Strategic Balance in Chess and Fencing

by Harold Hayes, Provost-at-Arms

April, 1991

About ten years ago, my friend and colleague Leonard Carnighan introduced me to Lasker's Manual of Chess, by Emanuel Lasker, not only as a study of chess, but as a textbook on fencing strategy. During the intervening years, I have found that Lasker's Manual has indeed clarified the complex subject of fencing strategy a great deal for me. In fact, it has been more useful in that respect than many books on fencing.

Though Lasker was writing about chess strategy in particular, he also was aware that chess strategy is but one instance of strategy in general; and he took care to express the fundamentals of chess strategy in such a way that their relevance to other fields could be appreciated. The present article is about a concept which Lasker considered central to strategy in the very broadest sense, and which, in my experience, certainly is central to strategy in fencing: the concept of strategic balance.

Lasker and the Theory of Steinitz

Lasker was a chess master who owned the world championship for 27 years, from 1894 to 1921. He was also a mathematician, physicist, philosopher, and author of several philosophical treatises. His genius as a thinker and writer was that he could penetrate the superficial characteristics of complex situations to identify not only their deeper structures, but the processes that led to those structures. In that sense, he attacked problems along the lines of Reason. Searching within the fullness of the living moment, he recognized certain elements whose developing characters and relations indicated the direction in which the underlying processes were moving. One who can comprehend , thus, the idea of a situation can know much better what is really happening within it, and the reasons for it. Accordingly, one can derive corresponding reasons for selecting a particular course of action subsequently. Lasker looked for the idea which not only characterized the individual situation in its uniqueness, but also characterized that kind of situation, as something analogous to many others1.

The dimension of Lasker's chess strategy which includes the concept of strategic balance is that to which Lasker referred as "the theory of Steinitz." Wilhelm Steinitz was a chess master and World Champion from (1886 to 1894) whom Lasker greatly admired, although he defeated Steinitz in matches of 1894 and 1896-97. Steinitz's innovative contribution to the theory of chess strategy is in his time was to find the basis for winning combinations not in the inexplicable "genius" of the player, but in the calculable strength of positions on the board. In his play, he forwent any effort to win the game in the beginning and concentrated, instead, on cumulating small advantages until he had achieved a strong enough position, that is, a great enough advantage, from which to launch a combination.

Steinitz calculated the strength of positions along several parameters, such as, for example, the relative values of pieces and their cooperation to give support to one another in proportion to their respective values; but the paramount concept in his theory, according to Lasker, was that of balance, because advantage was to be recognized as departure from balance. That departure was a necessary condition for successful attack:

If the advantages held by my opponent are compensated for by my advantage, the position is balanced. Then not attack, the intent of which is to win ... must be undertaken. The idea of balance is enough to convince us that balanced positions with best play on either side must lead again and again to balanced positions. Only after the balance of the positions has been disturbed, so that one player holds an uncompensated advantage, may this player attack with intent to win(2).

Thus, Lasker's strategy, balance is the norm by which positions are judged, the more readily to recognize advantages (or disadvantages), which are disturbances of balance:

The direction of attack and defense is also circumscribed b the rules of Steinitz in balanced position. The events may not have quite the force, the action not quite the tension as in positions where one side has superiority and has to bring it to bear against the efforts of a well-condcted defense eager to assume counter-attack(3). For all that, the connoisseur, observing how the master keeps the finally drawn line of balance enjoys the situation profoundly. He who does not comprehend the language of the moves that maintain the balance is unable to read the signs which predict the advent of great events; he who knows that language understands also the logic by which such great events are brought about(4).

Balance in Scoring

In fencing, there appear to be three kinds of balance: physical, tactical and strategic. Physical balance relates to gravity, and fundamentally it is familiar to everyone as the positioning of the head, trunk, and limbs in relation to the center of gravity, to facilitate movement and cessation or continuation of movement. Tactical balance means being prepared equally o advance or retreat, to attack or defend, or to use the strong, medium, or weak (where the point or cutting edge is) of the blade. Strategic balance is a condition in which neither opponent has an advantage over the other, or the advantage of one is offset by an equal advantage of the other. Lasker was referring to strategic balance.

In my opinion, based upon my observation of fencing over many years, understanding and use of strategic balance is a path to intelligent fencing. Every fencer has heard that the purpose of fencing is "to touch and not be touched." Unfortunately, fencing with that purpose in mind can be as frustrating as the saying is true, because doing so overlooks the issue of how to make touches and keep from being touched. In fact, the more attention one devotes to purely offensive or defensive efforts, the less attention is left for the greater dimension of the game, which is the preparatory activity out of which opportunities for successful offense or defense emerge. Even when making an actual attack or defense, a really sharp strategist will regard that action as preparation, leading possibly to second intention. Attention to balance is central to good preparation.(5)

In order to score, a fencer needs three conditions: distance, line and moment. Having the right distance means being close enough (and no closer!) to perform the exact action or actions chosen for the attack. Line, in this sense is an unimpeded avenue to the target. The best line is one which is not already open, but beginning to open. One should think, therefore, not of "open line," but of "opening line." The timing of the attack should culminate with the opening of a line. Moment means the right time to make a thrust or cut, and that is when the opponent cannot defend against it (i.e., when the opponent is off guard or other wise at a great disadvantage). A strategic fencer does not attempt an offensive action without those three conditions existing. Accordingly, the strategic fencer devotes a great deal of attention to creating these conditions. Once they do exist, the offensive action has a high probability of scoring - provided, of course, that its élan and technical execution are adequate.

