How to follow fencing (part 1): national tournament structure

Fencers compete in DE bout

by Will Spear

Let’s face it. Fencing tournaments are confusing. They can be especially overwhelming for someone attending one for the first time, a parent trying to organize a child, or even a friend going to visit and spectate at a fencer’s competition.

This guide is designed to tell you everything you need to know to understand how the format of a tournament works. We will cover the format of most USFA events (and explain a few of the caveats along the way), as well as how they determine seeding, brackets, and how placement is determined.

What this guide will not cover is the seasonal structure of tournaments, how to qualify for tournaments, what tournaments mean for rankings, or how to watch individual bouts. Those topics will be covered in follow up guides in the next few weeks.

Format Overview

The format of a tournament is broken down into two main sections of bouting. The preliminary round (also called the ‘pools’) divides fencers up into different groups. All fencers in each group fence against each other (also called ‘round robin’ format) and based on their results, the tournament organizer can determine how to rank (also called ‘seeding’) those fencers for the direct elimination round.

The direct elimination round (also called the ‘DEs’), consists of a bracket of fencers competing against each other. A standard DE bout lasts for 3 periods of 3 minutes each, or a maximum of 15 touches*. The reason this round is referred to as the ‘direct elimination’ round is that after only one loss, a fencer is out of the tournament, and their final placement is determined by the round in which they were defeated. The last fencer standing wins the entire tournament.

Round of Pools

The purpose of the preliminary rounds is to rank (aka ‘seed’) fencers for the DEs. The total number of starting fencers in the competition are broken down into smaller groups, usually 7 people, called ‘pools.’ Each athlete fences everyone in their pool for a total of 6 bouts. How well a fencer does in their pool is then compared to how everyone else in the tournament did in their respective pools. Note that pools do not have to contain 7 people, and due to the fact that tournaments often do not have an exact multiple of 7 participants, many tournaments will run pools of both 7 and 6* fencers at the same tournament. In the pools of 6 fencers, each fencer would then fence only 5 total bouts.

How to read a pool sheet

One of the most important parts of successful attendance to a tournament is learning how to read a pool sheet. A pool sheet will show a fencer when they're fencing, who they’re fencing, as well as all of the previous results in the pool. As a fencer, it is very important that you know when you’re going to fence. Being called by the referee a few times can rattle your confidence, annoy the referee, and sometimes result in a card for delaying the bout. 

On the left side of the sheet, you can see a fencer’s names listed, with a number next alongside. This number is the shorthand for determining when each fencer has to fence, and many referees will call fencers to the strip only with their numbers (and some prefer not to call fencers to the strip at all).

Some pool sheets will have multiple sets of bout orders on it, as they are designed to be used with any number of fencers in the pool. Each fencer can reference their number with the bout order on the bottom of the page that corresponds to size of the pool to determine when they will fence.

The bouts progress in ordered rows from top to bottom, with each new row starting after the last one finishes. The number and bout order will usually be circled, or the referee will have some other way of showing which bout order is being used. Here is an example of a pool sheet and the first two bouts for a pool of 7 fencers:

Fencing pool sheet that explains the order of bouts within the pool. It shows who is up first, second, third, etc. and how those bouts are determined.

When each bout concludes, the referee will record the final result. The score is recorded in the box grid to the right hand side of the fencer’s names. The rows indicate the number of touches that fencer scored in each bout they fenced. Sometimes the referee might write a ‘V’, for victory, instead of a number when a fencer wins a bout (or in addition to a number) depending on what they are accustomed to doing. The columns indicate the number of touches that fencer received in each bout. To see a specific bout, simply follow a specific fencer's row to the column of the opponent you're looking for, and vice versa. Here's an example below:

Fencing pool sheet, showing how to find the results of completed pool bouts between specific fencers.

Pool results

After a round of pools is over, each fencer should be asked to sign the score sheet to show that they have checked it for accuracy. As a fencer, it is critical that you check all of your scores after a full round of pools before you sign. There are several key data points that you will want to look at before it is submitted. 

