If you want to play chess in serious competition, beyond the casual play, you may want to play in tournaments. The strength of the tournament players can vary greatly from tournament to tournament, as well as within the tournament.
Types of tournament
Common tournament forms include
- Master tournaments are usually closed events where very strong players are invited to play against each other. As a new player, you will probably not wind up in such tournaments for some time (if at all). However, there are frequently side events to a master tournament, open to other players.
- Open tournaments are generally open to any player who has the required memberships, and who want to play. There may be some very strong masters in such tournaments as well, but the list of players usually will include a majority of amateur players. Open tournaments, in particular larger events, may be sectioned, where the lower sections are limited to players with a chess rating below some threshold. How players without ratings are handled may vary from event to event; if in doubt, contact the organizer.
- Scholastic events are tournaments set up for children in school age. They tend to feature faster time controls than the adult events. Children in school age are usually more than welcome to enter adult tournaments, although the youngest children, or those with little or no tournament experience may find themselves outclassed in such events.
Some tournaments may be arranged over one day with several fast games being played (or a small number of rounds). Some are arranged over the course of a weekend. Larger international tournaments are frequently a week long, with one round a day. Club tournaments may last over several months, with an evening round each week.
The most common tournament formats are round robins and Swiss systems. The round-robin is an all-play-all event, usually in small sections. You will during the course of a round-robin meet everyone else in the section.
Perhaps even more common is the Swiss system, where you in each round meet a player who has a score similar to your score. So if you have lost your first game, you will most likely meet another player who lost the first game as well for the next round. You are never eliminated from a Swiss system event, if there are an odd number of players the worst that can happen is that you receive a "bye", which means you get a free point (as if you won a game) instead of a game for that particular round. The bye is generally awarded to a player in the lowest score group, but a player can only receive one of them. In some events the organizer may arrange for an extra game for the player who got a bye.
Where to find tournaments
Most countries have a national chess federation or association, and their websites usually have notes about tournaments.
For the United States tournament announcements may be found on the USCF website's tournament search engine, but it does not list all events, smaller events are often not listed. Websites of the state affiliates may include more local events). For other countries you can find links to the national chess federations here.
Requirements for entering a tournament
You should be sure you know how the pieces move, and how a game ends. In particular, you need to know the rules of en passant, castling, pawn promotion and the three-time repetition of position rule.
You should know how the chess clock is used. In all tournaments you have to complete your moves within a time limit, which varies from tournament to tournament.
Furthermore, you should know how to record the game using algebraic chess notation. Most tournaments with reasonably long time limits require players to keep score of the game. This is not an absolute requirement, players who are unable to keep score for various reasons, be they religious or due to an inability to write, may be exempted. Additionally, players who are in time trouble (with less than five minutes on their clocks) can be temporarily excused from writing moves to conserve time, although they are encouraged to update their scoresheets with the opponent's score if/when a time control is reached.
In tournament play, the touch-move rule is strictly enforced. If you touch a piece of your own you must move it (if you have a legal move), when you've released the piece after a move it stays. If you touch your opponents piece you must capture it, provided that you have a legal capture. If you merely wish to adjust a piece which is standing askew on the square, you may do so if you warn your opponent ("I adjust" is fine, but the French "J'adoube" is also popular) before you touch the piece.
Remember that tournaments can, and should, be fun, but they are pretty formal events. Distracting or disturbing your opponent is prohibited. In addition, you should refrain from talking in the tournament hall as much as possible. If you have to communicate something to someone, do it as quietly and discreetly as possible. If, after finishing a game, you and your opponent want to go over it, go to a different room to analyse instead of remaining in the playing hall pushing pieces around - it distracts nearby players.
