How Chess Tournaments Work

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How Chess Tournaments Work Main
Table of Contents

How Chess Tournaments Work – Bullet Points

  • Chess tournaments are typically conducted in three formats: Swiss, round robin, and knockout
  • Players win by achieving the highest score after a set number of rounds. A win collects 1 point, a loss 0 points, and a draw ½ point
  • You can find tournaments near you online or in chess federation/club publications. To read tournament bulletins, you need to know short-hand descriptions such as “G60 d10” or “40/80 30+30” 
  • Though exact rules may differ from organizer to organizer, most tournaments follow the same basic rules and etiquette. Those include the touch move rule and various rules on claiming draws and resigning
  • Chess tournaments are usually rated, but not always. In most federations, your first several games are provisional

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Introduction

While the convenience of playing chess online is always nice, there’s nothing quite like playing in an over-the-board (OTB) tournament. Not only is it the path to getting a master title, but playing in person brings a world of invaluable benefits you can’t get behind a screen.

Playing amongst other chess enthusiasts, discussing the games together afterward, feeling the rush of competition, and seeing high quality games played by serious players – it’s an atmosphere you will only truly appreciate when playing in person!

But playing in an OTB tournament takes some logistical know-how. Online, everything is done for you. You click a few buttons and just play; the software does everything else.

This is not quite the case in an OTB tournament. You have to know how to find one, sign up for it, how the formats work, how to conduct yourself properly, and so on – and that’s what you’ll learn in this article. 

How to Find Chess Tournaments Near You

The way to find chess tournaments near you (or not near you, if you like to travel!) largely depends on what country you’re in. Most national federations have event calendars or bulletins on their website or print publications that notify members of upcoming tournaments.

For example, typing “US chess events” in Google will quickly bring you to the United States Chess Federation’s tournament schedule. These bulletins state the dates, location, appropriate skill levels or groups (e.g., scholastic, women’s, seniors, etc.), format, entry fee, and so on. You can often search these bulletins with specific criteria, as with the USCF’s website. Much of the information in tournament bulletins uses special short-hand codes and nomenclature, which we’ll cover in the next section. 

Many local clubs will also host their own tournaments – some even rated by national federations or even FIDE – which may not appear on national bulletins. You may want to search for local clubs in your state, province, city, or region. Many times, tournament bulletins may appear on a club website or social media page even if not on a national bulletin.

You can enter a tournament a few ways – often it will depend on the organizer. Some organizers will provide links to an online registration portal in the bulletin. Others will simply ask you to contact the organizer by email. Or, you can simply show up to the tournament and register before round 1 starts. However, this is not advised, especially for your first tournament. 

For one thing, you’ll typically need a member ID – especially if it’s a rated tournament. For example, if you’re in the US, you’ll have to provide your USCF ID number when registering for a tournament. You can get one by registering with your national federation, usually through their website. You definitely want to do this in advance, since not all tournaments allow for on-site registration. Plus, advance registration fees are often cheaper than late or on-site registration fees!

Once you spot a possible tournament or two in your area, you’ll want to check the bulletin details to make sure the format, time controls, and other factors are right for you. But reading the bulletins requires some knowledge of ‘ secret code’, which we’ll cover now. 

Reading Chess Tournament Bulletins

While different languages may have their own short-hand ways of writing tournament bulletins, most English bulletins follow similar short-hand conventions. 

The first you need to know is regarding the time controls. Shorter time controls are usually expressed “G##”. For example, “G60” means each player has 60 minutes on their clock to play the game (“Game 60”). Delays and increments are expressed with the symbols “d” and “+”, respectively. For example, “G30 d5” means each player will have 30 minutes on their clock, with a delay of 5 seconds per move (your clock doesn’t start counting down until 5 seconds have elapsed). Similarly, “G60 +10” means each side will have 60 minutes on their clock, with a 10 second increment. In other words, every turn you get 10 ‘bonus’ seconds added to your clock. 

Multi-step time controls are also common. For example, a typical classical time control is 40/80  SD 30+30, which means you have 80 minutes for your first forty moves (that’s the 40/80 part), then an added 30 minutes to your clock after move 40 for the rest of the game (that’s the SD 30 part – SD stands for ‘sudden death’), with every move having a 30-second increment (that’s the +30 part). 

Rating sections are another commonly abbreviated term. Most tournaments will have multiple sections based on rating, where you’ll play under the given rating. The U1800 section, for instance, would be open to anybody rated under 1800. While you cannot play in a section lower than your rating, you can play above your rating. If your rating were 1400 and you wanted to play tougher opponents, you could play in the U2000 section, for example, simply by registering for that section. Of course, your games will be tougher, so make sure you know what you’re doing! An online rating on the major chess sites is a decent (though definitely not perfect) approximation of your OTB rating (give or take two hundred points), so try that as a guideline first. 

