conveyed with physical cues, along with one or two word cues.
The essence of Victor's teaching style is that every action in the lesson is accomplished within the context of an appropriate tactic at the correct distance, executed with proper technique. This creates a learning environment for the fencer that is always like actual combat. Personally, in the past, I had found that when I tried to make changes in my game, I became obsessed with working on the technique, losing touch with other elements of the game. The way Victor worked, I never felt distracted or disconnected working on technique because the technical change was always examined within the context of a tactical move executed at the right time and distance.
I have divided the materials into concepts of distance, technique, and tactics that Victor taught me during this period. However, understand that this is not the way that Victor presented material to me. He generally worked with the various tactical setups described in the final section. Whenever necessary, he would stop and perfect the applicable technique or distance problems.
For you, the reader, I suggest that you focus carefully on the tactical setups described in the final section. When fencing, there are three separate tactical approaches that you can take. Actions can be totally planned, partially planned, or completely unplanned. Many times in lessons coaches actually work with unplanned or partially planned actions. The coach will present stimuli and the student responds accordingly. This skill is crucial to successful fencing and some fencers use this approach almost exclusively. However, well set up pre-planned actions are also important to the arsenal. The best pre-planned attacks are not executed in a vacuum. They must be set up with a preparation. Many of the tactics that Victor practiced with me were like that. We did not simply practice a feint disengage lunge; we started with a preparation that set the opponent up to be vulnerable to that attack. I strongly suggest that you try some of these tactics. Learning to set up and execute a pre-planned action works quite well, and is quite a rewarding approach to fencing.
Under Victor's approach, the student must at all times focus attention on distance. Victor achieved this by constantly changing the distance and making the student react. For example, Victor would ask me to advance, presumably to execute a planned attack (we would begin at an advance lunge distance). If he did not retreat I was to execute the planned action. If he retreated I was to abort the attack. If he lunged, I was to take a half retreat and parry riposte. Because Victor required me to focus on distance at all times, I became more sensitive to when I was out of distance and when I was within striking range. By attacking into the advance, he was training me to be more mentally alert when I was in what I call the danger zone (within direct lunge distance). Another way to put this is to say that his teaching technique taught me to advance with caution, forcing me to stay physically and mentally ready to withdraw, stop, or attack at any time.
Victor also spent a lot of time working on how to get within the proper distance to strike. These techniques are discussed more fully in the tactic section. Generally, the tactics revolved around developing a pattern of movement and quickly changing the pattern to surprise the opponent. For example, his tactics included taking a series of retreats followed by a false retreat attack; making a series of slow advances followed by a quick advance lunge; and creeping into distance with slow advances, followed by a quick lunge.
A discussion of technique needs to begin with a description of the general posturing, strip demeanor, and mental attitude that Victor tries to create in a fencer. During the preparation stage of an action, Victor looks for an extremely relaxed, almost casual posturing, which is intended to get your opponent off guard. When advancing on preparation, for example, he would require that the upper body be completely relaxed, giving the impression of being unprepared. However, at the same time he expected your mind and legs to remain extremely alert. (In my experience with coaching, this concept is extremely difficult for fencers to understand—when they relax, the whole body relaxes, and when they are alert, the whole body is tense.) From this posturing, when the time was right, he expected catlike, lightning-fast explosive actions, executed with a light hand and perfect balance.
He explained that fencing was like boxing—in and out, quickly with balance, being able to attack and recover without needlessly risking getting hit.
The following explains more specifically the technique involved in the game that Victor taught.
Parries are executed with the point and little hand movement. The key to making a small hand action is parrying from the proper distance. From a lunge distance, as the attacker lunges, the defender is to execute a half retreat. This is a movement with the back foot, leaving the front foot stable. When the opponent lunges, this half retreat gets the defender out of the range of the attack. Victor demonstrated that the parry only has to be large when the distance is too close. The parry is secondary to the distance, and every attack should land short. The parry is executed merely to make sure that the director gives the right of way to the defender. He usually worked with beat parries, which were made at the same time as the half retreat. A direct riposte could be made from that position, with a lunge if necessary. Victor required all three actions—the half retreat, parry, riposte—to be executed in one tempo.
As I began to master this technique, I developed a speed that I had never had and found myself scoring more touches on simple parry, direct riposte. One more important element is that on the half retreat, the defender extends the arm slightly to parry, so that as the body retreats, the foil essentially stays in the same place. This leaves the defender's point close to the attacker's target, facilitating the direct riposte.
Victor works very hard at keeping the fencer's hand low when parrying. When the hand rises, the fencer needs to use the whole arm to parry. It the hand stays low and stationary, the only way to parry is to move the blade. When parries are executed this way in a very short time span, a number of parries can be executed. To master this technique he worked on a practice action in which you take the blade in the line of four, move it to eight, back to four, and extend.
