Tournaments are an important part of all martial arts. This is no less true of Western Martial Arts. Tournaments fulfill several function which coexist on a continuum.. Which function is most important is the subject of much debate. Tournaments serve as tests of skill which serve to educate and provide experience to the participants. They allow participants to see and interact with other practitioners and compare the skills and styles of others to their own. There is a social aspect in that casual interaction "around the water cooler" provides a chance to gain access wide variety of ideas and opinions. Finally there is certainly a thrill to competition and a satisfaction to victory. It is confirmation of one's own skill to be able to rank one's self with the status of a winner among one's peers. The agony of defeat is a powerful motivator as well.
As an event organizer it is most important to me to have a contest which displays and reinforces the ideals and or the theme of the event. At American Smallsword Symposium the ideals and the principals have been consistent but the theme has changed every year. I will admit that this has been problematic.
My belief was that one could go to any number classical fencing tournaments and smallsword tournaments where the rules were all very similar. To my mind these were to tame and too tied to a very narrow context of smallsword fencing i.e., salle play. There was very little to test the skills that one would need on the field or honor or the mean streets.
So I consciously chose to push the envelope and to introduce a tournament or an "exercise with a prize" as I like to think of it, that demanded one exercise different skills than those of the salle. These early American Smallsword Symposia tournaments did reflect the themes and the techniques that were taught in the classes at the event. I modeled a scenario based contest on Cowboy Action shooting events. Pressure was increased by adding a second opponent after a set time period in each bout. In addition to multiple opponents we threw in mixed weapons. I was sadly disappointed that virtually no participants were up to the challenge to engage in snap tactical analysis and performance under this kind of pressure. Form and principals were thrown to the wind and the finest technicians resorted to "run and gun" tactics. It was not fun to review the videos of these contests.
But these tournaments did serve a purpose. I got a good sense of just how little tactical analysis and breadth of technique most smallsword fencers could display . That is to say that most attendees only had one "game". They had one style and a couple of "tricks" that worked for them but when these were not usable they had nothing left. This informed me of the need to work much more on developing those skills that were missing in myself and my classes. Participants either learned the same things or were disappointed that the tournaments were not what they were expecting or comfortable with. That however was the point! That comfort was the enemy of understanding and progress.
Now we are at year four of the event that will deal exclusively with the style of the fencing that represents the apogee of smallsword practice just before it began a slow decline from weapon for the defense of honor and self into foil play and solely for recreation. In keeping with that theme we will try to emphasize that refined style by adding some subtle rules to push participants into a period style. Rules will encourage style as taught in the classes and documented in the text and plates of M. La Boëssière'e "Treatise on the Art of Arms". This includes clean attacks from distance as opposed to machine gun thrusting; Thrusts and ripostes in opposition with the hand high; Target area torso only and a penalty for hitting the head; penalties for blade grabs of any kind. Yes we will give style points too.
I know that this represents a radical swing from our past tournaments and is even more conservative that normal but this is designed to serve the purpose of getting participants to experience as much as possible fencing of the period in which the text was published , and to see the style and the challenges that some of the most legendary swordsmen in history such as the Chevalier St. Georges faced. I hope you all will come out and test yourselves against each other with in this challenging context.