Section prizes are also semi-abbreviated. For example, a bulletin may read like this: “U1700: $1300-700-400-200.” That means that the 1st place player in the U1700 section will take home $1300, 2nd place will take home $700, 3rd place $400, and 4th place $200. Another money-related note: sometimes you’ll see the abbreviation “EF” for “entry fee”. 

Last but not least, the format of the tournament will also typically appear in shorthand. We will cover each of these in the next few sections, which describe what the common chess tournament formats are and how they work. 

Chess Tournament Formats: Knock-out

The knockout format (abbreviated KO) is the least common form of chess tournament. The name pretty much tells you how it works, and it is like the tournaments in most playoff sporting events. 

In a knockout tournament, players will be grouped into brackets like you are probably familiar with. In an 8-person knockout tournament, there would most likely be 3 rounds: 8 people the first round, four people in the second round, and two people in the third round, who would compete for 1st place. Seeing it in bracket form is much easier to understand!

Knockout Tournament Structure

Because draws can also occur and a clear winner might not be decided, most chess knockout tournament rounds are composed of matches between two contenders. In a match, the two players play a set number of games, and the player with more points wins. A win garners one point, a loss 0 points, and a draw ½ point. The winner of the overall match is the one who advances to the next round, knocking out the loser from the tournament. 

These days, knockout tournaments are fairly rare in chess, with some notable exceptions. For a short period (1998-2006), FIDE actually determined the World Champion with a massive knockout tournament where dozens if not hundreds of players would compete. However, many elite chess players felt that this format did not clearly establish the world’s best chess player, as it is better to evaluate true playing strength through many games, rather than one or two knockout games. Chess strength is all about consistency, after all – not just performance in a handful of games!

Today, the world championship title is decided in a match format between the reigning world champion and a challenger who has won the round robin Candidates Tournament. However, that mega knockout tournament mentioned above has still lived on as the FIDE World Cup, and winning it is still a prestigious feat. In fact, winning the FIDE World Cup is one way to qualify for the Candidates Tournament. 

Chess Tournament Formats: Round Robin

A more common format is the round robin, abbreviated RR in bulletins. In a round robin, every player at the tournament or in the section will play every other player in the tournament or the section. A related variant is the double round robin, where each player will play every other player twice – once as White and once as Black. 

A close ‘cousin’ of the round robin is the quad. In quad tournaments, players are grouped into groups of 4 based on playing strength, and those 4 players all take turns playing each other for a set number of rounds (usually 3). In this kind of tournament, there will be many prizes – one for the winner of each quad. 

Round robins are similar to Swiss tournaments (described in more detail in the next section) in a few ways. If you win your game, you’ll get 1 point. If you lose your game, you’ll get 0 points. And if you draw your game, you’ll get a half point. These points are added up in the end and the player with the most points wins the tournament. 

Notice the contrast with the knockout format – losing one game does not mean you lose the tournament. It’s the best overall performance that wins. 

Many important FIDE tournaments are round robins. The Candidates Tournament to determine the World Championship Challenger is a double round robin tournament, for example. However, they are still not the most common format. 

Chess Tournament Formats: Swiss

The Swiss tournament, abbreviated SS in bulletins, is the most common chess tournament format. In a Swiss, you won’t necessarily play every other player in your section or the entire tournament. At first, you’ll be paired with someone according to your rating. If you win that round 1 game, you’ll usually face someone who won their game in round 1. If you lose that game, you’ll play someone who lost their round 1 game. And if you draw, you’ll either face someone else who drew or be randomly paired with a winner or loser. 

The way to determine the winner of a Swiss tournament is much like a round robin. However, since the number of rounds in a round robin tournament depends on the number of players, Swiss tournaments generally choose some number, typically chosen arbitrarily by the organizer. Most local Swiss tournaments in the US, for example, play either 4 or 5 rounds. The player with the best score after that many rounds wins the tournament. If you see a tournament bulletin that starts with “5SS”, for example, that means it’s a 5-round Swiss. 

Swiss tournaments not only make up the majority of chess tournaments, they can also be quite prestigious! The FIDE Grand Swiss, for example, is a massive 11-round Swiss where dozens of the world’s best players compete for an exorbitant prize fund and a spot in the Candidates Tournament. 

Who Runs Chess Tournaments? 

Of course, unrated tournaments can be organized by anyone, but rated tournaments carry some regulations. Chess clubs and other organizations will host tournaments under the auspices of a chess federation – either FIDE or the national chess federation for that country. Or, in the case of major tournaments, the federation will host the event itself. 

