The Galway HEMA Open: A Review

Saturday was the last event of the 2017 IHFL the Galway HEMA Open. I have attended every event in the season this year and I have been looking forward to this event for a few weeks. A chance to fence, learn something, to catch up with other League heads and hopefully to have a good time. All of those things came to pass but not in precisely the way I was hoping. Here is my review of the event. I’ll leave my look at my own performance to the end.

The venue for the event is a school in the Salthill area of Galway; easy to get to and a decent size hall for fencing, but other amenities are a little lacking. Not that the proximity of a Centra for a lunch time sandwich are a deal breaker when it comes to HEMA. The organisation of the event was adequate enough. A lack of water being provided in the morning was a bit of an issue but what can you do. The day began a bit behind schedule and the explanation of the event specific rules can only be described as exhaustively thorough…

The system does bear some examination as both the ruleset and the ‘pool’ structure did deviate quite strongly from the usual.

To begin with the scoring system was a defensive one; by that I mean that each player begins each bout with seven points, hits scored against them reduce those points until one or other reaches zero (or four exchanges have been fought). The winner of a bout is the one with the most points left, the running total of the remaining points are used to determine the best performers and thereby who will qualify for the eliminations. I theoretically like the idea, I’m an old RPG player and Hit-points make sense to me. In practice I didn’t really get in the mood for defensive thinking and suffered for it (more of this later).

The scoring system was well laid out. There was an alternative and quite likeable terminology where strikes are categorised into ‘Simple’ – 1 point, ‘Good’ – 3 points and ‘Tremendous!’ – 5 points. Simple being a strike to a shallow target, Good being a deeper strike and Tremendous representing a Good strike with the added quality of controlling the opponent’s blade or withdrawing under cover of a solid Abzug. The categories make sense, but for me the weighting was unbalanced. Five points for the Tremendous! category means that the bout is going to be a short one as one player only has two points left. I would suggest sticking to a straight +1 for Tremendous! as has been seen at other events, this would reward without leaving the other player in such dire straits.

One wrinkle I really like was that in the case of double and blow-afterblow both players scored full weight for their blows, with Tremendous! being a logical impossibility in this case as nobody would have had control of their opponent and obviously didn’t have good cover in their withdrawl. It’s quite different to what I have seen under other League systems but similar to how the East Clare Sparring Group does it. It has the effect of preventing the gaming of risk in a bout (i.e. cancelling an opponent’s quality strike by sneaking in a snipe to their hands within a tempo).

What didn’t work so well were the ‘extras’; points were deducted for striking the floor and for stepping out of the ring with even one foot. First of all there are many reasons why you might strike the floor through no fault of you own, such as your opponent suddenly releasing pressure from a bind or delivering a vigorous blow to your blade to displace it. If you aren’t in control, over swing or miss, and strike the floor I can understand a penalty but as a blanket measure it was crude. Stepping out with a single foot was frankly ridiculous, both feet out I would totally agree with, but the single foot rule saw some experienced fencers penalised unnecessarily.

The pool structure was an interesting one. The entrants were divided into two team Red & Blue. Everybody fought everyone one the opposite team once using an offset at the end of each phase. Makes a good deal of sense, more fights for everyone and less time wasted dicking around with arm-bands in between each bout. What didn’t work so well was figuring out who progressed to the eliminations or how to account for unequal team sizes. Things weren’t helped by the fact that a player in the smaller team had to withdraw at lunch due to a pre-existing injury making the difference in team size even greater. During the day there was a fair bit of head scratching going on amongst the competitors and that distracted them (me) from the fencing.

This neatly brings me onto my critique of scoring systems as a whole. It is my assertion that the system should, as far as possible, disappear when fencing begins. The day shouldn’t be about the mental gymnastics needed to work out how you are doing, nor the frustrations felt by competitors when judges, unfamiliar with a rule-set, make inconsistent rulings. I understand that using a variety of systems allows emphasis to be placed on different aspects of the Art but there must be a way to do so without overshadowing the work being done by the fighters themselves. The rules create a framework for the fighters to work within but this framework should be a better reflection of what the fencers do rather than an imposition of what someone thinks might work or what might be ‘interesting’. Experimentation may be necessary but should be done in a club context not, in my opinion, during League competition.  In the case of the Galway HEMA Open I would have done one or the other, either an innovative scoring system OR a restructuring of the commonly seen pool structure. Both on the same day was a bit too far. I do, after all, fear change.

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The fencing (within the confines of the system) was of decent quality. There were lots of new faces taking part and doing very well. I personally did extremely poorly; by this I mean I think I came second to last overall, the guy who came last was the one who pulled out due to injury. I don’t really know what happened. At the moment I can only establish some of the contributing factors which I’ll share with you.

Firstly, as mentioned above, I wasn’t really up for defensive fencing, the systems emphasised it but I just couldn’t bring my self to play along. I made attacks that didn’t connect leaving me vulnerable to response and without considering the consequences to my ongoing score tally. Basically I should have sniped at hands more, parried and retained my ‘hit-points’, yawn. Not what I wanted to do on a personal enjoyment level and not what I could bring myself to do despite knowing it was ruining my chances in the event and as it turns out the League rankings.

Second, my form was very poor by my own standards. I failed to implement advice I have received before regarding my footwork in defense which reduced my options to riposte, I rarely considered threats during my attacks (as mentioned above) and didn’t make much effort to mitigate them when I did. This is poor fencing and I didn’t deserve to progress to the eliminations and it is only right and proper that I didn’t. This, luckily, is where the learning opportunities for me exist. I have taken a reflexive look at my performance and I know what I need to work on so this is a good thing-bad thing sort of situation.

Thirdly, and I think not surprising to anyone reading the above comments on the structure of the event, I didn’t focus on the fighting but got distracted by the system. No blame should be assigned to the organisers here, I am responsible for choosing how I react to change and what I see as shortcomings. I decide if I try to work to a system or not and in this case I didn’t. I felt that there were flaws in the system and its implementation but I knew the system and I could/should have adapted my fencing to suit the needs of doing well in the competition if that was what I wanted.

The overspill from this is that my League position suffered greatly. My 3rd place was marginal at best, Mike Nolan was only one point behind me and his 40 pt 4th place came from two 1st places at the events he had attended. Mine was from two 5ths and a 6th combined with high placed entrants who only managed to make it to one event, which gave my results greater weight in the League rankings than perhaps they deserved. I was very pleased with my position but it was reliant on consistency and I was so far off-form in Galway that I don’t think I’ve held onto it. I haven’t seen the final calculations of position yet but I think I’ll be in 5th place when the dust settles. The winner was announced and Adrian deserves the victory he managed to place in every event and that is impressive!

Overall I didn’t do too shabbily, actually I’m quite pleased with it as it means I’ve hit the first of my targets for 2017 (see this article). I have improved on my 8th place in the 2016 IHFL. Three steps up with all the learnt improvement and identified room for improvement is nothing to be sniffed at. I don’t think I’ll achieve the second of my aim of placing at an event, as the year is nearly done and there’s only one more event that I know of. As of the time of writing I am going to be running it not fighting in it, so not much chance there then. You can find more about it on the Tempest event page.

That’s about my lot for critique and self-criticism for this week so I’ll leave it there. Feel free to comment below or on the Wrathful Peasant’s Facebook page. As always if you like this article please share it to anyone you think might be interested in it.

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