“Chess is so interesting in itself, as not to need the view of gain to induce engaging in it; and thence it is never played for money.”
- Benjamin Franklin (1706 - 1790)
So you're the chess player to beat in your neighborhood, eh? You can beat your family members, your friends, the folks at the local coffee shop, and you're ready for bigger fish. Maybe you've noticed that chess tournaments have monetary prizes and are lured by the thought of easy cash. Maybe you just want to prove your worth to a roomful of strangers. Well, hold up there cowpoke. There's an awful lot you don't know, and you're likely to be gravely disappointed if you go off all half-cocked and just sign up without knowing what you're getting into.
See, I was once like you and after my first tournament experience where I spent an entire weekend having being kicked all over the board (in one game being subjected to a seven move scholar's mate, to my eternal shame) and finishing with a performance rating of 785, I swore I'd never play the game again. That didn't last, of course, but it did take me three years to get up the nerve to attend a second tournament where I--still being an unstudied casual player, but this time knowing what I was getting into--eked out a very respectable 2150 performance and went home with a prize. The difference is in the details.
Everything you should need to know before your first tournament--aside from the rules of the game itself--is found below.
Note: This writeup is solely based on my extensive experience in competitive chess and I may have inadvertently missed things. Please msg me with anything you might think I have missed and I'll add it in if it's relevant.
While it is not strictly necessary to own your own equipment before your first tournament, it certainly does help if you're used to playing on tournament boards. Below is a list of stuff you should consider owning even if you just enjoy casual chess.
- Board and Pieces
While grandpa's heirloom board with strange pieces that are hard to tell apart might be an interesting piece of art for your endtable, it is not an appropriate chessboard for a tournament. This also goes for Lord of the Rings, Simpsons, and "modern" pieces. You really need a nice vinyl roll-up tournament board and a set of weighted plastic regulation-sized Staunton pieces. The good news is these are cheaper than you think--$15 bucks for the board and piece sets, usually. You also might consider weightier (with both greater cost and usability) pieces, although honestly, I never take my weighted pieces to tournaments.
Some people bring wooden boards, and that's fine, too, so long as they have large (at least 2.25", preferably 2.5") squares and full-sized (King at 3.75") pieces. The key here is if it looks weird to you, it's probably going to piss off your opponent and you probably won't get to play with them anyway if he or she has a regular board and gets the tournament director involved.
Analog clocks are, sadly, a vanishing breed and are barred by the USCF rules if a digital clock is available. The reason being that digital clocks handle time-delay, whereas their analog cousins do not. In an age of decreasing time controls, the addition of time delay as a requirement is a step (albeit a tiny and almost wholly insignifigant one) in the right direction. Fortunately, good digital clocks are cheap these days. Get one.
Writing utensils are a must-have, as you are required to tally the score of the game. While tournaments often have pens available, they tend to run out from theft, forgetfulness, insufficient supply, or all of the above. I recommend you bring your own pen to keep from having problems in this arena.
Score pads are nice, but most often useless in a tournament setting. Official USCF score sheets are typically available at any tournament, and have a carbonless copy which is often requested by the tournament administration. Hence, if you use your score pad, you'll often have to copy the game anyway, so don't bother.
Carrying cases for your board, pieces, clock, and so on are also nice accessories, but not required. You can carry your equipment around in a plastic bag from 7-11 if you want to, so long as you don't crinkle it during play.
Richard Teichmann famously stated that chess is 99% tactics. As long as we're throwing out arbitrary percentages, let's say that tournament chess is at least 50% psychological. There are any number of things that can throw you completely off of your game, and the game itself is the least of them. Let's take a look at some things to remember.
- Cheap Tricks
There's not a lot you can do about deliberate, subtle distraction nonsense from your opponent. The USCF rules state that deliberate distraction is illegal, yet there are so many things that can subtly fall into this category and never be ruled out of order by a TD. While someone jumping up and down in front of the board will quickly be ruled distraction, someone who has seemingly not bathed in years and is filling your nostrils with rot might not be. Other cheap tricks include wearing sunglasses (to keep you from seeing where they're looking?), eating smelly food, grinning or glaring or otherwise making faces, slamming pieces and/or the clock, and so forth. These are fairly easy to overcome if you just keep your mind on the game and punish their obvious lack of self-confidence with a swift and overwhelming victory.
- Ratings, Standings, and Money
While the tricksters above may be annoying, they are not your worst enemy. You are. It is very easy to become wrapped up in a potential gain or loss of rating points, tournament standing, and so on. This is most critical if you've done particularly poor or well in the tournament, since your mind will often wander off to think about these irrelevancies instead of focusing on the game at hand. You can only play one game at a time, and you cannot do it before or after your current round. You must be fully in the game while it is being played. Keep that in mind and don't worry too much about the other stuff. Remember that most people do not win tournaments often, and that your rating is only a gauge of your current strength.
- Physical Issues
Another thing people tend to do that will screw up their performance is to not get enough sleep, or to eat poorly during a tournament. If you think staying up until 4AM playing blitz the night before a tournament is a good idea, maybe you should think again. You can play blitz anytime, but the tournament is, well, a tournament, and as such should be your focus for the weekend. Get plenty of sleep, don't skip meals, eat a light lunch between rounds. Remember that you will likely be sitting for hours and hours in a state of intense concentration and you will need to be at your best physically to remain at your top performance level during these long games.
