What to Know About the Upcoming 2023 Unwillingness to Fight Rule Changes (aka the “Three Strikes You’re Out” Rule)

Note: As of my posting this, USA Fencing has not ratified these rules. It is expected that they will be approved by the Board in the upcoming December Board meeting in time for the January NAC. I will delete this disclaimer upon ratification of these new rules.

On November 26, 2022, the FIE Congress passed sweeping modifications to the current “Unwillingness to Fight” changes, resulting in a radical change to existing rules. Here’s what you need to know.

The Current State:

In the current state, cards follow a progression of P-Yellow > P-Red > Second P-Red > P-Black. If one minute of fencing occurs without a touch (either awarded or an off target touch, such as the floor), the score is tied, both fencers are sanctioned. If the scores aren’t tied, the fencer with the LOWER score receives the P-Card.

The Future State

Beginning January 1, 2023

The newly passed rule would go as follows. P-Yellow > P-Red (no second P-Red) > P-Black. Where this gets interesting, is that for the P-Yellow and P-Red, both fencers receive the card *whether the score is tied or not.*

When it goes to a P-Black, the decision as to who advances follows the same logic as it does currently: if the scores are equal, the fencer with the higher INITIAL seed advances. If the scores are not equal, the fencer with the higher score advances.

If you think that’s a massive change (it is), let’s talk teams. In the current state, if a team gets a P-Black, the bout is not over assuming there is a reserve fencer.

Now, with the new rules, a P-Black would end the match immediately (again, higher initial seed wins on a double P-Black if tied, higher score wins if not tied).

Keep in mind with teams (for clarity I will use the word “round” for each leg of the 9-round relay and “bout” to refer to the 45 touches fenced), P-Cards carry over round to round.

So if two fencers begin the first round with a P-Yellow, and in the second round they move to a P-Red, the urgency of that bout is going to escalate mightily in rounds 3-9, because that next P-Black is going to stop the bout right there.

What I Think of These New Rules:

I’ll admit that I was a skeptic of the 2018 passage of the P-Card rules, but in my opinion, they changed the Epee game for the better, forcing it into a more aggressive game while still maintaining Epee’s unique strategic character.

The 2018 rules succeeded in accomplishing their goal. From the 240 bouts I’ve recorded as part of my research project and 4,826 touches (as of my writing this), here’s the data based on my sample:

  • 16 bouts in which a P-Red was awarded (6.67% of bouts)
  • I only recorded 18 P-Red Cards total
  • Of those 16 bouts I recorded in which a P-Red was awarded, only 3 bouts went to a Double P-Red…and 0 went to a P-Black!

Since the Tokyo Olympics, the Men’s average time per touch is 19.43 seconds per touch. In Women’s, that average is 20.9 seconds/touch. If that average were closer to one minute, I would perhaps understand the need for a rule change. But outside of the first touch of a bout, the average is quite far away from 60 seconds!

So my question is, what problem is the FIE trying to solve for here, because it doesn’t seem like there is one. The only explanation I can think of here is that the FIE got tired of the fencer with the leading score retreating and pulling the opponent into counter-offensive actions/attack in the preparation.

Where I understand the reasoning with these new rules is in my belief it makes the logic of the cards easier to follow: three strikes you’re out, and no more having to apply cards based on the scores of the fencers (up until P-Black).

Without naming names, I’ve talked to a few of the top Epee fencers in the world, and the reaction to these rule changes is pretty consistent: they’re livid and they don’t understand the “why” behind this.

If I grabbed a crystal ball and predicted how these rules will impact Epee, I think we might see the following:

  • An even higher percentage of P-Yellows and P-Red’s to start the bout while the fencers play a game of “chicken” (with few bouts going to P-Black from there on out)
  • A reduction in average time per touch overall
  • More touches occurring in the box or close to it
  • Much more bold aggression from a fencer at a deficit score (particularly as a lead approaches 3+ touches)
  • Faster, more combative team fencing overall

One thing’s for certain: this isn’t the last time they’ll change these rules. We’ve now gone through about 6-7 iterations of non-combativity/unwillingness to fight rule changes, and the FIE can’t seem to align on what Epee Fencing should look like.

Get ready for pandemonium in the beginning. Buckle up!

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