Your First Chess Tournament

It’s okay to be a n00b!

It is a wonderful thing to attend your first tournament, whether in person or online. Chess players tend to be very welcoming: people will help you out with everything that is strange and unfamiliar to you … whether you are at an “over the board” (OTB) or online tournament.

But if you are anxious about “doing the wrong thing” your play will suffer, and it can be embarrassing to commit some faux pas that might end up throwing you off your game — or losing it outright!

So here are some guidelines to help make your first tournament fun, easy, and comfortable!

1. Arrive Early.

Especially if you have to register at the site, it is good to give yourself plenty of time to get comfortable with the venue. This is also true of online tournaments, where some aspects of the setup are likely to be a little different than casual play.

But even if you are pre-registered, strolling in just as the games are getting underway is likely to add some tension to your experience.

True: This can actually be a psychological tactic, once you are comfortable with all of the processes. If the game starts at noon and the round forfeits at 12:15, you can show up to accept your game at 12:13 and fluster your opponent, who might have gotten into the mindset of a free point. But this is not particularly good sportsmanship, and it is just as likely to backfire. The best advice: arrive early enough to be comfortable with the experience and start on time.

2. Know who the TD’s are!

In the case of any question, confusion, or (worst case) dispute, the tournament director (TD) is the ultimate authority. They are God. They have absolute power.

Tensions — and passions — can run high at a tournament, although that is not the norm. If you have any question at all, or if you don’t know what the right way to behave in some particular situation is, or if there is the slightest question of what is correct between yourself and your opponent… don’t try to resolve it. Call over the TD. That’s what they are there for, and that is how you can ensure that you and your opponent stay focused purely on chess, and not on any other distractions.

3. Recording your Moves

The good-old basic blue-cover spiral bound score book.

Especially in OTB tournaments, each player is expected to keep a record of the moves. This is certainly sound practice for you as a player, as every player who wants to improve will study their games after the fact, examining the moves— and the thought process that led to the moves. But it is also a rule! In tournament play, unless a player has less than five minutes on their clock, it is mandatory to keep a record of the game.

This can be used to resolve some disputes, should they arise. In some tournaments it is also expected that you will turn in a copy of your moves, which might be published into chess databases, or might be used to review against cheat-detection software.

But it is mandatory to record the game.

And it is expected that you will record the game in “algebraic notation.” It’s hard to find anyone who remembers the “descriptive notation” which is honestly more confusing than it’s worth, especially after the opening moves. Algebraic notation is required in FIDE, and generally good practice.

(If you are in a time crunch and no longer have to record your moves, it is good practice to go over that part of the game with your opponent afterwards to ensure that both players reconstruct and record the moves.)

Tournaments will generally have score sheets available for this purpose, but you will find most serious players have some form of log-book with them to record the games for their own record. It can be fun to go look at a game you played a few years ago and see how you can still remember some of the intensity that went into the thought process behind those moves!

Conclusion:

  • Make sure you are comfortable reading and writing algebraic notation;
  • Bring a pen and a back-up pen;
  • Buy and bring your own log-book for recording games.

4. Have a Tournament Quality Chess Set

Obviously, this one is only relevant to OTB tournaments. In any online tournament you will be using the software required by the tournament, and within that software you can choose any theme and piece style you want.

For in-person play, however, what precisely constitutes a tournament-quality chess set will depend on the tournament. (Also, some tournaments will require that you use tournament-provided chess sets — but bring your own anyway to have something handy to go over games with after regulation play.)

Fide Standard Board

In FIDE events, a rigid, wood board is required. Most US Chess tournament players use a matte vinyl board (green and white being most frequently recommended, to ensure that black pieces are easily visible against the green dark-squares). The dimensions of board and pieces also have a standard, although that is open to some interpretation, but in general: the board will have 2.25" squares, pieces will be weighted and the king will be between 3.25 and 4.25" high. Staunton-style pieces are required or recommended, although again, that is open to some discussion with the fussiest of players.

USCF Standard board — but confession: I prefer navy-blue squares.

Black gets to choose the set (and the clock), but white can object if the player who has been assigned the black pieces is not using regulation equipment, at which it becomes a judgement call on the part of the tournament director.

I recommend getting a nice, basic, roll-up board, weighted pieces, within the standard dimensions, with standard colors, and a carrying case to go with it. Be comfortable with your pieces (and, see below, your clock).

Also note, the USCF board I show includes the algebraic letters and numbers on the board itself. This can be really useful for beginners… and for people like me who seem to confuse the ‘g’ and ‘h’ files on a regular basis.

5. Bring the Right Clock

Once upon a time, the analog clock with “flag drop” feature was the standard for amateur chess tournaments, but the rules now require digital clocks that support an increment. (An increment is a certain number of seconds added to the clock for each move, a feature which gives a player down on time a fighting chance to stay alive.)

Again, if you don’t have a set or a clock, you can probably use your opponent’s or borrow from someone, but it just feels good to have your own gear.

No work of art, something like this gets the job done. Note the levered-button. Very ergonomic! Hard to miss that button in the heat of battle

Many people swear by the brand chronos, which was one of the first digital clocks to really support a highly configurable and customizable set of options whether it’s for blitz or standard play… but at the end of the day it’s just a digital clock, and chronos can be pretty overpriced. The other choice you may want to think about is whether each player merely has a button to press, or whether that button stays pressed while it is your opponents turn. In the heat of battle, you may want to glance at the clock to double check whose turn it is, and having one button up and one button down makes that very clear.