Opportunity and Action

One can think of that time when distance, line, moment coincide as an opportunity. It is an offensive opportunity for you if you can score. It is a defensive opportunity for you if your opponent thinks he or she can score but you are prepared to defend. Opportunities come and go. As Hippocrates said, "Time is that wherein there is opportunity, and opportunity is that wherein there is no great time. Healing is a matter of time, but it is sometimes also a matter of opportunity."(6) The same is true of fencing; except in fencing, success is nearly always a matter of opportunity. When the time to attack comes, there is time enough to attack; but rarely is there enough time to get ready to attack and then attack. The same goes for defense. How can you be prepared, already, to act at the time when the window of opportunity is just opening?

Think of an oak tree. If you were surprised to find that a big oak tree had appeared suddenly on your lawn, your surprise really would be attributable to the fact that you had not observed the tree growing there for some time before. It is a fundamental ontological law that things do not merely exist; they become. Things that appear to spring up instantly just have a brief period of becoming - but in that period, no matter how brief, time must pass; and in that time there may be a portent of opportunity, if one sees it. The way to see such portents is to look not for trees, but for sprouts - and this requires a special attitude because sprouts do not look like trees, and initially it may not be obvious what a certain sprout will grow into.

A fencer needs to observe every single little "sprout" as it emerges; or in other words, to observe acutely every little motion, even when it is not at all clear yet what action will become, and follow its development continually. If every motion is monitored like that, no action will be a surprise.(7) But how can you do that without causing mental fatigue and, possibly, confusion?

Part/Whole Relations

The mind can handle a tremendous amount of information as long as all the details fit together into some kind of coherent whole or Gestalt. Knowing the whole helps you know the parts. It relieves you from needing to identify each part separately, because the most relevant character of each part is its relation to the whole. Knowledge of the whole actually leads you to the identity of the parts, in the sense that when you turn attention from the whole to the part, or regard the part with knowledge of the whole in mind, you can readily perceive the role of that part within the structure or function of the whole, and perceive also what characters of the part suit it to its role. For the strategic fencer, the "whole" is the process of maintaining strategic balance. The "parts" are actions (and component motions) regarded from the standpoint of how they contribute to, or depart from, strategic balance.


Let us say that you are intent upon maintaining strategic balance in the bout, and you regard every motion as part of the process which maintains the balance. From the on guard line, your opponent advances. She is still out of distance; therefore, no advantage is connected with the advance. But the next advance will be more significant because it may put both of you at long attacking distance, within range for a compound attack using patinando or ballestra, or for a fleche.

You decide to make the next advance. As you begin to move, you are aware of how you are beginning to affect the balance, and you are watching for the opponent to begin moving to maintain the balance. You even regulate the speed of your advance so that she can match it. She holds ground, accepting a higher tension in the balance at long attacking distance. Then she begins to advance, simultaneously moving her weapon to invitation in the low line. You can tell from the lack of acceleration as she proceeds, lingering, even, in mid-step, and from the invitation, that she is masking the fact of closing distance to minimize any stimulus for you to retreat. She is attempting to steal distance. At the completion of her advance you will be at lunging distance and you will have the advantage of the line because of her invitation. The advantage will be small, however, because her composure suggests she is prepared to parry if you attack. You do not yet have the moment.

You allow her to complete her advance, accepting lunging distance and the increase of tension which goes with it, and you put your blade in line as she finishes her step. Since you are intending not an advantage, but balance, you present your blade just as you would in a partnership exercise, so that she can cancel the advantage of your blade in line with an engagement or beat. Let us say that she makes a beat-direct attack. Because you had presented your blade so that she could make the beat, you are not surprised by the beat, you see her blade going into line, and by the character of the beat and thrust you judge that she means to score.

She has made the mistake of attacking from a balanced position. Because you are mentally in phase with the action and you have maintained physical and tactical balance along with the strategic balance, you can make a small retreat, perhaps, and parry. At that time you have the distance, the line, and the moment (failed attacks give the defender an advantage of moment in proportion to the strength of the attack), and you riposte, scoring.

In relation to the process of maintaining balance, every motion made by you or your opponent can be perceived as having a clear direction: toward advantage, toward disadvantage, or toward restoring balance. Every motion will also have a clear value, corresponding to the smallness or the greatness of the advantage or disadvantage it tends to create. To the extent that you really regard the total process as one which is to maintain balance, you will also mentally perceive, along with each motion or action that tends toward advantage or disadvantage, the counter action (the "contrary") that is called for by it to offset the advantage or disadvantage and restore balance. That is quite a valuable perception. Thus, by the time any motion has proceeded far enough to identify itself as an obvious fencing action - an engagement, a bind, a thrust, a feint, etc. - it has already suggested the counter action that will cancel its effect and restore the balance. Perceiving thus, you continually know what to do and you have a reason for it.

