Human Guinea Pig

Chess With Knives

Can I master fencing, the sport for vicious brainiacs?

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!”

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

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.

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.