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Chess Tournaments F.A.Q

Why Should I Play Tournament Chess?

Tournament competition has several things to recommend it over casual play:

  • It offers the thrill of winning individual trophies. There are plenty of prizes for all levels. Special prizes are awarded in a Grand Prix competition that spans the entire year.
  • It offers all the thrills of a sporting event, with extras. In this sport, everyone gets to play. No one is sitting on the bench. No one has to make the cut. There are no eliminations – you play every round, win or lose. Just show up and play!
  • It fosters camaraderie and team spirit. Any school with two or more players in the same section qualifies as a team. The points of the top 4 scorers on a team are added to form a team score.
  • It offers a rating system that helps players track their improvement and choose their level of competition.
  • It’s a lot of fun. A great way to spend the day, for both parents and kids. Sometimes you don’t know how much you are enjoying it until the next day – then you want to do it again!
But Aren't Tournaments Too Competitive? I Don't Think I'm Ready to Play Experienced Kids.

You are ready to play in a tournament once you’ve played a game in which you checkmated your opponent. Remember, every tournament player had to start with no tournament experience. NSCF tournaments offer a very supportive environment for new players as well as those with experience, with plenty of encouragement from parents, coaches, and other players. And you will have plenty of chances to face players you can beat.

How Will I Know if I Have Won a Medal or Trophy?

In NSCF tournaments, we’ve simplified the awards:

  • Everyone who scores 3 or more points (or finishes in the top 5) wins a trophy.
  • K/1 participants all receive a medal, and the top Kindergartner receives a trophy. (The top Kindergartner may receive both a place trophy and the Top K trophy.)

We also give Class (such as Under 700) or Unrated trophies, which may be given to players who have scored fewer than 3 points. The exact order of finish (whether your trophy says 1st Place or 7th Place) is determined by your score and your “tiebreak points” as calculated by the computer. A player who finishes in the top 5, as determined first by score then by tiebreaks, gets a trophy even if he has scored less than 3 points.

What Do I Do When I Arrive At The Tournament?

If you are already registered, check the advance registration listing to make sure your name is on it and that you are in the proper section. Then simply wait for the announcement that the pairings have been posted for the first round. Please do not wait in the main playing area.

If you are not preregistered, line up at the registration table and complete registration procedures. Then wait for the announcement of first-round pairings.

Whether preregistered or not, plan to arrive well before the registration deadline posted on the registration forms, to ensure a timely and orderly start to the tournament. We can not guarantee a first-round game to a late arrival who is not preregistered.

How Do I Find My Opponent?

Once the pairings are posted, find the pairing sheet for your section. Player’s names will be listed in two columns. The left hand column will list the player of the white pieces, and the right hand column will list the player of the black pieces. The number next to your name will denote the board number where you will be playing. Note the board number and your opponent’s name. Go to the playing hall and find your assigned board number. If you forget your board number you can check the pairings posted in the tournament room or stand against the wall until the director calls your name. Sit in front of the color that you have been assigned. When your opponent arrives, make sure he or she is the right person.

How Will My Child Know What To Do In The Playing Hall? Can I Come In To Help My Child Find Her Seat?

Parents are not allowed in the playing hall. Our experienced staff members will help everyone get seated. In the Primary Novice and K-1 sections, all players’ identities are verified by a floor director before each game begins. The chief tournament director gives detailed instructions to the players regarding the conduct of the game (yes, touch-move is played) and the recording of the results. You can help by instructing your child to follow the staff’s directions and listen carefully to the rules of conduct.

How Am I Expect To Behave During The Game?

Show respect to your opponent at all times. Do not brag if you are winning, do not complain if you are losing. Remember, the main playing area is a quiet area. No talking is allowed while games are in progress. If your opponent is not following these rules, and is distracting or disturbing you, raise your hand and notify the tournament director. If any questions arise during the game, do not engage in conversation with your opponent. Once again, raise your hand and call the tournament director.

Do I Have to Use a Chess Clock?

You are encouraged to use a chess clock if you are playing in a rated section. Players in the higher sections should own and bring a chess clock with them, preferably one with a delay feature.

The time limit will depend on your section. If one player wishes to use a clock, the other person must agree. If neither player has a clock, you may start without one. However, the tournament director has the right to put a clock on your game while it is in progress, if he finds it necessary to do so.

For more detailed information, see the “What are the NSCF regulations for the use of a chess clock?”

If you are having to use a clock for the first time, raise your hand and let the tournament director know. He will explain how it works. If it is an electronic clock, it is the owner’s responsibility to know how to set it properly.

What Are the NSCF Regulations for the Use of a Chess Clock?