In the US, for example, a certified tournament director (also known as an arbiter) will host a tournament – typically as an affiliate with some club or organization. Tournament directors are trained on how to operate the ranking and pairing system, recognize and declare draws, resolve disputes, and generally conduct the tournament. 

To become a tournament director is not an easy task – it requires much knowledge and training. “TDs” must learn and follow a code of ethics, for obvious reasons – they are the referees of tournaments! To learn more about what it takes to be a tournament director, you can refer to the USCF’s page on the subject

What to Bring (and What Not to Bring) to a Chess Tournament

Okay, so you understand the formats and you found a nice-looking tournament to participate in. What should you prepare to bring? 

In the vast majority of cases, you’ll have to bring your own board, pieces, and digital chess clock. Luckily, you can find fairly inexpensive “tournament boards” and sets online, and even clocks as well. Make sure you know how to program your clock for the tournament time controls before game day – it is not always so intuitive. You can find many great instructional videos on YouTube for virtually every model. 

You should also bring score sheets and a pen to record the moves, even if most tournaments will provide them. While online tournaments will simply record the moves for you, you will be required to record your own moves in an OTB tournament. Make sure you know how to record chess moves properly before you go! If you need some review, you can check out this article here. You can also use move-recording devices approved by the tournament organizer or federation.

You can bring your phone to a tournament, but in almost all cases, you will be required to turn it off and store it in a bag or container not on your person. This is to prevent cheating, which is a serious offense in a tournament (see Rules and Etiquette section) – one that will likely get you banned from playing in a tournament ever again. 

While it is usually poor etiquette or flat-out against the rules to bring food, it is a smart idea to bring a beverage. Chess tournaments are often long, stressful events that take a surprisingly taxing toll on the body. You definitely need to stay hydrated to think clearly and play good moves. And though it may be a faux-pas to eat at the board, it may be a good idea to bring a snack for between rounds to stay energized. 

What to Do after Arriving

So the big day has come. You’re at the tournament venue – now what do you do? If you registered online in advance, you may not even need to check in with the tournament director. However, if it’s your first tournament, it is a good idea to see them anyway just to introduce yourself and let them know it’s your first tournament. They’ll help you out and look out for you. 

Usually, pairings (who will play who) will only be announced right before the start of the round. The default method of announcing the pairings is often simply a poster or piece of paper that the tournament director prints out. The pairings sheet will show what board you’re sitting at, who you’re playing, what color you are, what each player’s rating is, and what their current standing in the tournament is. 

Once you get to your board, make sure your phone is off and stored away in your bag. As mentioned in the rules and etiquette section, cheating is taken very seriously, and having a phone on your person and turned on is a great way to get yourself in trouble. 

Ratings 

When you play in your first tournament, you will not have a rating. After you play your first game (or perhaps more accurately, after your first tournament), you’ll typically have a provisional rating, which is a temporary rating until the system determines your ‘actual’ rating after a certain number of games. 

For example, in the US Chess Federation rating system, players will have a provisional rating for their first 26 games. During this time, the rating will fluctuate a lot – even hundreds of points at a time – until it settles on what your non-provisional rating is.

The most common rating system for an OTB tournament is the Elo system. While the formulas for calculating the rating are beyond the scope of this article, the way it works is essentially as follows. 

When you win a game against a higher-rated opponent, your rating will increase more (and their rating will decrease more). But if you lose against them, you won’t lose as much rating points as you would if you lost against a lower-rated opponent. Your rating will also increase for scoring a draw against a higher-rated opponent (and decrease if you get a draw against a lower-rated opponent). 

Elo ratings can vary greatly. In the USCF system, for example, players can be rated as low as 100 – or as high as 2871 (or higher!), like American #1 Fabiano Caruana (as of October 2021). 

Note that the Elo system used in OTB tournaments is slightly different from the Glicko system used in most chess websites. The Glicko is formulated differently, but has a rating output that resembles an Elo rating. This is one reason – among a few – that online ratings don’t correlate well with OTB ratings.

Learn how one Chessable user increased his USCF rating by 300 points in a year using Chessable here. There’s also a great article on how another player used Chessable to prepare for his first tournament after a 14-year break.

Byes

During a tournament, you can potentially take a bye. A bye is when you skip a round in a tournament. Byes can be voluntary or involuntary. 

Byes are involuntary when there are an odd number of players and not everyone can be paired in the round. In that case, the pairing system or director will award the “odd man out” a bye, meaning they skip that round. That person will receive a full point for the round, as if they won the game. 

