Intro to Chess Competition

We get some questions from time to time about how to join tournaments, how to get a rating, etc. so I decided to write a basic primer to chess competition.

Chess Organizations
In the United States, chess tournaments are run under the rules established by the US Chess Federation, aka US Chess or USCF. Tournaments are held by affiliate organizations, which are typically local chess clubs or state associations. USCF runs rating calculations for all participants. The Member Services Area of their website will allow players to see their rating and other statistics such as their win-loss record against other players.

The WV Chess Association was started in 1941. We are the WV state affiliate of the USCF. We organize annual state championship events, and provide local chess clubs with a place to announce events and their club meeting times. Our annual business meeting is held during the State Championship, which is typically in early September.

What are Ratings, Anyway?
A rating is a value that predicts the expected score between two players. The rating system in use today is based on the work by Dr. Arpad Elo (Elo ratings, not ELO). Essentially, when two players compete, an expected score such as 0.75-0.25 is calculated based on the difference between their ratings. The actual score minus the expected score, multiplied by a value known as the K-factor, determines the change in rating after each game. It gets much more complicated that this, and you can search online for Glicko ratings to learn more.

Roughly speaking, a player 400 points higher rated is expected to win 90% of the time, and a player 200 points higher about 75%.

Players in certain rating ranges are generally referred to with certain titles:
2200+ Master
2000-2199 Expert
1800-1999 Class A
1600-1799 Class B
and so on…

Ratings are used in the pairing process to determine who plays whom, and can be used for prizes in tournaments.

How do I get a rating?
Simply put, you join the US Chess Federation (either in advance or at a tournament), and play in a rated tournament. After the event is rated, you will be able to see your rating on your MSA page, e.g. Note that you will still show as Unrated until the official monthly published ratings are updated, but you can see your “live” rating on the tournament history tab.

What is it like to play in a chess tournament?
Most tournaments in our area are one-day events that start at 10am on a Saturday. People trickle in starting around 9 and will find the tournament director to check-in and pay their entry fee if they didn’t enter by mail in advance. Most people here know each other, but if you’re new or playing in an area where people don’t know you, they will ask for your USCF ID and to fill out a form with your address, etc.

Close to the start time, the director will often make announcements to let people know general guidelines about being quiet, where you can go after your game, if there is food nearby, round times, or any other information you might want to know. The director may read the pairings, but either way they will be posted on the wall so people can see them. You will see a board number, the white player’s name, and the black player’s name. Find your board, grab a score sheet, and if you are black, you have the choice to use your own chess set (provided it meets the USCF requirements).

The tournament announcement will list a time control that states how long players have to complete their moves. A time control such as G/60 d5 means you have 60 minutes per player, and the clock delays 5 seconds before counting on each move (this gives people at least 5 seconds per move to avoid time scrambles). When you use a chess clock, you make your move on the board, press your side of the clock, then record your move using chess notation on your score sheet.

One thing to remember in tournaments is the touch-move rule. If you touch a piece, you must move it (if it can be legally moved). If you let go of a piece on a legal square, you cannot retract that move. You can, however, move a piece, hold onto it, and decide to move that same piece somewhere else if you did not let go of it.

When the game is over, players should sign both scoresheets, give the yellow copy to the director, and record their result on the pairing sheet. Put a 1 next to who won, and a 0 next to who lost. Put 1/2 on both players if it was a draw.

What happens if I lose?
Most chess tournaments are run under the Swiss System. In a Swiss event, there is a fixed number of rounds, and all players compete in every round. There is no “lose and go home” in a chess tournament. In the first round, the players are sorted by rating, and the top half plays against the bottom half (1-9, 2-10, 3-11, etc.). In the second round, the winners are grouped against each other (split by rating like the first round), and the same with the losers. You will generally be playing someone with the same overall tournament score as you in each round. There are of course some exceptions, but generally this is the case. You can also request to take a round off in most tournaments, and you will get a 1/2 point bye if you do. At the end of the event, the player(s) will win prizes based on their total score. 3 wins and 2 draws for example is 4 points (1 for win, 1/2 for draw), just the same as 4 wins and 1 loss. In most cases, cash prizes are split evenly, while there are some tiebreak systems to determine who would take a trophy home if there are trophies being awarded.

Other Information
The WV Chess Association announces tournaments when we are notified by the organizers. We also host a few state championship events and a Grand Prix every year. Feel free to reach out to us at with any questions. We hope to see you at a tournament!