Everything you need to know to making the leap to in-person tournaments!
Most chess players 10-20 years ago probably got their start playing chess with their families or in person at local clubs and playing chess online seemed like a strange alternative, an almost completely different game. Nowadays it is the reverse as many have only ever experienced online chess. With over-the-board (OTB) events beginning to make a comeback, many of the players in the latter category may already be contemplating trying a real tournament.
As a coach I have had many students in this situation and the emotions they feel include curiosity, anticipation, anxiety and even fear; all natural emotions you will feel when trying something new for the first time. In order to help answer some questions and ease that anxiety, below are some of the most important things for you to know when considering entering a tournament for the first time and some tips to help you once you are there.
Are you ready? Yes, definitely yes. As long as you know the basic rules of the game and are able to checkmate someone, you can play in a tournament. Keep in mind, this isn’t going to be a battle for the world championship title. You will not be playing against the Magnus Carlsens and Hikaru Nakamuras of the world. That is what you see when watching top level tournaments online, but most tournaments have sections for beginners and there will be people in the exact same shoes as you.
Take it one game at a time and go to the tournament with the intention of using it as a learning experience.
What should you expect? OTB chess is VERY different from online in a variety of ways. Now you have invested time and money to participate in an official event. Your opponent will be physically present, sitting directly across from you, shooting you occasional glances. The pressure will be on. This type of pressure can be both uncomfortable and exhilarating.
On that note, make sure to set realistic expectations for yourself! Don’t add more pressure by giving yourself unrealistic expectations to win first place (or any prize for that matter). You should even avoid setting a goal to win a certain number of games. During your game you need to be 100% focused on what is happening on the board. Worrying about not winning a prize, what your final score will be, or a silly blunder you made in a previous game will distract you in the moment and hurt your play. Take it one game at a time and go to the tournament with the intention of using it as a learning experience. It is possible, though probably unlikely, that you lose every game, and that is OKAY!
Being at a tournament with perhaps hundreds of other people that are also there to compete in the passion that you share produces a special kind of energy. It is a unique atmosphere that almost feels like a family reunion even when everyone else is a stranger. Over time you may make friends and build relationships that will last forever.
Here are a couple of additional important things to be aware of:
1. Time will suddenly accelerate to warp speed. You may be used to blitz or even rapid time controls online, and the tournament you are entering may have a time control of 30 minutes per player, a luxurious time control for an experienced blitz player, but you suddenly find yourself running low on time and scrambling to finish. Even time controls with multiple hours per player that sound like forever on paper can go by in a blink of an eye. Before you know it you have played six games over a few days and it is time to go home. The whole weekend will feel like a blur. If you don’t get this feeling then you are probably playing too fast! Don’t let the energy and excitement of the event rush you.
2. OTB ratings are very different from online ratings. You may be 1500 online, only to discover that you end up with a 1000 official OTB rating. When entering a tournament for the first time you should almost not even consider your online rating when deciding what section to enter. Choose the beginner/unrated section.
...do not underestimate anyone!
Now a little psychological tip: do not underestimate anyone! This is advice I give to experienced tournament players as well complete beginners. You can look at your opponent’s rating, but you should assume they are slightly higher than you (maybe 50 points). Believing you have a challenging opponent, but not unbeatable, will force you to try hard and give you the best chance to win. Thinking you have no chance against someone significantly higher than you, or underestimating someone much lower is a good way to ensure you don’t win any games.
What rules do you need to know? Beyond the basic rules of the game you will need to know some rules and etiquette for the tournament itself. While the regulations will tend to vary from tournament to tournament, below are some of the most common and important things to know:
1. All official rated tournaments follow the “touch move rule”. If you touch a piece, you have to move it. If you touch an opponent’s piece you must capture it. Once you let go of your piece your move is determined. If you knock over a piece by accident or need to fix a piece that is not centered on the square. You can say “I adjust” to let your opponent know that you are not intending to move the piece you are about to touch. You should only adjust pieces on your own turn. It is considered distracting to do it while your opponent is thinking.
2. Most tournaments follow a “swiss style” format. This means that players will play all of the rounds, regardless of score (no eliminations if you lose). Players are paired against each other based on their score so far in the tournament and rating.