Depending on the tournament, you may be able to request a bye voluntarily if you want to skip a certain round. Players may skip a round for any number of reasons – outside obligations, tiredness, etc. Typically you’ll see the policy regarding byes advertised in the tournament bulletin. For example, a typical short-hand way to advertise it would be “½ point byes.”

In the case of a ½ point bye policy, you can request the tournament director a bye for a future round – usually with a certain amount of advanced notice. Sometimes, byes will only be available in certain rounds. You’ll get a half point for that round even though you didn’t play.

That said, you should avoid taking byes if possible. Your rating will not improve with a bye, you won’t get experience, and you’ll probably only get a half point at most – not great if you’re a serious chess player!

Common Rules and Etiquette in Tournament Chess

Though specific rules will vary from organizer to organizer, there are certainly some universal rules and etiquette that apply no matter where you are in the world. 

Let’s start at the beginning – or rather, before the beginning! Make sure you show up on time. Not only will your clock already be ticking down if you arrive late, it is simply respectful to your opponent to be punctual. Though the exact rule varies by organizer, in many cases you will automatically lose if you do not show up after a set amount of time. 

You should always shake your opponent’s hand before starting the game (in FIDE tournaments, it’s actually a rule). Likewise, you should shake their hand after the game and tell them “good game” – setting aside any emotions about the game you may have. 

Speaking of starting the game, it is customary for Black to start off the game by hitting the clock first. When hitting the clock, make sure you do it with the same hand that handles the piece. This is a rule in most cases, except when executing such two-hand moves as capturing or promoting. 

It should go without saying, but don’t do anything to annoy your opponent or those around you! Clicking your pen, talking, humming, excessively tapping your foot – you get the drift. Grandmaster Viktor Korchnoi famously freaked out at the 1978 World Championship just because someone was staring at him all game long! It may sound crazy, but you’ll probably find that you can relate when you find yourself in a particularly stressful game. 

Another one that should go without saying: don’t cheat. Cheating could take several forms. It could be checking an engine to look for the best move, adding more time to your clock, or intentionally writing the wrong moves on a score sheet to convince an arbiter of a non-existent draw. 

Cheating is an extremely egregious offense that is taken very seriously by tournament organizers. Those caught cheating will most likely be banned from further competition without warning or grace. Even just using your phone (without cheating) can land you in serious trouble, such as a time penalty, forced resignation, or disqualification from that tournament. The best policy is not to do anything that even looks like it could be cheating. The age-old adage holds true: cheaters never prosper

The Touch Move Rule

An important, universal rule found at nearly all tournaments and which deserves special attention is the touch move rule. The touch move rule says that if you touch a piece, you must move that piece if it is a legal move. Even if every legal move with that piece is disadvantageous, if you touch the piece, you must move it. Suppose, for example, you were White in the following position.

Touch Move Example 1

With your queen attacked by the pawn on b5, you pick her up to move her to a3, thinking it is the only safe way to get your queen out of danger. But while moving it, you realize that if Black moves their knight, for example with …Nd3, the queen is going to be trapped anyway, and that a less disastrous move is actually moving your knight to capture the b5 pawn – sacrificing it but keeping your queen. 

But it’s too late – you’ve already picked up your queen and have to move her. You’re going to lose your queen. 

But let’s say you’re White in the following position, and just played Qa4+. 

Touch Move Rule Example 2

But your opponent was in the restroom when you played it, and in their tiredness, came back and didn’t realize they were in check. Picking up their bishop, you correctly say “you can’t move that, you’re in check!” In this case, since it is illegal to move either bishop (neither stops the check), they can simply put the piece back and play any legal move. 

But what if the chess pieces lay on the board messy – for example, accidentally nudge a piece while moving another? Can’t you just adjust them? The answer is yes: you can touch the piece to adjust it while saying the word “adjust.” In FIDE tournaments, it is a rule to say “J’adoube”, which is the French language equivalent meaning “I’m adjusting.”

Draws and Resignation

In most tournaments, players can agree to draw the game at any time (interestingly, however, this is changing recently with “no draw agreement” rules in some high-level tournaments). But if you offer a draw and your opponent declines, what then? If you have a technical draw by threefold repetition, the 50 move rule, or some other means (see this guide if you’re not familiar with these rules), you can claim a draw. 

To claim it, inform your opponent what you are doing, write in what your next move would be on your score sheet, and stop the clock. Then, you need to call the tournament director to verify the technical draw (this shows the importance of recording the moves correctly!). If it is indeed a technical draw, the game will be over. If not, play will continue. 

You can resign the game in a number of ways. You can simply say that you resign, stop the clock, knock over your king, or a combination of these three (but if you knock over your king, do it lightly!) Be sure to shake your opponent’s hand after the game, regardless of the result. 