The concept of a feint was also somewhat different from what I had experienced. A feint was to be executed with a slightly bent arm, a relaxed hand, and a quick forward body movement, not a slow deliberate movement. The key was surprise and a quick closing of the distance, not the placement of the point or a fully extended arm. Another interesting idea is to place the point not at the target, but wide of the target. This ensures that the opponent attempts to parry with a straight parry and does not have the choice to execute circle parries, making it easier to avoid the parry.
The lunge is first executed with the extension of the arm, followed by reaching forward with the front heel. In the lesson Victor demanded that the trunk stay perfectly upright and that the weight not shift to the front foot. (The key is to reach forward with arm and front leg, keeping the torso upright and extending the back leg for acceleration.) If Victor thought that the fencer was leaning forward on the lunge, he would stand behind the fencer and hold the back arm, and then tell the fencer to lunge. This technique forced the fencer to remain upright as he or she lunged. The action that he kept demonstrating was very light and springy, allowing the attacker to almost jump back on guard. The lunge was always to be executed with a quick, springy recovery. To demonstrate the feeling and balance that he wanted, Victor would lunge, then turn the hips the opposite way (turning the front hip toward the back of the strip) and walk out of the lunge. Victor always emphasized that being short with the attack was not a problem, and that quick recovery makes it almost impossible to get hit with a riposte. As he pointed out, the attacker can always begin again. Many times I have seen lessons where the person executing the lunge is encouraged to stay in the lunging position. I believe that allowing this only encourages a bad habit. Once Victor has the fencer lunging properly, he never allows the lunge to linger. After perfecting the lunge that Victor wanted, I find myself getting hit with far fewer parry riposte actions.
Acceleration is an important concept in Victor's system. When it is time to attack, the attack is not to be long, but it is to be quick. He is always working on speed of blade (accomplished by moving the blade first with the fingers) and quick acceleration of the attack, accomplished by quickly straightening the back leg on the lunge. The general idea is to creep into distance and then explode, not taking long advance lunges to hit, and especially not overextending on the lunge.
Most of the forward moving actions require a brief moment of hesitation after the first step. Therefore, the fencer is scolded if he or she rushes after the advance. Victor constantly surprises you so that you get used to advancing, then retreating. The key to this is really a mental intensity. I try and think of the image of advancing in preparation, relaxed but with extreme concentration, being able to retreat immediately, and being alert to the opponent's response. It is helpful to practice in the mirror, advancing and thinking of the opponent's possible reactions. If they retreat on your advance, abandon the attack; if they stand still, attack with lunge; if they attack with lunge on your advance, half retreat and parry riposte.
Before I started working with Victor, I was sure that I would never start change my style to match the idiosyncrasies of any particular coach. However, Victor had me wanting to be able to make all of the moves he demonstrated. I knew that they would work and that I could get more touches with less effort by using them. I also felt instinctively that my technique had taken me as far as it could and that these changes would allow me to make another incremental improvement in my game. As well, I had the sense that this game was one that I understood and would fit in well with my instinctive sense of timing. And I thought that Victor was giving me instructions that I understood and that would help resolve several problems that have always frustrated me. One is moving the blade with the whole arm. Second is a lack of awareness of distance, which results in often taking more footwork than necessary, making me vulnerable to a counterattack. Third, I had always executed the parry with a full retreat, pulling the hand slightly back . With this execution, it was nearly impossible to hit with a direct parry riposte.
Throughout the time that I worked with Victor he introduced numerous actions, which in most cases were practiced with a specific preparation. I found this to be an excellent way to work. The actions were not complex or new but, when combined with the specific preparation, became extremely successful. Also, after learning this set of preparations, I find that I am better at creating other combinations.
Note that I am a left-handed fencer and Victor was teaching me right-handed. In some cases the actions need to be adjusted for other combinations (righty-righty, lefty-lefty). In any case, the principles are certainly transferable to a right-handed fencer.
1. Setting up the surprise attack. Set up the action with retreat, easy circle-six parry. The parry should be executed slowly, and by withdrawing the arm. Repeat several times. This response lets the opponent believe that you are thinking parry riposte. Also, the withdrawing action makes him or her feel safe moving forward, and he or she will begin to take larger steps. After developing this pattern, when the opponent advances, make a false or half retreat while beginning the same parry, then suddenly then change directions by first quickly extending the arm and making a feint into the four line, followed with disengage lunge. If executed suddenly the feint should draw a parry, providing the opportunity to hit with the disengage attack. Successful execution requires changing the pace from slow and relaxed to a quick strong feint. Note that in this action, distance has been "stolen" by the false retreat and false parry, encouraging the opponent to move into lunge distance.
