In 2022, the head organizer for the Longsword Cutting tournament at the Helsinki Longsword Open published a video with footage of the cutting finals: Helsinki Longsword Open 2022 – Cutting Competition Finals. Which is a pretty normal thing to do for a tournament. But Eetu Röpelinen (the organizer) also published this: Helsinki Longsword Open 2022 – Cutting Competition Design.
In addition to the standard video of people cutting in the tournament, Eetu made a 30 minute video on how and why the tournament was designed the way it was. Which I thought was a super cool idea. And as I was the one who stepped into the role of Longsword Cutting organizer for HLO 2023, I want to keep this tradition and do the same. Except I don’t make videos, I write articles. So let’s get into it.
I was the one who designed the HLO cutting tournament, but it didn’t come out of nowhere. This design is based on my experience from countless other cutting tournaments and working with other instructors and organizers, so I can’t take complete credit for all the ideas here, many have come up through working with others and collaboration. I also don’t know who came up with what first, so I’m not exactly providing citations. But in particular I’ll say that most of my cutting learning/design experience has come from working together with RJ McKeehan of SoCal Swords, and some of these ideas might have been his at one point.
If you want to get a competitor’s perspective on the event you can check out Brittany Reeves’ video, which I also used for a bunch of the pictures in this article: My Tournament Recap from the Helsinki Longsword Open 2023 Cutting Competition.
With all that said, let’s get on to the tournament!
First thing’s first: what are the tournament goals? In no particular order, my goals were:
- Minimize the amount of time competitors spend waiting.
- Make the tournament fun to compete in, and fun to watch.
- Introduce paper as a cutting medium.
- Reward people who routinely practice good cutting mechanics in their sparring.
- Make sure participants and spectators receive useful feedback so they can learn about cutting through the tournament.
Oh, and I guess I should add safety or something. Because you always have to have it on the list.
First step in designing a tournament is knowing your audience. In a sparring tournament this isn’t as important: you can have a tournament full of beginners or a tournament full of experts fighting under the same rules. For cutting it is a little bit different, as the challenges provided need to be appropriate for the skill level.
- If you make the tasks too hard, everyone will fail and it will be very hard to evaluate. The final results will be based more on who got a lucky shot in, rather than a more consistent evaluation of their ability.
- If you make the task too easy, everyone will pass with flying colors and it becomes very hard to differentiate between people. The final results will be the result of a single subjective nitpick rather than a more comprehensive data set.
That isn’t to say that lucky cuts or single nitpicks won’t be important and decide results. However, the goal is that these only affect people who have demonstrated similar levels of skill, and are not what separates the top and bottom of the whole field. The more useful data points you have the less susceptible the final results are to these noise factors.
As most people know, I’m a huge advocate of tiering tournaments. It gets people of similar ability together and makes everything more tuned to their skill and as meaningful as possible. At HLO there was a single open cutting tournament, which had people ranging from “never cut before” to “international cutting tournament medals”. So the format had to accommodate both.
The last important element was that everyone was going to be using the same sword, an Albion Earl. The Earl is a good sword, but not a high-performance competition cutting sword by any means. Which is also something that will dictate tournament design.
I said feedback was important, so what does that mean and how did I implement it?
The first thing I wanted to do was introduce the landing zones from SoCal. When cutting, the distance a piece of tatami flies is a good indication of the quality of the cut. The cleaner the cut, the less energy you put into the mat, and the closer it lands to the stand.
The concentric circle landing zones are used to indicate point deductions, based on how far the pieces go. And to be clear, looking at how far the piece flies has always been a part of cutting tournament judging. However, the evaluation of this is usually very opaque to the participants and
some most spectators don’t even have a clue this is a factor. The landing zones make it explicit, hence being a priority for feedback.
Since it was an international flight and I could take a checked bag, I packed up the landing zones we had here and it was good to go…
You may notice a lack of landing zones in this picture. That is because the airline had other ideas about my baggage and it didn’t show up until after the tournament was over. So much for that idea.
The other part of the feedback I tried to bring in was to give direct information on cut deductions. Because of the way deductions are done in cutting tournaments, it is possible to cut completely through the target and still get 0 points – say if the piece goes flying off like a rocket to the side.
The approach I went with was to hold up a card after each cut. Green, full points; yellow, deduction; Red, no points. This isn’t complete feedback, but it is fast and able to be delivered in between cuts.