Number of Victories: 

This is the total number of victories achieved by the fencer (shown as 'V' on the scoresheet, it is the number of 'Vs' in the fencer's row).

Touches Scored:

This is the total number of touches scored by the fencer in all of their bouts (shown as 'TS' on the scoresheet, it is the sum of all of the total points in their row).

Touches Received:

This is total number of touches that opponents scored on the fencer during their bouts (shown as 'TR' on the scoresheet, it is the sum of all the total points in the column number corresponding to the fencer).

Indicator:

This is the number of touches scored (TS) by a fencer scored over all their bouts minus the number of touches received (TR) by that fencer in those bouts (shown as 'Ind' on the scoresheet, the formula is TS-TR=Ind).

Place

This is the rank of the fencer compared to others in the pool. It should be checked for accuracy, but is not as essential as the four previous data points. Fencers are seeded after the pools in comparison to all of the competitors in the competition, not just those in their pool. We will explain more about that below.

If you discover mistakes after you sign the sheet, you will not be able to correct those mistakes, and your seeding will be affected*. Here's an example of a what a pool sheet looks like for a fencer who had 4 victories, scored 26 touches, received 16 touches, had an indicator or +10, and finished 2nd overall in the pool.

Fencing pool showing completed results and filled out touches scored, touches received, indicator, victories, and pool ranking

Pool results

After all of the pools are completed the results are sent to the bout committee to determine the overall ranking (aka ‘seeding’) of all fencers in the competition. 

That seeding is determined by four criteria, ranked in order of priority:

  1. Fencers are first grouped by their win percentage (This is equal to the fencer’s number of bouts won divided by the fencer’s total number of bouts)
  2. Any ties in ranking based on win percentage are broken by each fencer’s indicator
  3. And remaining ties in ranking are broken by the total number of touches scored (i.e. the same number used in part to calculate indicator)
  4. If all of the above are tied, then fencers tie out of the pools and seeding for the DEs is determined randomly

Let’s break this down with an example. Consider this group of five fencers who have performed well in their respective pools:

  • Fencer 1: 6 victories, 0 defeats (win % 1.00) +18 indicator, 30 touches scored
  • Fencer 2: 5 victories, 1 defeat (win % 0.83) +9 indicator, 28 touches scored
  • Fencer 3: 5 victories, 1 defeat (win % 0.83) +9 indicator, 27 touches scored
  • Fencer 4: 5 victories, 0 defeats (win % 1.00), +4 indicator, 25 touches scored
  • Fencer 5: 5 victories, 1 defeat (win % 0.83), +11 indicator, 29 touches scored

Here, both fencer 1 and fencer 4 have an equal win percentage (ie., 1.00 or 100%). Who comes out first is determined by their indicator. Fencer 1’s indicator is +18 (meaning that fencer 1 scored 18 more points than were scored on them - good job fencer 1!), while fencer 4’s indicator is +4. Fencer 1 takes first out of this group, and fencer 4 takes second. Note that fencer 4 only had a total of 5 bouts, which means they came out of a six person pool.

The other three fencers all have the same win percentage. Fencer 5 has a higher indicator than either fencers 2 or 3. Fencer 5 takes third place out of this entire group. Finally, between fencer 2 and 3, fencer 2 has more touches scored. Therefore, the final order of fencers is as follows:

  • Fencer 1: 6 victories, 0 defeats (win % 1.00), +18 indicator, 30 touches scored
  • Fencer 4: 5 victories, 0 defeats (win % 1.00), +4 indicator, 25 touches scored
  • Fencer 5: 5 victories, 1 defeat (win % 0.83), +11 indicator, 29 touches scored
  • Fencer 2: 5 victories, 1 defeat (win % 0.83), +9 indicator, 28 touches scored
  • Fencer 3: 5 victories, 1 defeat (win % 0.83), +9 indicator, 27 touches scored

Note that you determine results for fencers as an entire group out of the round of pools. As we mentioned before, pool rankings are determined amongst themselves individually, but those numbers are not used for the actual seeding of the rest of the tournament. There are a few exceptions to the rules laid out above, which we’ve included in the footnotes section at the bottom*.

