Getting Started In Chess: Part 8 – Chess Tournament Format

What is a tournament format? Great question! I’m going to cover the three most popular tournament formats you may encounter. The format defines the process used to determine how players are selected to play each other.  Chess tournaments use these formats to identify the players who played the best at a tournament. Every sport or competitive event has to have some process of determining a champion.

I referenced that there are three popular formats, and that is true, but in amateur competition one of them is used the majority of the time, and by majority I mean 99% of the time. As a matter of fact I can’t remember ever playing in a tournament that used the first two formats I’m going to review first.

I’m taking these format descriptions from wikipedia because quite honestly they are pretty good, but at the end of each format overview I provide my insight into each format.


In round-robin tournaments, each participant plays every other participant an equal number of times.[26] Round-robin tournaments involving four participants are known as “quads” or “foursome”. Round-robin tournaments are often used for small groups because the element of luck is reduced when every player plays everyone else.[27] Rating categories are sometimes used to separate players of different levels into different round-robin groups. The World Chess Federation, the Australian Chess Federation, and the United States Chess Federation all use different categorization scales to distinguish player ability.[28] Similar to the Round-robin style is the Scheveningen system. The Scheveningen system is often used to face two chess teams against each other, where each player on one team plays each player on the other team.[21][29]

Pros: You play everyone else in the tournament so you can’t really complain about being paired unfairly or blame “bad” luck for who you were paired with. I always thought this format would be fun and allow for a little preparation because you know at the start of the tournament who you will be playing.

Cons: This format doesn’t scale. It only works for tournaments that don’t have many participants. This is why it’s mainly only used for professional tournaments where the participants number under 20 players. Even with a small number of players these tournaments can last two weeks or longer depending on the time control. Not really practical for amateur tournaments that are played over a weekend.


A 16-player single-elimination tournament bracket

Single-elimination style or knock-out style are also sometimes used for chess tournaments. In fact, the first international chess tournament was held in single-elimination style.[32] In single-elimination tournaments, the loser of a game is immediately eliminated from winning the first prize.[33][34] In most single-elimination chess tournaments there is a chance for players to compete for positions other than first. Players are normally given seeds based on their rating in order to prevent the highest ranked players from facing each other early in the competition. Double-elimination tournaments work in the same way as single-elimination tournaments except that a player loses eligibility to take first prize after two losses.[35]

Since chess inherently has the first move advantage for white, to ensure fairness, the players have to face each other in equally number of white and black games. For example, in Chess World Cup, players face off each other in two classical games, except the final with 4 games. Resolving ties is absolutely crucial in this format, with the modern rule is generally of following:

1. The players play a number of rapid games (2 or 4) until ties are broken.

2. If the players are tied, they keep playing pairs of blitz games until ties are broken, or after a number of times (usually 1 or 2 pairs, although it could be up to 5 pairs).

3. If the players are still tied, a single deciding game (Armageddon) will be used, with Black receiving draw odds (draw count as a win) in exchange for White having time advantage (typically 5 vs 4 minutes).

Pros: Talk about pressure! In theory I really like this format. How a player deals with pressure is a dynamic of the game that isn’t usually appreciated and this kicks that up to an 11 on a 10 point scale. One of my favorite aspects of this format is the simplicity of it. You lose and you’re out.

Cons: It would suck to book a hotel and travel to a tournament just to have it be over in the first round. I believe attendance at tournaments would drastically decline if this format became the norm.

Now we will see the most popular and best format used in amateur tournaments.

Swiss system

A tournament that has too many participants for a round-robin format is commonly conducted as a Swiss-system tournament.[30] In the Swiss style, players are paired with opponents who have done equally well.[31] For example, players with six points will play other players with six points (if possible), so that the player with the most points at the end of the tournament is the winner.[31] Pairing players for Swiss system tournaments is often quite complicated due to some nontrivial constraints:

  • Players don’t face the same opponent more than once.
  • Players often don’t play with the same color more than twice, and in the end, the difference between the number of white and black games should be no more than one.
  • Players of the same federation cannot be paired in the last round to avoid match fixing, or for political situations, players of certain federations cannot face each other.

Nowadays, tournament organizers commonly use a chess tournament software to pair players, such as Swiss manager.

Due to the high percentage of draws and the small granularity of the scoring system which is entirely based on the final results, it is relatively common for players to have the same score as the tournament finishes. Although it is often not an issue, as the tied players often split the prize equally, in case of necessary (for trophy, qualifications to other tournaments, etc.), there are a few ways to achieve tiebreak, such as (listed in no particular order here):

  • Sonneborn–Berger score
  • Rating performance
  • Number of wins, number of black wins, etc.
  • Tiebreak games, often involving the players playing a series of games with increasingly faster time control until one player scores higher point (explained in more details in Elimination section)

In case of more than two players tie, a combination of above the tiebreak rules apply to resolve the tie.

Pros: This is pretty much the only format I’ve ever played so its no surprise that it is also my favorite. The thing I love about this is that you have a chance to redeem yourself if you stumble early. For example, if you lose your first game, but manage to finish strong by winning your remaining games its likely you will finish the tournament ranked very high. This format is also fantastic at fairly deciding a champion for a large number of players with relatively few games/rounds in a tournament so it scales very well. Most weekend tournament’s can easily determine a champion between 60 players with only 5 rounds of play! 

Cons: This format almost requires a computer to implement correctly. The algorithm that is used to pair players, especially in the middle rounds, can be quite complicated. It sometimes feels like a coin was flipped to determine your next opponent which usually means some GM wannabe is going to complain about having to play with black twice in a row. Because opponent selection requires that all the games in a section be completed before pairings are determined you usually don’t know who you are playing or the color of your pieces until minutes before the game starts. (This might actually be a pro.) This system is also the main reason a round gets started late. As I stated earlier, the tournament director has to wait until all the games have completed before pairing everyone and inevitably every round has a game that just won’t end. This delay in generating the pairings is exasperated by players dropping out of the tournament between rounds. If someone withdraws from the tournament after pairings are made the entire round must be repaired.

Thank you for reading to the end. I hope your day is blessed and your chess games sharp!

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