On the topic of deductions, one might feel that giving zero points for a cut that is of low quality is unnecessarily harsh. Certainly it’s still better than completely failing?
While I wouldn’t disagree with that, the purpose of these rules is to help level the playing field between individuals of varying strength. If you are stronger, it is easier to power through on a cut that would have failed for a less muscular individual. When I apply harsher penalties for ugly cuts I’m attempting to create a scenario whereby strength can do less to compensate for a lack of technique.
Make no mistake, strength is ALWAYS an advantage in cutting tournaments. Even though technique is required to cut well, strength will give you the action capacity to be more relaxed while accelerating the blade. Which affords you more precision than someone who has to work closer to their strength capacity. Additionally, having the strength to avoid hitting the floor is a huge mental game changer. The rules are meant to shrink the gap, but it is always there.
Since Round 1 would include everybody, it needed to be a challenge that would be reasonable for everyone, yet also push the top participants to not get perfect scores. I also wanted to make sure that the first round offered enough value to the participants who didn’t move on.
Cutting tatami is always expensive, and tournament budgets are hard to manage. (Not to mention the tatami logistics.) Adding paper to the round was a good way to let people get more cuts in without blowing up the budget.
The Oberhau and Unterhau are pretty standard things to see in round 1 of cutting tournaments. I tried to make the deductions such that getting points was not so hard, but getting a perfect score was much more challenging.
The ability to get a bonus cut on the unterhau was deliberately intended as a difficult task, to give the more advanced cutters something to try and pad their scores and increase their chances of getting into the top 4 final. However, because we were using the Albion Earl, doing perfect unterhau was enough of a focus for everyone; I only saw a single attempt at the bonus cut. (This was also because the tournament sword was sharp, but not super sharp. If it had been a really good cutting sword with a super sharp edge I’m sure that the bonus cut would have been a much more attractive option.)
The last part of the round with the paper proved more challenging. I’ve had experience running cutting tournaments where I’m not the “host”, and it is somewhat of a challenge. Cutting tournaments require a ton of equipment, and if you’re not in place to make it/check it you could be in for some surprises.
Fortunately HLO had been running cutting tournaments for many years and had these logistics all pretty locked down. The new element I was introducing was hanging paper. (Paper – The Next Tatami? (Spoiler: No)). Which presented two issues: the stand and the paper.
Cutting stand was easily resolved, and the team got something built ahead of time with no issue (Mikko Makes An Even Better Stand). The paper was more problematic, because Uline doesn’t operate in Finland and Amazon Prime isn’t keen on overnight delivery across the ocean.
The options that we ended up with after trying to find a comparable type of paper weren’t great. There was the option of paper which had similar properties but wouldn’t hang down straight, or thinner paper which did. The latter was, unfortunately, far harder to cut because it was super easy to tear if you weren’t perfect. This wasn’t a problem per se, but it did make the paper cutting portion of the first round much more difficult than originally intended. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it was a deviation from the plan.
As part of the goal to cut down on waiting,I needed the tournament to have fast turnarounds. I also went with a “cut when you can” model, whereby the competitors weren’t called up in order, but showed up in the cutting block when they were free, and could participate in other parts of the event when not actively doing their cutting round. In fact there was a Sword and Buckler tournament going on just on the other side of these photos, in which several of the cutting participants were also competing.
The cutting area was laid out in an assembly line style, with participants entering from my left, performing their oberhau on cutting stand #1, their unterhau on cutting stand #2, and their paper cuts (obviously) on the paper stand (#3).
The distance was set up such that the tournament staff could be working on cleaning up stand #1 as soon as the competitor moved to stand #2. This was very important because it meant that as soon as a competitor was finished cutting their round I just had to turn to my left and the next competitor was good to go with essentially no down time.
The second round was something that would seem very familiar to cutting participants in western North America, but was new to HLO. Of course I am describing Reactive Cutting, also known as Semaphores.
The name Semaphores comes from the fact that organizers frequently didn’t have access to a TV to display the cutting patterns, and had someone watch it on a smaller laptop screen and signal to the participants. It’s just about always done with a pre-recorded video on a TV screen nowadays.