3. Make sure you understand the time control. There are a wide variety of formats out there. Anything less than 30 minutes per player is considered rapid and does not usually count towards your official regular rating. In addition to having a set amount of time for making all of your moves, you may also have a delay or increment of 5-10 seconds per move. Delay waits 5s at the start of your turn prior to your main time ticking down. This ensures that you will always have a minimum amount of time to make your move at the end of the game should you get low on your main time. With increment the time is added at the end of your move, so it is possible to accumulate time. For example, if you have a 10s increment, but make your move in 5s, your time will go up by 5s.
Longer time controls may be broken into segments. For example, you may see the tournament advertising the time control as follows: 40/120 d5, SD/30 d5. This means each player will start the game with 120 minutes and 5 seconds of delay for the first 40 moves of the game. Once you play your 40th move you will receive an extra 30 minutes that also has 5s delay. SD stands for sudden death which means that there will be no more time added in at any future moment of the game. There are many variations to the above example.
4. You will likely be expected to record all of the moves of the game for both white and black. While this may feel like an unnecessary burden, it is extremely important. Sometimes there can be disputes that can only be solved using the score sheets of the players. For example, an accurate score sheet is required in order to claim a draw by three-fold repetition or that someone has lost on time before making it to move 4. Most tournaments supply sheets or have them available for purchase. Most importantly, having a correct score sheet is necessary so that you can review your games either on your own or with a coach.
5. You must use the same hand to make your move and press the clock. Making a move with one hand while resting your other hand on the clock to press the button ASAP is against the rules and also poor etiquette.
You should only offer after making your move, but before you press the clock.
6. There is even a specific way you/your opponent should offer a draw. You should only offer after making your move, but before you press the clock. Once you offer, then you can press the clock and your opponent can think as long as they like whether to accept or not. After a draw offer is made players can decline verbally or by making their move. A scenario that comes up frequently is when your opponent offers a draw while it is their turn. In such cases you can ask them to make their move first and then you will consider the offer. Always do this even if you think the position should be a draw as you never know, they might make a mistake! Their draw offer is valid until you complete your next move.
7. Talking is not allowed during or after a game. Most tournaments have space for the players to review their games with each other if you want to.
8. Using electronics during the games is not allowed. It is better not to even bring your phone to the playing room. If it rings you can be penalized.
9. You are allowed to get up from the board to take a break. Watching other games is typically allowed, but you should be sure to give the players as much space as possible to avoid distracting them.
...get into a rhythm: make your move, touch the clock, and write the move down...
1. One reason why time passes faster during your game is that you are now not only responsible for just thinking about your move, but you also have to manually touch the clock and record the moves. Eventually this all becomes second nature, but it does take time to get used to it. It can feel especially nerve wracking when you opponent moves quickly when you are still in the process of writing the previous move down! I recommend that you get into a rhythm: make your move, touch the clock, and write the move down (on your opponent’s time). When your opponent makes a move the very first thing you should do it write it down. This will help you in two ways: it forces you to slow down and not make an immediate reply, and you make it less likely to forget to write the move down later.
In the inevitable event that you do miss a move, you are allowed to request to see your opponent’s score sheet in order to try to find your mistake. This can only be done on your own time! If it is not a quick fix or you are low on time, the best thing to do is to skip a line and continuing writing. Then you can figure out the mistake later either with your opponent’s sheet or your coach. Any experienced coach will have many years of practice deciphering player’s games and should be able to help you recreate what happened in many cases.
2. Get as much rest between rounds as possible. Many tournaments have two or more games in a day. Don’t tire yourself out by playing blitz in-between rounds. Have a plan for meals. Depending on the schedule of the rounds you may have little time to find food.
3. Make sure you feel well prepared. Know what openings you plan to play before going into the game, aka don’t wing it! Reviewing your opening lines ahead of time is a good way to refresh your memory and make you feel confident. Preparing with a coach to ensure you are on the right track will boost your confidence. Coaches should also be able to recommend a good study regimen leading up to a tournament.
How to find events? Most rated events will be posted on your federation’s website. The US Chess Federation (uschess.org) has many listings. FIDE (fide.com) is a good resource for international events. Some events are not always listed on this websites, so it can be useful to research local affiliates/clubs to see what might be going on near you.
Participating in your first ever OTB tournament can feel very intimidating and there is definitely a bit of a learning curve for first-timers, however, if you go into a tournament with the right mindset (relax and have fun) then you are sure to enjoy the experience. If you do have a poor performance, don’t get discouraged. Use the pain of loss as motivation to improve and try again. While everything above may seem overwhelming, with enough practice it will all become second nature and before you know it you will be a seasoned tournament veteran!