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Playing National Tournament Chess

You'll probably be nervous the first time you enter a tournament. Don't let that stop you! World champions had to play in their first tournament, too. Most tournament players remember what it feels like to not know the ropes. Just ask the first quasi-official person you lay eyes on, and chances are you may make a new friend in the process.

Finding out about tournaments

Tournament chess in the United States is certified and rated by the United States Chess Federation (USCF). In order to play a tournament game, you should know all the rules and be familiar with chess etiquette. Normally, the tournaments are run by a tournament director, require membership in the USCF, and require an entry fee. You should also bring your own equipment: a chess board, set, and clock.

Generally speaking, there are three kinds of tournament competition: the Swiss System, round robin, and match.

Swiss System

Most tournaments in the United States are run according to the rules of the Swiss System. The Swiss System ranks all players by rating (and ranks unrated players alphabetically) and splits the list in half. The top player of the top half is paired against the top player of the bottom half and so on until the bottom player of the top half is paired against the bottom player of the bottom half. In case of an uneven number of players, the bottom-most player is usually given a one-half point bye (which means they are paired as if they'd made a draw, even though they didn't play the game).

Winners get one point, draws score one-half point, and losers get zero points. In the next round, winners play winners, losers play losers, and so forth, following the same procedure of dividing the lists in half and pairing the two lists accordingly.

Gradually you begin to play players of your approximate strength, because — in theory anyway — you should be scoring roughly the same amount of points against the same kind of competition. The strongest players, or the players having the best tournament, are increasingly likely to play one another as the tournament goes on. The winner is the player scoring the most number of points.

Round robin

In a round-robin tournament, everyone plays everyone else. These tournaments are regarded as a more accurate judge of a player's performance because there are no "lucky" pairings. Round-robin tournaments determine most national championships and international tournaments. A drawback to a round-robin tournament is that it normally takes a longer period of time to complete and is therefore more expensive to produce.

A sub-set of the round robin is the Quad, where four players of roughly equal strength play one another. This type of system is popular in the U.S. because it is inexpensive and avoids mismatches.

Match competition

Match competition is not tournament competition, but it is another popular form of chess play. In a match, one player plays another for a pre-determined number of games. This head-to-head competition is the purest method for determining the stronger player and is usually adopted in order to determine the world champion — or the world champion's challenger.

Tournaments are advertised in Chess Life, the monthly publication of the USCF, which is included with your membership dues. Chess Life has a section that includes the upcoming events and the name and phone numbers of the tournament directors. This listing will look like Greek to you the first time you see one. Call the director and tell him or her that you are an unrated player and ask any questions you may have. Everyone was a beginner at some point, and these directors will take the time to show you the ropes.

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