Be familiar with the time controls of our tournament ahead of time, and know how to set that up on your clock, for OTB play. For online play, make yourself familiar with the specifics of offering the correct challenge with the correct time controls before you have to actually undertake the process!

6. Touch-Move!

Here’s something casual players don’t think about it. In OTB tournaments, if you touch it, you move it.

More specifically, if you intentionally touch a piece, while it is your turn, and you can move that piece, then you must move that piece.

If a piece is off center, you can adjust it, during your turn to move, by declaring “j’adoube” or “adjust” before touching the piece.

If your hand or arm brushes a piece while you are reaching for the piece you do want to move, or while you are otherwise making unwise gestures, you can assert that it was unintentional contact. Rarely will an opponent call out an honest bump, but if they do, it is up to the tournament director to hear both sides and make a ruling.

A few more wrinkles to this: until you let go of the piece, you can still move it anywhere you want. You can bring it back to it’s starting position, take your hand off, and think a bit further. This is not good practice; I do not recommend it; you will have to move that and only that piece (if it is legal to do so), but you can, in the end, place it wherever it is legal to do so.

If you touch an opponent’s piece, and you can capture it, then you must do so. That touch is signalling your intent to capture, and your opponent can (and should) hold you to it.

If you go around touching pieces in ways that don’t fall afoul of this rule, you are being a jerk. Don’t do that. Any fiddling with the board in any unsporting way could get you reprimanded or punished by the TD.

7. I won!

It is the responsibility of the winner to inform the tournament director of the outcome. What the precise mechanism is for doing so will vary from tournament to tournament. The TD will almost always announce it, but if they didn’t, or if you missed it, just ask. (In the case of a draw, make sure you and your opponent agree on who is going to report it.)

This may seem like a little thing, but organizing a tournament of any size is a bit of a hassle, and getting timely results from the players is a necessity for things to run smoothly.

8. Don’t Cheat — or Give the Impression of Cheating

This seems like it shouldn’t need to be said, but even Grandmasters have been caught cheating.

Don’t be this guy. I don’t want to know why they had a video camera in the toilet stall, but this was Igors Rausis, now Isa Kasimi. He has changed his name to avoid the shame he brought upon himself. Suspicions of his cheating preceded this incriminating photo. He is now banned from FIDE events, and unwelcome just about everywhere.

So, here are some guidelines to avoid any mistake or bad impression that could cause concern.

  • Turn your phone off and leave it somewhere you won’t accidentally or habitually reach for it. Smartphones can beat us all at chess, and if you touch your phone, someone is going to assume you are cheating. If you actually need to make or take a call, you probably shouldn’t be in a chess tournament, but check with your TD ahead of time on what their rules for that are.
  • If you are at an online tournament, close all apps and windows that aren’t absolutely necessary for the game. Typically you will only have a zoom room and a chess app. Don’t have anything else open on your screen that might distract you or create the slightest hint that you are doing anything other than paying attention to the game.
  • If the tournament requires a zoom or other app be watching over your shoulder to ensure you aren’t cheating, make sure that setup is all ready to go well ahead of time.
  • Follow all guidelines about getting up or going to the bathroom. It can be important to stretch your legs and your body; biology has sway over us, even at the chess table. But whatever the tournament guidelines are, make sure you know them and follow them.
  • Needless to say: never consult any database, app, book, friend, or any resource other than your own head at any time during a tournament game.
  • Never talk at a tournament. No kibitzing. No whispering about what that player should or shouldn’t do. There’s plenty of time to discuss it later!

9. Obscure Rules

There are other rules that absolute beginners might not know, so just quickly check off these checkboxes. They all have their nuances, even castling, so be sure you understand them!

  • 50-move rule
  • Three-repetition rule
  • Castling
  • En-passant
  • Pawn promotion

You know you don’t have to promote to a queen, right? There are extremely rare cases where that is not the right promotion, mostly found in chess puzzles.

10. Keep it Friendly

Not all chess players are nice, and not all are equipped with the full range of social graces. Sometimes tempers flare.

But take a deep breath and stay calm and friendly yourself. It’s the only way to have fun and make friends.

And believe me, you can and will make friends if you bring a good game and an easy-going demeanor to a chess tournament.

Win, lose, or draw — did you just have an intense game with complicated positions and a see-saw balance of power? Offer to go over it with your opponent afterwards. Your opponent may be exhausted, or may not be in the mood, or may need to take a break, but it never hurts to ask… if you actually want to do it! (Maybe you are the exhausted one, that’s fine too!)

If you are at an OTB tournament, you may see your opponent around once the stress is relieved. A casual greeting and some nice (but true) statements about the game can invite the a review of some tricky part of the position. It can be useful to see what your opponent was thinking or to have their perspective on that move you thought you should have made.

And it’s a great way to establish friendships.

Concluding Thoughts

Chess finds its highest form in standard tournaments, where both players have the luxury to truly think through all the possibilities and come up with their very best plan. People who don’t understand tournaments have a hard time understanding the excitement, the tension, the richness of the experience. Some films get this right: one of my favorites for play at the amateur level is Searching for Bobby Fischer (which I always feel compelled to caveat, is not about Bobby Fischer at all).

The more you can come into your first tournament experience comfortable, confident, and excited to play, the more beautiful the experience is.

Once upon a time this was the height of sophistication: that arc showing the course of the flag as the timer ticks down to game over? So exciting! With the advent of increments, these clocks became obsolete for tournament play.

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Blunt Jackson

Blunt Jackson

Patzer since before the beginning of time.