Tips for Your First Chess Tournament

Yesterday I played in a chess tournament—the Marshall Rohland Closed Wisconsin Championship. This wasn’t my first ever chess tournament, but it was my first in about eight years, so I felt unsure about some of the protocols and unwritten rules of official tournaments. I’d like to share some tips and new things I learned from the experience that I think are helpful if you’re curious about entering one. Like most things in life, it’s hard for experienced folks to remember the kinds of things beginners don’t know, so answers to very basic questions are hard to find.

Some of the questions I had before the tournament were:

  • Do I need to bring my own score sheet? Is it like in Queen’s Gambit where you need to turn in your move list after the game? I already had a book for notating games, but the pages weren’t easy to tear out, so if I needed to turn it in I wasn’t sure how I would handle that. Of course, each tournament may be different, but for this tournament some people wrote the game down in their own book, and the tournament organizers also provided single sheets and pencils I could use. I preferred using the single sheets even though I had a book because it was hard to keep the book flat on the table while I was playing. We also didn’t need to officially hand in the notes after to an arbiter or tournament director, but they were very important for settling any issues that may have come up in a few games. In higher level tournaments there might be a requirement to turn in the sheet for official review.

  • Will the games be viewable online? I assumed they wouldn’t be, but for this tournament there were a small number of electronic boards streaming games to a website where people could watch. Partly this was useful for the tournament organizers to keep an eye on top games, but also a cool experience for players to share their games with their friends and family who weren’t at the tournament.

  • How will I deal with food? It can be unpredictable how long games will last, and the schedule can be packed with games all day making it difficult to plan ahead for meals. Most long tournaments are hosted in places that have nearby food options like hotels and conference centers, but it’s definitely something to plan for. I packed a bunch of high energy snacks like bars and applesauce packs just in case and I’m glad I did because it gave me a boost of energy before my last game without needing to go out and find something.

  • How strict are rules about computers, cell phones, etc.? The tournament rules stated “no computers” and I wasn’t sure if that included phones. Of course, most people have powerful chess computers in their pocket all the time, whether they know it or not. Computer cheating can become a problem at events, so the rules are there for good reason. In practice, some people did have iPads and computers, but they were only used outside of the playing rooms during downtime and there were no computers ever out or in use in the main playing rooms. Cell phones were okay to carry around, but once the games were underway everyone kept them put away and silenced.

A few other tips and observations:

  1. The tournament director is a very stressed but very helpful person. They are juggling a lot, but are a key resource for answering any questions you have. Their primary role is to help you get oriented when you arrive so you know where to go and where further information will be available like round pairings. So go find them when you arrive, introduce yourself, and they’ll give you the summary and answer any questions you have then. After that, definitely ask them if there are important questions related to the tournament or your game, but try to settle any questions or issues by asking or working with other players first. People are generally friendly and reasonable, and the tournament director has a lot to do. Hopefully they have assistants and other arbiters helping them, but often it’s just one person bearing the load of running the tournament. Say thank you to the tournament director after the tournament or in an email later. They work very hard so everyone can enjoy their games with little reward.

  2. I recommend inviting your opponent to review the game together after it’s finished in the “skittles” room (a room for casual chess and conversation away from the quiet playing area). It’s the best way to learn because you get to hear exactly what the other player was thinking at each moment of the game, and it’s a great way to make a new chess friend. It’s also fun to pay attention to the games of your opponents after you meet them and recap the experience together at the end of the tournament.

  3. Keep a friendly but professional vibe. Chess tournaments are serious business, but everyone is there to have fun too. Everyone is there to play the best chess they can, and they want their opponents to play at their best too, which means it’s important to keep a professional and focused atmosphere. Be very careful not to make too much noise, even when you’re in the lobby or outside the playing area. Some library-level talking at the board is okay if needed. These aren’t casual games, they’re rated and official. Be friendly and forgiving when small mistakes happen either on or off the board, but expect all of your opponents to share the same level of professionalism as yourself. Say “good luck” before the game and say “thanks for the game” after, no matter the result.

If you enjoy chess and are considering a tournament, I highly recommend it. It’s a great way to improve your chess skills, make new chess friends, and experience a professional and friendly environment where everyone is aiming to be at their best.


Kevin McGillivray

Kevin McGillivray is a web developer, painter, and writer in Wisconsin. He writes about creativity, online and offline neighborhoods, and vegetables. He paints and dives.

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