Though it is good etiquette most of the time to resign in a hopeless position, it is acceptable for beginners to refrain from resigning. In fact, not resigning is a good way to practice finding hidden resources and defense! Some coaches rightfully teach their beginners to never resign a game for that reason, and in a surprising number of cases, come-from-behind victories do happen!

Analyzing the Game with Your Opponent

It is usually a good idea to analyze the game with your opponent after the game. Most tournaments will have skittles areas where players can hang out while not in a game. There, you can analyze the game with your opponent, play blitz or bullet games, or just relax and chat without disturbing those still playing the round. 

It is a good idea to analyze directly after the game while it is still fresh in your memory. However, it is not always appropriate for you to be the one to extend the analysis invitation. If you win and the opponent is clearly upset at the loss, it is probably not a good idea to invite them to analyze (unless they say so). But if you lose or the game is a draw, it is perfectly acceptable to ask your opponent to analyze. 

It is amazing how much you can learn by analyzing the game together with your opponent, especially if they are higher-rated than you. But regardless of skill level, the very act of talking and playing the ideas out with an opponent is a great way to see and learn new things you never did before. Even if you are absolutely sure you know the ‘game-losing mistake’, you might learn something about another part of the game. 

It may be painful to review the game after an embarrassing defeat, but do yourself a favor and prevent future pain by learning from your mistakes!

Some Practical Tips to Playing in Your First Tournament

Here are some practical tips to help you play in your first tournament:

  • Get a good night’s sleep (7-9 hours) the night before. Eat breakfast. Stay well hydrated. Missing any of these things can take a toll, even if you ‘feel fine’ 
  • Show up early. Introduce yourself to the tournament director and let them know that it’s your first tournament. They’ll typically keep this in mind and look out for you. 
  • Find a tournament with slower time controls to start. If you usually play online, you’re likely playing faster time controls like 30 minute, 15 + 10, 5 minute or even faster. But in an OTB tournament where more is at stake, you’ll probably find that 60 minute or even 90 minute games are not too slow! Playing these slower time controls will do a lot to improve your chess as you take time to think about what the very best lines really are. For that reason, try not to play much blitz and instead practice with slower games leading up to the tournament (15 + 10 at a minimum). 
  • Take your time playing the moves. If you’re playing the tournament with slower time controls as suggested above, you’ll have ample time to play quality chess (90 minutes is a nice amount of time). Playing at your typical fast online pace will likely subject you to quick blunders in such conditions. Just because your opponent might blitz out some moves doesn’t mean you have to – and definitely doesn’t mean they know what they’re doing necessarily!
  • Analyze your games after the tournament (or during between rounds if you have time – preferably with your opponent). You’ll have the added benefit of remembering what you were thinking when playing the moves, the time conditions (if you were low on time, etc.), and so on. 

You can find other useful tips on the Chessable blog, such as this tip on opening preparation by GM Alex Colovic.

Final Words

All of this sounds like a lot, but it’s not as complicated as it sounds! After one tournament you’ll quickly get your bearings and probably be eager to play the next one. When in doubt, ask a tournament director. They are there to help you. 

Apart from that, take your time and have fun! Playing in an OTB tournament is an awesome experience as a chess player. Not only is it enjoyable, it is a great way to get better at the game. And you may just meet some other players just like you who are getting better, and learn from each other – a winning result no matter what your score. 

Frequently Asked Questions

1. How do chess tournaments work? 

Tournaments vary greatly in operation depending on the rules and format of the tournament – see each section above for each relative aspect of playing in tournaments. 

Basically, there are three main formats or types – Swiss, round robin, and knockout. Though the format may differ, rules and etiquette will more or less remain the same regardless of organizer.

2. How is a winner determined at a chess tournament?

For each win, you get 1 point, each loss you get 0 points, and each draw a half point. At the end of the tournament, the player or players with the most points win. Depending on the tournament, if there is a tie for first place, tied players will face off in a tiebreak match, though joint winners are also common. 

Knockout tournaments are the exception, however. The winner of a tournament is the last player standing. Some knockout tournaments, such as the FIDE World Cup, may use ‘mini-matches’ in each round. In that case, the player with fewer points in that round does not advance to the next round.

3. Do you get paid for chess tournaments?

Yes, you can get paid for chess tournaments if you play well! Typically, organizers will award prizes to the first, second, and third places in each section, although some organizers will do more (fourth and fifth, for example). These prizes are often gathered from the entry fees. Some prizes may be guaranteed, but in other cases they are simply a certain percentage of the entry fees. 

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