Remember to turn mobile phones off before the game starts! If a mobile phone rings during the game, a penalty is usually assessed by the arbiter, depending on the tournament. In most USCF tournaments, for a first offence ten minutes is removed from the offending player's clock, and for a second offence the game is forfeited as a loss. There is nothing more embarrassing than the faux pas of a loud ringtone going off in an otherwise dead silent playing hall and half a dozen people from nearby boards glaring at you. The FIDE laws which most other countries play by are even more strict: mobile phones are prohibited altogether, and if a player is found to be in possession of a mobile phone, then that player loses. Organizers may announce a more lenient policy, but unless you are informed otherwise, assume that the strict "no mobile phones" rule applies.
From 2009, the general rule at serious, professional tournaments about arriving late to the board is a zero tolerance policy. If you are not present at the board when the round starts, you forfeit the game. This has sometimes been enforced in a draconian fashion, one player in the Chinese Championship who was standing near the board waiting for the game to start was forfeited when the round started because she wasn't sitting at the board . A tournament may announce a more lenient rule where a latecomer is forfeited only if a certain time elapses (one hour was the limit before the rule change in 2009), and some federations have announced that one hour will remain the default standard for all tournaments in their country (such as the USCF). However, even if arriving late does not forfeit the game automatically, your clock will be started on time, so unless you are willing to waste the time you have for thinking, don't be late for your game.
Full laws can be read here. (Note that the United States have slightly different tournament regulations.)
In most events, it is required that you are a member of the country's chess association. In the United States, this means that you must be a member of the United States Chess Federation and so on. Some events may require further memberships, club championships may require membership in that club for instance.
For many events in Europe, membership in any national chess federation associated with FIDE may be sufficient (this allows foreign players to play without purchasing new memberships all the time.)
The organizer can nearly always arrange a membership for you, so don't feel like you cannot go to a tournament just because you aren't a member yet.
In most tournaments in the United States, players are expected to provide boards, sets and clocks. Pieces should be of normal Staunton design, with a king about 3-and-a-half inches to 4 inches tall, and the board should have squares of around 2 to 2-and-a-half inches. A cheap roll-up board with normal plastic pieces is quite sufficient. Clocks can be purchased in many places, and the prices can vary. Shop around.
Some sets include an extra pair of queens, so that one can handle the situation where a player gets two queens due to pawn promotion. While helpful, this is not essential. In tournaments, multiple queens should be handled by fetching an additional queen, and not by placing an overturned rook in place of a queen. The situation is fairly rare in practice however, and when it does happen, you can usually borrow a queen from someone else.
In Europe equipment is usually provided, though some events may have a shortage of clocks, and ask players to provide that.
Bring a pen to write with so that you can keep score.
General advice for play
- Remember that tournament play is a learning experience. After the game try to go through the game with your opponent so that you can learn from mistakes made. Do this especially when you have lost, because here you must have done something wrong where your opponent did something right, and you should try avoid losing the same way again.
- Inexperienced players sometimes get distracted by the clock, and start playing too fast. If you have two hours available to make 40 moves, but have only used thirty minutes when the 40 moves are up, you have probably played too quickly and consequently not thought the position through well enough.
- If you get a winning position, be careful! Your opponent will in all likelihood be looking for ways in which you can go wrong, letting him escape with a draw or turn the tables and win.
Try to complete the tournament, even if you have started badly. The opposition will tend to get easier, and learning how to bounce back after setbacks is important.
If you must withdraw, you must tell the organizer that you are going to do so. Otherwise the player you would have met will be deprived of a game. (That player gets awarded a full-point as if the game were won, but the entry fee was probably paid for an opportunity to play chess, not to sit at a table with nobody to play with!) In some cases, a player dropping out without informing the organizer, may face a fine, and be excluded from that organizer's future events until the fine is paid.
Tournament players are after a stipulated number of games assigned a rating, which is an estimate for the strength of that player. This goes up and down depending on the player's performance in rated events. The average rating of a tournament player is around 1400, the strongest grandmasters have ratings in the excess of 2700. As a rule of thumb, a player with a rating 200 points higher than the opponent should expect to score 75% against that opponent, and 90% against someone rated 400 points lower, but upsets are in practice more common than what the rating formulas predict.