How pools are determined

For those who are curious, this brief section explains how the original pools were determined in the first place at the beginning of the tournament. If you’re more interested in what happens next during the direct elimination rounds, skip ahead.

The grouping of pools is determined by putting fencers in each pool based on their starting rank. For example, in a ten-pool tournament, pool 1-10 will contain fencers ranked 1-10, respectively. When those pools all have one fencer each, the pools are all filled again in reverse order, so pool 10 will get fencer ranked 11th, and pool 1 will get the fencer ranked 20th. This is done to try to balance out the pools across the field, to promote fair play. Below is a simple diagram of how pools are filled.

Diagram showing how pools are created and fencers are distributed at fencing tournaments

Direct Elimination Round

Bout length

Epee and Foil bouts are fenced in a set of three periods. Each period lasts for three minutes of fencing time. Fencing time is the time between when the referee says ‘fence!’ and when a light on the machine is turned on. The timer is paused between touches. After each period, fencers get a 1 minute break, during which they can rest, drink water, and speak with their coach. The score is not reset between periods. Fencing concludes after the 3rd period, or when a fencer scores 15 touches, whichever comes first.

Competitive Saber is fenced in only two periods. The first period ends when one fencer scores 8 touches. The score is not reset between periods. Time for Saber is still technically in the official rulebook, but bouts almost never go to the full 3 minute time, so most tournaments do not time Saber bouts. A Saber bout ends when one fencer scores 15 touches.

Format

The direct elimination rounds are composed of a single bracket of all the fencers that were promoted from the round of pools (in many cases, all fencers that participated in pools). These fencers then compete head to head to determine their final ranking. The bracket is often referred to in the fencing community as the ‘tableau.’ Each time a bout occurs, the winning fencer advances to the next round, and the losing fencer is eliminated*. For this reason, the rounds are composed of a number of fencers equal to exponents of two: there is a round of 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, and 256 (most tournaments will not be larger than this).

Within each round, the format is set so that the lowest ranking fencer competes with the highest ranking fencer in that round. For example, in the round of 128, the fencer ranked 1st will be matched up against the fencer ranked 128th. The fencer 2nd will be matched up against the fencer ranked 127th (this is not pictured in the diagram because the entire tableau is not shown), and so on all the way up to the fencer ranked 64th facing off against the fencer ranked 65th.

This format ensures that, given no upsets (where a lower ranked fencer defeats a higher ranked fencer), each person will finish the tournament according to their rank. If there are not enough fencers to fill up a round, then the highest ranking fencers will receive free passes into the next round (known as ‘byes’).

Here's an example of that with both fencers ranked 1st and 16th obtaining a 'bye' (note that the diagram does not show the whole tableau and there will be many other highly ranked fencers also receiving a 'bye'): 

Fencing bracket showing how seeds are distributed and how byes are given for the highest ranked fencers

At club tournaments and US national events, there are no designated times for when fencers compete. You can, however, determine the order of DE bouts. From this, you can get a sense for when you will compete because you will be able to see the bouts before you take place. The order of DE bouts is simple. The tournament will run the bouts each round from top to bottom on the tableau. They will finish all of the previous round before they start the next round, so even if two fencers have a bye (a pass) into the round of 64, for example, all of the round of 128 will be completed before moving on to the next stage.

The complicated part of this comes when the DEs are split into multiple sections, called ‘pods’. This often happens at larger tournaments. When tournaments are split into multiple pods, the bouts are run from top to bottom as normal, except each pod operates independently of each other. If you’re competing in a tournament and ever confused about when you might fence, officials will be happy to help you*.

