Oregon scholastic chess is exploding in popularity. Last year there were over one hundred open tournaments in the state for kids to play in and an even greater number of club and local tournaments and league matches. Most of the tournaments have multiple playing sections, so very young novices and seasoned experts alike play opponents near their own skill level. Tournaments are held throughout the year, but the most active “chess season” is between the Oregon All-Stars Invitational in October and the OSCF State Championship in April. Most open scholastic tournaments in the state are listed on the NWSRS event calendar, and the Portland Chess Club frequently hosts tournaments for more serious players.
The two most common tournament formats are round-robin and Swiss. In a round-robin tournament, players are divided into groups of four to ten. Each player in each group plays against every other player. Typically, the groups are defined by players’ ratings, so that all players in a given group are as evenly matched as possible. The most common tournament round robin format is quads, where each playing group has just four players, but sixes are also quite common. The main advantages of the round-robin format are that: (i) the pairings are maximally balanced because there is no element of “luck of the draw,” (ii) the games are maximally competitive because players’ ratings are as closely matched as possible, and (iii) sections are small, so awards are numerous. Quads and sixes are especially attractive formats when time is limited or when there is wide disparity among player skill levels in a small tournament.
For larger tournaments, the Swiss pairing system is common. The general idea is that all players play every round. In theory, after winning a game, a player’s next game should be against a tougher opponent, and after losing, the next game should be easier. By the end of the tournament, everyone plays against an opponent who has the same score (approximately) and close to the same skill level.
The basic details of how the pairings work are not difficult.
Step 1: At the start of the tournament, list players in rating order.
Step 2: Cut and paste the bottom half and align it with the top half.
|Joe Shmoe||1250||———||Bani Friggle||822|
|Jane Glane||1147||———||Ermine Tog||678|
|Rob Blob||1011||———||Huffy Stable||594|
|Boogy Joom||961||———||Falgo Bumpus||562|
Voilá — the first round pairings! First round colors are assigned with colors alternating. For example, if Joe gets black, then Jane gets white, Rob gets black, and Boogy gets white. Minor adjustments may also be made to avoid pairing siblings or team members against each other.
Later rounds: After each round, players are divided into score groups. For example, after the first round, there may be three score groups: those who won the first game, those who lost, and those who drew. Pairings for each round are determined by repeating Steps 1 and 2 for each score group separately. Thus, if Joe Shmoe wins his first game, he’ll play against another winner from the first round, while his first-round opponent Bani will play against someone else who lost in round one.
Odd numbers: Pairings are determined in order from the top score group to the bottom. If there are an odd number of players in a score group, then the lowest-rated player in the group is paired against the highest-rated in the next score group.
If there are an odd number of players in a playing section, then the lowest-rated player gets a bye in the first round. In later rounds, the bye goes to the lowest-rated player in the lowest score group who has not yet received a bye.
Adjustments to pairings: There are a number of additional pairings rules that result in minor adjustments to the simple framework described above. The most common are:
- Opponents do not face each other more than once
- As much as possible, everyone plays the same number of games with white as with black
- No one plays the same color three times in a row
- Teammates and siblings do not have to play each other (at TD discretion — late in tournaments team blocks are often not employed)
In a large tournament, keeping track of all the adjustments can be difficult, so TDs commonly use special chess tournament organizing software (SwissSys) to automate the pairing and score keeping.
Time Controls and Clocks
At the end of a long, hard-fought tournament, there may be ties. There are several approaches to breaking ties to determine who gets which award.
No tie-breaks. Duplicate awards given.
This is perhaps the simplest, fairest way to break ties. It works well when prizes can be split easily (like cash), when prizes for different places are essentially the same (e.g., 12″ trophy with stickers to indicate place), or when prizes are inexpensive (e.g., ribbons). However, when larger trophies are awarded for players who place higher, some form of tie-break procedure is necessary.
The basic idea of tie-breaks is to determine which player among the equals had the strongest performance. If the tied players met in the tournament, then a reasonable tie-break is to give the award to the winner in the head-to-head matchup. However, the head-to-head tie-break often fails, so computer tie-breaks are commonly used at the outset.
Tie-break methods attempt to determine which of the equal-scoring players had the toughest pathway through the tournament, on the theory that of all players with a given score, the one with the hardest path to that score deserves to be first among equals. A first approximation to the answer is: “The player whose opponents scored the highest.” In Swiss-lingo, this is called Solkoff = sum of opponents’ final scores. For a given player, the Solkoff score is the sum of their opponent’s final scores at the end of the tournament.
If tied players have the same Solkoff scores, the next tie-break is commonly Cumulative scores. A player’s cumulative score is simply the sum of the running scores for each round. For example, if a player scores W, W, D in a three round tournament, the running scores for the three rounds would be 1, 2, 2.5 and the Cumulative score would be 1 + 2 + 2.5 = 5.5. Wins in early rounds are given more weight than wins in later rounds. The rationale is that by winning early, the player immediately jumps into a higher score group and presumably faces tougher opposition for the rest of the tournament.
If tied players have the same Solkoff and Cumulative scores, the next tie-break is Cumulative scores of opposition. Tougher opponents are presumed to earn higher cumulative scores, so the tied player with the highest cumulative score of opposition is deemed to have had the hardest pairings and thus the strongest performance.
Collectively, these three methods for calculating tiebreaks are known as the “SCO Tiebreaks.” They’re a standard default at many large scholastic tournaments, and they are generally more than enough to break any ties among players at such events. The program we use to pair rounds will automatically calculate these scores and use them to rank players in their final order.
Admittedly, tie-break methods s are somewhat arbitrary. A lot of TDs, players, and supporters find them unsatisfying. In the end, though, they’re easier to use than a saw, which is what you’d need to divide our tropies….!
To avoid the unworkability of splitting trophies in half and the arbitrariness of computer tie-breaks, many TDs turn to blitz playoffs to break ties. Tied players play a game or series of games of blitz to determine the winner. Blitz is essentially just regular chess played fast with a clock. Typically, players are given a total of five minutes to complete all their moves. The game may end with checkmate, but just as often it ends when one of the players runs out of time and loses.
With blitz the result is clear, it is decided over the board, and it makes for a dramatic finish to the tournament. However, there are some disadvantages as well:
- Tacking blitz games onto the end of a long, hard day can be exhausting (perhaps more for the parents than the kids)
- Blitz tiebreaks can significantly delay awards ceremonies
- In practice, blitz is quite different from chess at standard time controls, so it is awkward as a tiebreaker.
- The drama can be nerve-wracking for very young children, and tears are not uncommon in novice sections with blitz tiebreaks.