All players should make an effort to familiarize themselves with the use of a chess clock, and get into the habit of using them in their games. Though we do not forbid a game to start without a clock in the younger sections, the following regulations will be followed:

  • The use of clocks is highly recommended for all sections. It is compulsory in the Championship, Future Masters and Reserve sections.
  • Players are expected to bring their own clocks to the tournament.
  • The preferred equipment is a digital clock with a time delay feature. If either one of the players has such a clock, then that clock must be used.
  • If the clock used does not have a delay, then the clock must be set to the primary time. Thus, if the time control is “game/40, delay 5”, set the clock for 40 minutes.
  • Games that are started without clocks: If it appears that a game is unlikely to finish within the allotted time, the TD reserves the option to put a chess clock on the game. The remaining time for the round will be split between the two players. In no event will any player receive less than 10 minutes to finish the game.
Do I Have to Keep Score?

Keeping score is compulsory in the Championship and Reserve sections. It is strongly encouraged in other rated sections. A complete score sheet will be useful in resolving any problems that may arise during the game.

What Do I Do When the Game is Over?

When the game is completed, raise your hand and wait for the tournament director. Do not reset the pieces until the tournament director has verified and marked the result. Shake hands with your opponent and say “Good game!” Then reset the chess pieces, leave the playing hall and join your parents in the waiting area. Do not return to the playing hall until it is time for the next round.


What Section Should I Play in?

The NSCF configures the sections in its tournaments in a manner that evens the competition for all individuals. Following is a description of our sections and who should play there.


The United States Chess Federation is the official governing body of chess in the nation. Sometime after you have played in a tournament, the USCF will publish your new rating. This rating can be compared to that of all other US Chess players. As your rating rises, you may find yourself on the National Top 100 list for your age group! For more information about the USCF, visit

The NSCF rates all sections. To compete in a rated section, you must be a current member of the USCF. A section can not be rated unless all players in the section have memberships. Existing members may update their memberships online. If you have never been a member, you may join by paying a reduced fee to the NSCF. You may include payment when you register for a tournament by mail. If you register online, the fee may be added to your charges.

To understand what the term “USCF rating” means when used below, see “Which USCF rating is used in NSCF tournaments?” Bear in mind that you may not play in a section if your rating fails to meet the minimum or exceeds the ceiling for that section.


The Future Masters section is for accomplished young chess players, grades 12 or under, who have achieved a USCF rating of 1300 or higher. This is a very competitive section. If you are rated below 1300 and want to play in this section, you must meet one of the criteria listed at “May I play in a higher or lower section than my rating allows.”

If there are not enough players to fill this section (4 or more), players who have registered for this section will be moved into the Championship section to form a combined FM/Champ section.


The Championship section is for improving young chess players, grades 12 or under, who have achieved a USCF rating of 950 up to 1349. If you are rated below 950 and want to play in this section, you must meet one of the criteria listed at “May I play in a higher or lower section than my rating allows?”

Once your USCF rating goes above 1350, you must register to play in the Future Masters section.


This USCF rated section is primarily for students in grades 4 and up who have achieved a USCF rating of 500 up to 999. Most of the players in this section will be improving students in grades 4-6, but older and younger players who are in the 500-999 ratings bracket may also compete here.

Once your USCF rating goes above 999, you must play in the Championship section. See “Which USCF rating is used in NSCF tournaments?” and “May I play in a higher or lower section than my rating allows?”


This USCF rated section is intended to provide more reasonable competition for students in grades 4 and up who are unrated or have USCF ratings under 550. Once you acquire a USCF rating above 549, you must play in the Reserve section. See the “Which USCF rating is used in NSCF tournaments?” and “May I play in a higher or lower section than my rating allows?”


The Primary section is for experienced players in grades 3 or under. There is no ratings ceiling or floor for this section. It is open to all levels, rated or unrated, who are in this grade group. However, if you are unrated or rated under 500, we recommend the Primary Novice section.


The Primary Novice section is for players in grades 3 or under who are not rated or have not achieved a USCF rating higher than 500. If you are not currently a USCF member, you can join through the NSCF when you register. A reduced-rate membership is available – see below.

Players in this grade group with ratings above 500 should play in the USCF rated Primary section.


The USCF rated K-1 section is for all players from pre-K through first grade. If you are not currently a USCF member, you can join through the NSCF when you register. A reduced-rate membership is available – see below.

K-1 beginners should always register for this section – do not be intimidated by seemingly high K-1 ratings, as those ratings were primarily obtained in competition against other K-1 beginners.


As noted above, if you are registered in a rated section you must have an up-to-date USCF membership. The NSCF offers discounted pricing on scholastic membership that you can access from the registration page.

How Do the Pairings Work?

When a large number of players play four rounds of chess, a single player can only face a small fraction of the field. Tournament pairings are used to match up players in a way that allows a fair and balanced competition. The system used to do this is called the Swiss System. It determines whom you play and what color you get in each round.

In the first round, the field is arranged by ratings, top to bottom, and the top half is paired against the bottom half. If there is an odd number of players in a section, the player at the bottom will be asked to sit out the round, and will be given a full point “bye.”

In the next round, winners and losers are put in separate pools and paired top to bottom in each pool.

This continues in the subsequent rounds, with players of like scores paired against each other (sometimes scores may differ slightly). If you lose to a more experienced player in an early round, you should meet someone closer to your playing strength in the later rounds.