There is not an awful lot you need to know--gamewise--before entering the tournament. If you're even considering tournament play, you probably already have a fair understanding of the basic elements of the game, and you will likely be placed in an unrated or low-rated section, so you will be playing against other unknown quantities or weak players. Even so, there are a number of things you should understand before embarking on this holy quest for money and glory.
- Elementary Rules
Knowledge of elementary rules such as en passant, castling, and touch-move is really required. These aren't house rules or made-up ideas, they are the rules of the game, and you need to understand how they work so you don't either look silly or violate rules and end up chastised and/or disqualified. Make sure you read a book on elementary chess before your tournament to make sure you have all the bases covered.
- Tournament Rules
It is probably also a good idea to sit down and read the FIDE Laws of Chess and the USCF Official Rules of Chess 5th Ed. so that you know what the rules actually are regarding conduct and play during a chess tournament. They can be a dry read if you're not in the right frame of mind for them, but it beats inadvertently breaking a rule. Bear in mind that most rules are up to the Tournament Director to decide and enforce (which leaves a little leeway for interpretation, although most TDs strive very hard to be fair since unfair rulings will potentially keep people from coming to another tournament run by that person) so if you find your opponent is in violation of a rule, communicate your case to the TD in a clear and pleasant tone. Likewise if a ruling is brought against you.
- Basic Mates and Other Game Knowledge
While there is no rule stating you have to know anything about chess other than the fundamental rules before embarking on your first tournament, it might be a good idea to understand basic mates, tactics, and opening ideas so that you don't suffer oberwhelming losses. You don't need to memorize specific opening lines to play good chess, you simply need to understand why people play certain moves so that you can both assert yourself on the board and respond to threats effectively. There are plenty of beginner books out there that cover these topics, but I'll list a few at the end of this writeup.
The Tournament Itself
There are a number of little subtleties to the arrangement and execution of a chess tournament. I'll elaborate on a few of the most easily misunderstood below.
- Time Controls
This can be the most confusing aspect for a novice tournament goer. Some of the recent additions (such as time-delay) seem to even confuse those who've been playing competitive chess for years.
Every tournament has time controls for each round. Sometimes the times for different rounds vary, but they are easy to follow once you understand the format. Say you're playing a tournament that lists its time control as G/90. This means each side has 90 minutes on the clock, for a total maximum of three hours. If you lose on time, you lose as certainly as if you had been checkmated, so learn to manage your time well. 40/120 SD/60 means that each side has two hours for their first fourty moves and then one hour for all remaining moves. The fourtieth move for both sides must be made before the first time control has been met. You can read any posted time controls now that you know the basic format.
Time-delay can be a bit confusing, but it's actually very simple. In time-delay, you remove 5 minutes from the first time control and add 5 seconds for each move. So a G/90 becomes G/85 + 5 seconds. Obviously this can only be handled by digital clocks, which have preset configurations for most G-5 settings. The reason for time-delay is primarily for endgames. With 5 seconds added per move, you will have at least 5 seconds for each move if you're in time trouble at the end.
Be on time and set up your board (if you have one) as soon as you read the pairings for the round. Some people think that sauntering in late will create a psychological edge against their opponent. More often the reality is they end up in time trouble or move too quickly and lose. If you have to be late, get there as soon as you can, because if you're more than an hour late, you will probably be disqualified for the round and lose a point for nothing. If you absolutely cannot make a round, tell the TD ahead of time and you will get a half-point bye.
- Getting Up
Newcomers to competitive chess often have concerns about getting up from their seats while a game is going on. In reality, there's no reason not to except that it may break your concentration on the position. Other things like having to go to the bathroom or needing a cigarette are likely to have a much more detrimental effect on your game than simply getting up to take care of them. One thing to note though, in this age of portable computers: Don't be seen anywhere near a computer while you're getting up. The TD doesn't need to prove you're cheating to disqualify you. They just need probable cause. If you get up during a critical juncture of the game and happen to fire up your laptop to check your email, don't be surprised to find yourself ejected from the tournament. This also goes for chess related books or periodicals.
You will be required to write down the moves of your games. The tools to do so will usually be provided (score sheets and pens), but you will not be provided with the knowledge of how to do so. Be familiar with algebraic notation prior to attending and you shouldn't have any problems. Also note that if you're under 5 minutes remaining on your clock you are no longer required to keep score, so feel free to blitz through that endgame without worrying about which square you're moving to.
You should now be armed with an arsenal of knowledge that first-time tournament players rarely have and as such will be hopefully be able to concentrate more fully on your game and less on trivialities that may be more or less confusing.
Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess - Bobby Fischer, et. al.
Pandolfini's Chess Complete - Bruce Pandolfini
Checkmate! - Bruce Pandolfini
How to Play Good Opening Moves - Edmar Mednis
U.S. Chess Federation's Official Rules of Chess (5th Edition) - Tim Just and Daniel B. Burg (editors)