This sounds confusing, but it is very straightforward once you see an example. Here’s a visual example of how the bout order would be conducted in one pod for the round of 128 fencers:

This image shows how the order of matches are fencing in a USFA (United States Fencing Association) National Competition (NAC) in a direct elimination competition.

After a full round is completed, and one fencer advances from each match, the next round will have half as many competitors as the previous (because one fencer was knocked out of each individual match of two fencers). So if a fencer consistently wins several matches in a row after beginning in the round of 128, they will enter (respectively) the top 64, then the top 32, then the top 16, then the top 8, etc. Note that when an 'upset' occurs (a lower ranked fencer defeating a higher ranked fencer), the winner 'takes over' that spot on the tableau and continues fencing along that path. Here's an example of one fencer defeating the top seed and continuing on to enter the top 8:

Fencing direct elimination (DE) tableau showing progression through the rounds of 128, 64, 32, 16, and into the quarter finals

final placement in a competition

After a fencer loses a DE bout, their final ranking will be somewhere within the range of the round. For example, if Levy loses his next bout in the round of 8, his placement will be somewhere between 5th and 8th (because he made it into the round of 8, but didn’t quite make the round of 4). Final rankings of fencers within the same round are determined by their seeding after the round of pools. The one exception to this rule is in the round of 4. At most tournaments, fencers will simply tie for 3rd place*. Note that even if a fencer has ‘taken over’* a tableau slot from a higher-seeded fencer, final tournament rankings are determined by a fencer’s initial seeding out of pools. Here's an example with the same fencer who was originally ranked 65th out of pools, but then defeated the top seed taking over the top spot. Because he loses in the top 8, he finishes 8th place, behind everyone else due to his poor seeding:

Fencing tableau that shows a completed bracket with final tournament placement for induvidual fencers

Summary:

We hope this helped clarify the structure of a fencing tournament, so you’re able to attend or spectate with confidence. Keep an eye out for future articles in this series, which will explain how to watch fencing bouts, including referee hand signals and rules for determining who scored, and how a fencing season progresses over the course of a year.

Exceptions and Footnotes

  • A DE bout is usually 15 touches with 3 periods, but there are variations for some senior and youth events, which go to 10 touches instead of 15.
  • While pools at large events usually contain 6 or 7 people, many local tournaments will have smaller pools due to the size of the tournament being much smaller.
  • Some tournaments will only promote a certain percentage of fencers out of pools. To see who is promoted, they simply take the top x% (usually around 70-80%) of fencers and promote them from pools. The rest are given a final tournament ranking, and do not advance to the direct elimination round. Whether there is only partial promotion from pools will be listed in the tournament info before you sign up. Most high-level events operate this way.
  • Some tournaments will have multiple rounds of pools (with partial promotion). These tournaments have the fencers compete in the first round of pools, and then use the new seeding to create another round of pools and cut additional fencers from the final round of DEs. This is most commonly done in epee tournaments.
  • In the Olympics, fencers do not compete in pools. They are simply put directly into DE bouts based on their world ranking.
  • Repechage is a different format from direct elimination. In repechage, a fencer will be put into a new bracket and compete with fencers in that bracket. The result of this is that fencers have to lose twice before they are eliminated from a tournament. Repechage was widely used in fencing for a while, but it is now mostly abandoned, so we will not cover it in detail in this guide.
  • At some tournaments (including the Olympics), fencers will be required to compete in a bout to determine who places third
  • At high level world cups, the tableau will be reseeded in the round of 64 based on pool results, so even if a fencer “takes over” a higher ranked fencer’s slot, that fencer’s position will be reset once the round of 64 is made.
  • At high level world cups, the top 16 fencers in the world do not compete in pools. They are simply promoted and seeded into DEs ahead of everyone else in the competition.
  • At high-level tournaments, video replay is implemented after a certain round is reached. Each fencer gets two call challenges throughout the course of the bout. The referee is then required to review video and consult with another referee. If the touch is overturned, the fencer retains their challenge and can challenge again later in the bout. At 14-14, the referee is required to review the video before making a call.
William SpearComment