2. Setting up the blade attack. This action is appropriate for the fencer who lets you take the blade. Advance, taking the blade lightly with a circle six—barely making contact with the opponent's blade—and then retreat. Repeat this action several times. Now move the front foot forward, beginning an advance, and begin the same slow circle six movement with the blade; however, as the blade moves under the opponent's blade, suddenly change blade direction, grabbing the blade strongly in four, accelerating with the feet—finishing the advance lunge while executing a press disengage attack. (The action also works well as a beat disengage attack.) The repeated slow starts get the opponent to become more careless, allowing you the opportunity to hit on the final action.
Now assume that when you reach for the blade with circle six, the opponent retreats and takes the blade away. Some fencers will react by advancing and presenting the blade. In this situation, after advancing and retreating several times, make a false retreat, executing the false circle six, and quickly grabbing the blade in four and attacking with a press disengage attack.
Finally, presume that your opponent never lets you take the blade. With this fencer try retreating suddenly, which often leads to the opponent coming after you with the blade. Again, execute the same action as above.
3. The deceptive attack. Step forward, extending the arm but at the same time giving your opponent the sense that you are searching for the blade. When the opponent perceives you moving forward in what appears to be preparation, he or she is likely to deceive the blade and launch an attack. If the preparation is executed properly and you are extending smoothly as you are reaching for the blade, the referee sees the beginning of an attack, not a preparation. Therefore, as soon as the opponent launches the attack, finish the attack, hitting straight. To get away with this, you must look for the blade primarily with the blade (moving the hand laterally as little as possible) so that from the side, the director will only see the extension of the arm, and not the attempted taking. If done properly your opponent will be shocked when the referee gives you the right of way.
4. Defending against the deceptive attack (described in #4). If you expect the above attack, give your opponent the counterattack that he or she is looking for; then parry riposte when he or she attacks. The footwork execution and "body English" are crucial to your success. When your opponent begins the slow attack, extend quickly to draw attention to your counterattack, but also quietly retreat. When he or she finishes the lunge, execute another half retreat parry riposte.
5. The double disengage attack. Slowly advance, making an easy feint. As the opponent looks for the blade in response, accelerate with the double disengage. The key to this action is to move in such a non-threatening manner that the opponent does not move away but reaches only with the blade, so that you get within striking distance. If no distance is gained, do not complete the action. I learned from Victor that one of the best ways to make up distance on your opponent is to move so slowly that he or she does not feel threatened and lets you into striking range.
6. Drawing the attack. Advance, encouraging your opponent to attack by searching for his or her blade with a slow circle-six parry. When he or she deceives your blade and attacks, execute a direct parry four riposte. If he or she deceives your parry four, parry six and disengage riposte. Victor pointed out that with a lefty against a righty, even with the right distance, a strong six-parry usually requires a disengage riposte, due to the right- handed fencer's general immediate reaction to protect the four line.
7. Drawing the charging opponent to finish the attack. This is a good tactic to use with the opponent who likes to charge. As the opponent charges forward, suddenly drop your guard while moving back. The charged-up opponent will instinctively attack into the opening. Now parry riposte. Victor suggested using this move when your opponent is really in need of a touch and is desperate to attack. For example, assume that there are 15 seconds left in a bout and you are ahead by 3-1. Make several simultaneous attacks, making sure that you hit, even aiming off target if necessary. Then give the opening, and parry riposte.
8. Spreading the distance. Instead of trying to suddenly close the distance, suddenly open it up, which may draw the fencer to charge you. Counterattack or parry riposte, as appropriate. If your opponent starts to get the idea and charge more carefully, try a second intention parry riposte.
9. Executing the second intention attack. Move forward slowly, beating the opponent's blade lightly, not threatening the opponent. Repeat the pattern several times. Now advance and beat the blade strongly and feint with an extended arm and a quick and short lunge. The sudden change in speed should encourage the opponent to parry riposte. At that time, execute a counter riposte.
10. Same preparation as in #9 to set up the attack. Use the same preparation as above, but instead of second intention, make the feint. When the opponent goes for the blade, execute a double disengage attack.
11. Encouraging the parry riposte. At the end of the bout, if you are behind and your opponent is expecting you to attack strongly, attack quickly and with "body English" indicating you are attacking with all your heart. But keep careful control of your body; execute a second intention attack and pick up the opponent's parry riposte.