Variation, Combination, and Position

A rational sequence of actions, in which each action follows the other for a reason, is called by Lasker a variation (or a maze of variations). A variation which leads to a final decisive outcome is a combination. Each current configuration of the total situation, perceived within the scope of a single moment, is a position. Every position has its essential character, its idea, which shows clearly, the more closely its evolution has been followed. Rarely is that idea momentous. (Few positions lead to touches; of those, even fewer lead to brilliant touches). If there is no preponderant advantage in the position, that is, no opportunity for successful attack on the basis of distance, line, and moment, there can be no combination forthcoming from that position. With best play on both sides, an energetic attack from a balanced position will favor the defender or only return again to a balanced position after the phrase has been played out.

When, however, a position does emerge in which one fencer (player) has a preponderant advantage, then, Lasker assures us, there is always a combination implicit in that position, however deeply hidden. One must discover it and use it. The discovery of the combination often involves a creative leap of imagination, but it may also be aided by recognition of some familiar character or motif within the total configuration of the present position, which hearkens to an analogous position encountered in prior experience, which may suggest a particular combination.

A strategic fencer who uses strategic balance as the foundation for his or her strategy gains, for the agreeable price of acute and constant observation, clarity and insight into the development of each phrase. Such a fencer needs only to keep the activity going, proffering action for counteraction, meeting action with counteraction, i.e., playing the variations with as varied a repertoire of actions as necessary. During the course of such play, the strategic fencer tries to maintain the initiative, so that it is the opponent who has to find the appropriate counter action to cancel each action that is presented to try the balance. Meanwhile, the strategist assesses every position for its degree of advantage, if any, watching for movement toward preponderant advantage which signals the occasion for a combination. Skill, creativity, and courage are exercised to push the strategic balance to as precarious a condition as one's confidence can stand, until the opponent slips or blunders or fails to keep pace.

Education in the art of fencing prepares the fencer to sustain a rational dialogue with the opponent in the language of struggle. In that language there are many dialects, and many universal themes. Fencing itself is perhaps the king of those dialects, and chess is perhaps the queen. The education of a fencer develops familiarity with the many types of part/whole relationships that may exist among fencing actions and the infinite variations that link them together.(8) From practical experience the fencer cultivates familiarity with motifs which help one to recognize an advantageous position, and which signal the possibility of combination. In actual combat, attention to strategic balance helps to focus upon the singular reality of each developing moment, which is always a continuous process of becoming.


1. Analogy is a powerful tool. Musashi states that "The principle of strategy is having one thing, to know ten thousand things." Such knowledge is based upon analogy. Musashi uses a great deal of analogy between fencing and other areas of life in his writing. See: Miyamoto Musashi, "A Book of Five Rings," trans. Victor Harris (Woodstock, New York: The Overlook Press, 1974), p. 44. In the philosophical context, cf. Spengler: "The means whereby to identify dead forms in Mathematical Law. The means whereby to understand living forms in Analogy." Oswald Spengler, "The Decline of the West," trans. Charles Francis Atkinson (New York: Knopf, 1926), I, 4.

2. Emanuel Lasker, "Lasker's Manual of Chess," (1947; rpt. New York: Dover, 1960), p. 215.

3. In Lasker's terminology, counterattack refers to what is called a riposte in fencing terminology.

4. Lasker, p. 244.

5. Giving attention predominately to preparation before attack, or to luring the opponent into attacking a well-defended position, is indirect strategy. Direct strategy, on the other hand, gives attention predominately to the attack or defense itself, especially the attack. For a discussion of indirect strategy and its value in warfare, see B.H. Liddell Hart, "Strategy" (1954; rpt. New York, Signet, 1974). Also, Selberg has made an ingenious explication of the role that preparation plays in effective fencing. See Charles Selberg, "Instructional Tape for Teachers of Fencing: Part I," video tape #VHS 70S, available form the Studio of American Fencing, Portland.

6. Corpus Hippocraticum, "Precepts," in Hippocrates, trans. W.H.S. Jones (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1948), I, 313.

7. In fencing, actions are well known and practiced tactical elements, such as thrust, parry, riposte, engagement, change of engagement, beat, press, etc. Motions, on the other hand, are merely kinesiological or mechanical elements, e.g., rotating the wrist, flexing the arm, raising the point, lowering the point, turning the edge, etc. Motions do not necessarily have tactical significance, although they may be given such significance (sometimes even a slight motion can constitute an effective feint, for example). A single action may be comprised of several motions.

8. See the Synoptic Tables of fencing actions in William M. Gaugler, "Fencing Everyone" (Winston-Salem, No. Carolina: Hunter Textbooks, 1987), pp. 139-169. For the purposes of reference, these tables represent verbally and explicitly what the well educated fencer knows tacitly. Concerning the nature and value of tacit knowledge, see Michael Polanyi, "Personal Knowledge" (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1958).

Harold Hayes, Provost-at-Arms, teaches fencing at the Pacific Fencing club located in San Francisco (Alameda), California. Mr. Hayes also teaches fencing at Mills College.

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