The theory behind this is simple. If you are used to using cutting mechanics as you spar then you won’t have any difficulty cutting without time to mentally prepare, or while moving around. If you are only used to cutting in a very choreographed way then it is another hurdle and your performance will suffer. Some people do, in fact, tend to do better in the reactive cutting. Probably due to the fact that they can’t over-think and psych themselves out.
The only other thing I have to add on this one is that I was nice and put the starting line relatively close to the cutting stands and they didn’t have to move that fast to get in and out. Next year they might feel my full wrath.
The finals are usually the funnest* part of a cutting tournament for the organizer. Instead of more rote cutting patterns they are wacky feats to test the finalists in many different ways. (Not that we wouldn’t like to test everyone like this, but there is neither the time nor the tatami budget to accomplish that.)
Part of the fun is that often the finals feats aren’t announced ahead of time, and are only announced immediately prior to the commencement of the finals. This is because a lot of them are really weird actions intended to look at a participant’s fundamentals when asked to do something they don’t normally do. But because they are weird, people could probably improve their performance significantly if they specifically trained for them.
Thus announcing the feats ahead of time could lead to distortions in the results for people who are training specifically for the tournament vs for those who are training for cutting skills in general. Hence the secrecy. (Also, as you may suspect, organizers love the look on people’s faces when they have to do something crazy they just heard about.)
That being said, I thought the first finals feat of HLO was sufficiently counter-intuitive that people should probably have some time to wrap their heads around it before the tournament. And thus I uncharacteristically posted the finals feats about a month ahead of the tournament.
*you heard me.
Feat #1: Counter Rotation
This is the one that I thought was the most confusing and counter-intuitive. And so did the participants! I liked how it worked out in concept, but of course the competitors figured out the easiest possible way to do it within the rules. So I think I could tweak and re-define it a bit, but in principle this turned out pretty well.
Fundamentally, what I wanted to test were the weird types of cutting motions you see in sparring when people are trying to cut quickly into openings that don’t seem obvious. As one does in a high intensity situation against a similarly skilled opponent (SwordSTEM: Power Through The Body, Or How I Learned To Do A Leaping Cut). These motions don’t always conform to the textbook pattern of hip activation, but are not something you ever see in test cutting. So now we got a chance to see them. 🙂
(The optimal strategy seemed to be to step across the target while cutting, which moved the hips but was kind of a little disjointed and allowed them to avoid most of the fucky aspects of counter-rotation.)
Feat #2: Feder on Paper
From the rules document:
If you watched any videos you may wonder why you didn’t see this one. I got to try out the paper the day before the tournament when visiting the EHMS school, and try the original feat out on the paper that they had managed to source. And it wasn’t something that was accomplishable, the paper would just rip apart before allowing the feder to cut through it.
So instead I had to do a day-of change to the round, and it was done as follows:
Perform as many zwerhau on the paper as you can in 10 seconds. You have 4 attempts and your best 2 will be counted.
Yes, that’s right. Of all the cuts on the flimsy paper the zwer was the most likely to succeed and that’s what I went with. The format worked reasonably well, it proved extremely challenging yet accomplishable. Best 2 out of 4 because it was pretty random for success, and a failed cut would typically rip the paper right off at the top – eliminating the possibility for any re-tries.
Feat #3: Parrying
Another fun one. This sounds pretty crazy and dangerous, but since we first tried it at SoCal 2020 we’ve gotten more comfortable with the idea. At that SoCal they were forced to wear a mask, hence why you were wondering what was going on in the picture I used as the landing zone explanation.
HLO was the first event that I ever did the Parry+Cut+Parry pattern. My previous experience had all been with Parry+Cut, and in the previous HLO the Cut+Parry pattern was employed. All and all I think it ended up being pretty sweet. The interval between the two parries was pretty long, as (1) the purpose was to have the parry as a distraction rather than a speed check, and (2) this was the first time it had been done and we were being conservative.
The only issue was that the staff we had available was shorter than I would have wanted. While it kept the hands out of the cutting area there could definitely have been more buffer.
Overall I brought a few innovations to the HLO cutting, but fundamentally everything to run a great cutting tournament had already been in place before I showed up. HLO has been hosting cutting tournaments since 2018, so all I had to do was step in to run the thing. It was a great event overall and I’m really grateful I had to be part of the event organization for 2023. It was my first time visiting Finland and I got to meet and interact with a whole cutting community that I don’t have much contact with.