12. Counterattack and parry riposte. If an opponent does complex preparations before the attack, begin by stepping back with parry riposte several times. Once the opponent responds by making larger preparations, stand still on the advance (or try a small forward movement with the front foot only). Make a quick counterattack, then step back and parry riposte. The technique has to be exacting. It requires a quick hand, good balance, and taking advantage of a full extension on the counterattack. The timing has to be very fast; counterattack, then step back and parry riposte almost simultaneously. With practice, the whole phrase can be executed in one tempo.
Another option is to execute a parry riposte from a stationary position, followed immediately by a retreat and second parry riposte. Again, the action must be lightening fast, with both actions fitting into one single tempo. Both of these are great moves that can be used in competition or just as exercises to speed up the hand and teach separation from hand and foot. To get the desired speed, the hand must move much faster than the feet.
13. The slow blade attack. Advance slowly, taking the blade lightly in four. If the opponent is careless and lets the distance get shorter, press the blade firmly and disengage lunge. This is an excellent action in any line; the key is working with the proper distance.
14. Setting up the closing parry riposte. For the opponent with a long attack and a big preparation, retreat, executing slow parries. Repeat several times; when the opponent accelerates, reach with a slow parry to encourage him or her to attack to the opposite side. Now step forward quickly with counterattack, closing the line that you expect the opponent to finish. To execute the final action effectively, extend quickly as you close the line.
15. Freezing the opponent. Advance, taking the blade strongly, and freeze the opponent with a disengage. Pause for a moment, then attack with a one-two attack. The opponent attains a heightened sense of readiness on the first action, and will parry strongly when the attack is made.
16. Simple fleche attack. A nice, simple effective move is an advance reaching out with a strong four, followed by a direct attack with fleche. When Victor and I worked on this move, we did not practice a specific preparation. We concentrated on the technique of the move, which did facilitate successful execution. The key is reaching out for the four (to get the blade and body close to the opponent).
17. Attack with a double taking. Advance, taking the blade with circle-six. If the opponent presses back, surprise him or her with a quick circle-four press disengage lunge. This move requires excellent technique. The action must be executed with the fingers and by reaching forward with the hand throughout the action. If the feet get ahead of the blade work, the action will not work.
18. Strong attack. Advance, taking the blade in eight. Make another advance, feinting sharply and wide off the four or six line. The feint will be effective if the distance is shortening and the action is quick. If the feint is wide off the target, it forces the opponent to parry with a straight parry, which can easily be deceived. The action is powerful, since the opponent feels quite vulnerable after the blade has been taken to the low line.
19. Setting up the attack remise. Make a short attack and retreat quickly. Try this several times. Your opponent will perceive that you are not vulnerable to a riposte due to your short attack and quick retreat, and will stop attempting to riposte. Also, your pattern of recovering after the attack will encourage your opponent to relax for a moment after you attack. Now attack, and remise (or redouble the attack, depending upon the distance).
20. Learning about your opponent. Learn your opponent's natural parry by making a big aggressive feint, with lots of "body English." Once you know it, you can work from there. For example, if the parry is four, you can feint six, then make big feint four, disengage. Or you feint six and your opponent makes parry six. Since this is not the natural side, he or she may make this parry too big. You feint twice, he or she makes a big parry, then you feint to six and accelerate with disengage lunge when your opponent goes for the blade.
21. Pre-planned strong attack. Advance, taking a light six, then taking the blade strongly to seven (with fingers); then release, hitting high. This is a planned premeditated long distance (advance lunge) action when you really need a touch. After attempting this action once, try a variation, such as feint high, hit low or a second intention action.
22. Making sure that your opponent goes for the feint. Step forward slowly, starting with the blade low. Lift the point and make an easy feint. If the opponent searches for the blade, make a disengage and strong feint, then disengage lunge.
When I re-read these materials I notice that I did not describe Victor's methodology for teaching me these various tactical options. Briefly I would like to make some comments about that. First, when we were working on a particular pattern, after practicing it several times, he began to throw in changes—problems that would keep me from executing the planned action. He did this to keep me alert, and to help me learn to handle all the possible responses that I could encounter. I found this extremely helpful for confidence building, since it allowed me to feel like I could handle any action by the opponent.
Also, when we were working on learning a pattern, a great deal of time was spent mastering the false actions, feints, and other moves that set up the touch. I began to appreciate that the touch was scored when the preparation was done properly; at that point the execution of the final action was secondary. For example, in number xx, I describe a preparation where the you draw the opponent's attack by violently dropping your guard. We practiced this over and over and over to get the proper signal that actually worked. When making a strong blade feint, I practiced extending quickly and tensing the arm and shoulder to give the impression that I intended to attack. Getting just the right amount of speed and tension, without losing control or mobility took time to learn. If you are trying these preparations, work with a partner to find out whether or not your feints are convincing. Try them different ways to see which work the best.