How Do Tiebreaks Work?

To see a description of various tiebreak methods, see this Wikipedia article. The tiebreak methods currently used by the NSCF, in order of priority, are Modified Median, Solkoff, Cumulative, Cumulative of Opposition. If two players are tied on the first tiebreak (Median), then the next tiebreak is applied (Solkoff). If still tied, move on to the third, and so on.

Here’s a sample section of a tournament result table showing tiebreaks:

SwissSys Standings. Columbus: Championship

#NameIDRtngTeamGrdRd 1Rd 2Rd 3Rd 4TotTBrk[M]TBrk[S]TBrk[C]TBrk[O]
1Spitzer,Jacob A128210381567QUAKE5L3W8W4W23.088.5620.5
3Segall,Ethan R129066441191CIDER4W1D5D6W73.
6Warren,Justin N127576511497FARRA8W7L2D3L41.569522.5

The column titles should be self-explanatory. “ID” is the USCF ID; “Rtng” is the USCF rating as it is shown in the most recent official supplement.

Some important notes follow:

  • In calculating the TBrk[M] (Modified Median) tiebreak, opponent’s scores are summed counting unplayed games as a half point only, with some scores dropped according to the following rules:
    • For players with positive scores (>2.0), the lowest opponent’s score is dropped.
    • For players with negative scores (<2.0), the highest opponent’s score is dropped.
    • For players with even scores (2.0), both the highest and lowest scores are dropped.
  • If an opponent has received a full-bye during the tournament (indicated by B— in the result table) , his score for that round is counted as a half-point when calculating TBrk[M] and TBrk[S]. Thus, in the above result table, player 1 is awarded only .5 points for the score of player 8 when TBrk[S] is calculated. This gives him a TBrk[S] total of 8.5, not 9. (TBrk[S], or Solkoff, is the sum of opponent’s scores with no scores dropped.)
  • For TBrk[C] (Cumulative), subtract a point if the player has had a full-point bye in any round.
  • Some people have been confused by the final tiebreak, TBrk[O] (Cumulative of Opposition). To find it, simply add the values in the TBrk[C] column for the opponents you have faced.
  • If two or more players are tied for first on all tiebreaks, the tournament director may arrange a speed playoff. If you are one of those players, and you have left the premises before the playoff can be arranged, you forfeit your right to the first place trophy.
  • When you view the USCF ratings report, please note that it orders players by post tournament rating for similar scores, while the NSCF awards trophies in tiebreak order as indicated in the Individual standings (see the NSCF results page). The USCF rating process does not retain the tiebreaks used to award trophies at the tournament; ratings are based on the player’s score and his opponent’s ratings, never on tiebreaks.
Why Did I Get Three Whites and One Black?

When pairing players, the computer program that does the pairings must balance various considerations. For example, equal scores are considered before equalization of colors. For this reason, a player will often find that he has been allocated more of one color than another. This is normal and should balance out over a number of tournaments. Please do not complain to the tournament director about this.

What the computer IS instructed to avoid, however, is three whites or blacks in a row for the same player. You should alert us of this if it happens and we will see if it can be remedied.

Why Was I Paired Against a Player on My Own Team?

As with the color imbalances, this is sometimes unavaoidable. In small sections or sections with many players on the same team, it may be necessary.

Which USCF Rating is Used in NSCF Tournaments?

To find your published USCF rating and expiration date:

(1) Go to the USCF member ratings page and enter your name or ID in the search field:

(2) Press Find to reveal the listing:

Your USCF ID, current published rating, and expiration date are revealed. This is the rating that appears in the Rating field of your entry form after you enter your ID.

(3) You may want to use a more current rating – your weekly rating. The NSCF allows the use of the weekly rating only to qualify for another (higher or lower) section. See May I play in a higher or lower section than my rating allows? (below)
To find the weekly rating, click on the Tournament History tab. This shows your post-tournament Tournaratings for all of your tournaments. Your latest result is listed at the top. Use the rating n bold under “Reg Rtg Before/After:”

May I Play in a Higher or Lower Section Than My Rating Allows?


The NSCF often receives requests from players who want to play in a section that requires a higher rating than the player has achieved. The following describes our policy in this regard. No exceptions will be granted; please do not contact the NSCF office or any NSCF instructor.


For the purpose of qualifying for a higher section, an official published rating (current month) will normally be used. You may instead use your weekly rating to move either up a section or down. If you do not know how to find these ratings, see Which USCF rating is used in NSCF tournaments? (above)

In addition, if you win the First Place trophy in the Championship section, you may play in the Future Masters section, one time only, without a qualifying rating. After the one-time shot, you can play there again only if your rating qualifies.


If there are an odd number of players in the Future Masters section, the TD retains the option to move the highest rated player in the Championship section to the Future Masters.


If you meet any of the required criteria listed above and you wish to play up or down, please make a request in the comment section of your registration form. Do not call or email the NSCF office.

Note: These options apply only at registration time. You can not switch your section once a tournament has started, whether you had prior knowledge of these regulations or not.