The Sword that Cuts Itself
By Nick Evangelista
The sword that cuts itself, in Japanese samurai tradition, is a symbolic reference to finding an opponent’s most potent attribute or maneuver and turning it against him, making it his personal downfall.
The sword represents the samurai himself. The cut symbolizes his strongest attribute, as the sharp cutting edge of his sword is its strongest point of reference. When this personal element is undermined and cannot be corrected, it is said that the sword has cut itself. Strength becomes debilitating weakness. The swordsman has caused his own defeat—an excellent strategic principle to remember.
In western fencing lore, we can look back at the classic story of Domenico Angelo versus the infamous Dr. Keys to see this concept in action. Angelo, trained in the traditional French School of Fencing during the 18th century, was a scientific fencer of much renown. Dr. Keys, his adversary, was an unrelenting brute, who relied on muscle alone to see him through. Angelo, instead of meeting his powerful foe head-on, allowed him to thrash about impotently and tire himself out before systematically vanquishing him soundly with ten well placed touches. Certainly Keys had something that worked for him in other encounters: he was, after all, as Angelo’s son Harry described him in his Remembrances (1828), “...reputed the most expert fencer in Ireland.” But Domenico, still remembered today as one of the greatest fencers of his age, simply turned the good doctor against himself.
In modern fencing, we can find the same sort of opportunities to beat an imposing opponent. We are not talking about romantic legends now. We are simply dealing with observation and intelligence: the Science of Fencing. When you look at another fencer, and see only a brick wall, you will doubtlessly lose. When you see instead a situation, a trait, an urge, to be exploited, you have found a key to opening locked doors.
Find something that your nemesis does well, and often (if he does it well, he will most likely do it often*), something he relies and counts on, something he expects to beat you with, and turn it against him. How do you do this? Do not react to it, do not try to fight him at his own game. Mold your own response to manipulate his actions. If it is the best thing he does, and suddenly it’s gone, he will be thrown off balance mentally. Encourage his insistence to force his favorite maneuverings to work, and you will overcome him. This is not an impossible feat. Anything anyone does on the fencing strip, no matter how overpowering or unstoppable it may seem, is a sword begging to cut itself. There is no action that cannot be countered. You don’t have to make a big production of it either. Sometimes it just means changing some small part of your strategy.
I can give you an example of my own fencing experience:
Once, in a team foil tournament, many years ago, I came up against a fencer who had just easily beaten both my teammates. This individual was tall, fast, and strong, and possessed a long lunge that could catch up to and penetrate the best of retreating defenses, which was how he defeated my partners. This fencer was not complicated in his attacks, but with his aggression, power, and speed, if you ran away from him, he could catch you and force a touch right through your parry. As imposing as he was physically, however, his attack of choice consisted of nothing more than an arcing straight hit. His blade would shoot out, beginning with a high point, and drop down just as it was ready to nail its victim. And, as far as I could tell, this individual never varied from this tack, most likely because it worked so well for him. Having watched my two teammates fall prey to this basic maneuver as they sought to flee from his attacks, I knew if I followed their strategy, I would be bested by him as well. So, I came up with an alternative plan to losing….
When this juggernaut attacked me, instead of retreating and opening the distance between us, I stepped forward, closing it. At the same time, I crouched slightly, contracting and lowering my target area, and stop thrusted him for all I was worth. Because of his high point when he attacked me, my advance kept him from fitting his point between us, and from achieving his desired maneuvering distance. His foil tip actually shot right over my head, the side of the blade slapping harmlessly off the top of my mask. Five times he attacked this way, five times I countered him with the same simple move. I beat him five touches to zero.
This athletic fencer never once changed his tactics against me. It may be, based on his stubborn adherence to his one note approach, he had nothing beyond his furious charges to fall back on. On the other hand, having found a winning formula in strength, speed, and aggression, as limited as it was, he was satisfied with his course of action. And, like Dr. Keys, centuries before him, he went on to topple those fencers without the ability to assess and resist a process riddled with weakness.
In the end, to be able to accurately analyze another's strengths, as well as his obvious weaknesses, is vital to a reliable fencing game. Without knowledge, we fence blindly. With knowledge, we may stop the seemingly unstoppable. And, yet, to realize the scope of our own abilities is also of paramount importance. We all do things in fencing from time to time that undermine our efforts. That is being human. Happily, such flubs, by and large, are easy to recognize and fix. They fall like chucks of lead on the fencing strip. But to be ignorant of the flaws lurking within those attributes we consider our most excellent skills is to foster our future undoing.
It is a fact that the sword that cuts itself cuts both ways.
* In Behavioral Psychology, there is a concept known as Thorndike's Law of Effect. It states that people will do more of the things they are rewarded for, and less of the things they are punished for. We see this trait exhibited on the fencing strip when someone relies on a particular action or set of actions, to the exclusion of all else, simply because the former possibilities proved initially successful, while the latter did not.