Understand that an average tournament player of 1400 is, compared to a casual player who only knows the rules, but with no tournament experience or study of the game, a very strong player indeed. A new player who enters a tournament may easily find the first rating to be below 1000, but as experience is gained this may rise!
Remember, ratings are only estimates of playing strength based on past events. Ratings do not measure a person's ability to improve, they are not rewards in themselves, and they are definitely not measures of self-worth.
In tournament play, ratings determine what sections you are eligible to play in, and which opponents you will meet in Swiss system events.
Glossary of terms
- Arbiter or tournament director is the authority which referees the event, makes pairings, and rulings.
- Board 1, board 2, etc.. In Swiss system events boards are numbered. The players who currently have the best scores are seated at board no. 1, while those with the weakest scores are seated further down.
- Class prize. A prize awarded to a player for finishing at the top of his or her rating class. A prize could be awarded for instance for "first place among those rated below 1600".
- Entry fee. The amount a player is charged in order to be allowed to participate.
- Flag. On analog chess clocks, the flag is a small device attached just left of the "12" on the clock face. As the minute hand approaches 12, it lifts the flag up so that it falls once the minute hand passes 12. This flag fall makes it possible to determine exactly when the time has expired. For example, if each player has 90 minutes, the clocks are initially set at 4:30, and the time has expired when the flag falls when the clock is at 6:00. (Technically, the flag also falls at 5:00, but this has no consequence.) Digital clocks usually have some indicator marking expiry, and the indicator when this is activated is also called a "flag fall". If the time control stipulates that a certain number of moves be made within a time limit, the last required move must be completed, and the clock stopped, before flag fall, otherwise that player has overstepped the time limit.
- Forfeit loss/forfeit win. If a player fails to arrive at the board an hour after the announced starting time, then that player loses by forfeit, and the opponent receives a forfeit win. The game counts for tournament standings, but not rating. A person who loses by forfeit is typically removed from the tournament, unless an adequate excuse is provided. A player who has received a win by forfeit is ineligible for receiving a full-point bye in future rounds.
- Full-point bye or walkover. If there is an odd number of players for a round, the arbiter will award a full-point bye to one player who does not play that particular round, but instead receives a point as if a game was won.
- Half-point bye. In some tournaments, a player who is unable to play a particular round may elect to take a half-point bye. The player does not play that round but receives a half-point instead as if a game were drawn. Tournaments frequently regulate such byes, putting a cap on how many can be taken and/or requiring that a player commit to taking them before a certain deadline.
- Increment. A small amount of time (the increment) which is added to a player's clock at every move. This avoids frantic time scrambles by ensuring that there will always be enough time to make a move. Some tournaments stipulate a time limit with an increment, others do not. Games played with an increment require a digital chess clock with this capability.
- J'adoube. French for "I adjust", and can be said by a player before touching a piece to adjust it rather than move it.
- Sandbagging. A fraudulent scheme where a player deliberately lowers his rating so that he may play in a lower rated section sometime in the future in order to win cash prizes. Sandbagging is a form of cheating, and people caught may face stiff sanctions.
- Sudden death. A time limit where one must make all remaining moves in a set amount of time. A time limit of "40/90, SD/30" means that each player must complete 40 moves in 90 minutes (that is the non-sudden death control), and then the remaining moves in 30 minutes (plus any time left over from the first time control), this second phase is the sudden death phase.
- Swiss-system. An tournament format where players face other players with same or similar scores in each round.
- Time control. The number of moves one must make within the time limit. For example if one must make 35 moves in 90 minutes, the time control is at 35 moves.
- Time delay. A small amount of time (the delay) which passes before the clock starts deducting time from a player at every move. No time is deducted if a player moves before the delay is up. The idea is similar to that of an increment, but a player cannot build up a reservoir of time. Games played with a delay require a digital chess clock with this capability. In the United States, a five second time delay is standard, and clocks which have the delay capability are preferred over clocks which do not.