So your child knows the rules of chess and is confident enough to play in a competitive environment. Parents, you are probably wondering what to expect and how to prepare your child for his first tournament. First, children should understand that their primary aim is to play their best, not necessarily to win. The players who ultimately excel at chess are those that do not get too low after a defeat, or too high after a win. Parents should expect to console their children when they lose and encourage good sportsmanship regardless of the results.

In general, parents and coaches are required to stay out of the room where their children play their games (in a few tournaments, parents may be able to watch games from an observation area, but this is rare). Usually, parents (as well as coaches, relatives and siblings not otherwise playing) can wait for their players in what is known as the "Skittles" room. In larger tournaments, your school may have a room reserved for the chess coach to analyze games and for players to congregate; parents are welcome to wait in those rooms as well. Bring a book or something to pass the time; there will be a lot of waiting on your part and keeping yourself occupied will keep you from worrying about how your child is doing. Parents can support their children, especially younger ones, during a tournament by providing healthy snacks, arranging lunch, offering encouragement and consolation between rounds, and making sure younger children rest. Some parents can provide help analyzing games (or making sure their children go to their coaches to have their games analyzed).

The Tournament Director

You will probably see a tournament director (known as the "TD") and several volunteers in the playing area. The TD makes the pairings each round, announces the start of each round, and settles any sort of dispute that arises during a game. Children should understand that if they disagree with their opponent or have a question during the game, they should not argue with their opponent. Instead, they should raise their hand and ask the TDs to make a ruling. TDs often rule on claims of time forfeiture, draws and illegal moves. TDs have the authority to punish bad behavior or other rules violations by adding or subtracting time from a player, or by forfeiting a game.

Most TDs welcome questions from parents and are available to explain how the tournament works. However, children are not well served by having parents argue about pairings, game results or rulings with the tournament staff.

The Swiss System

Most chess tournaments are known as "Swiss System" events. This means that players are paired against others with similar scores. The pairing system is quite complicated and usually performed by a computer program, so this leaves the TD almost no room for discretion. Although experienced TDs will review the pairings for accuracy (even the best program has a few glitches), the TD never arbitrarily makes changes in the pairings the computer assigns.

The TD will post a sheet with pairings before each round. For the initial round, the Swiss System operates by ordering the players by rating, and pairing the top player with the player just under the halfway point. The second player is paired against the next player under the opponent of the top player, and so forth, such that the difference in rating of all players is roughly the same. Parents should find their child's name on the pairings sheet, note the board number where he or she will be playing and whether he or she will be playing black or white, and then escort their child into the playing area. Parents are usually welcome to help younger children set up their boards, clocks and notation sheets, but will be asked to leave prior to the beginning of each round.

The Point System and "Byes"

Sometimes, if there is an odd number of players in a section, the bottom player will not play a round. In such cases, the player will be awarded a “full-point bye,” meaning that the player receives a point, as if he or she won a game. A player receiving a full-point bye will see “Please Wait” written across from his name on the pairing sheet. No player receives more than one bye per tournament. Sometimes, the player receiving the bye will be paired against someone else, who either is not enrolled in the tournament or is enrolled in a different section that also has an odd number of players. In a rated tournament, the game will count for ratings, but the players both receive a point for the tournament.

Players earn one point for winning, a half point for drawing, and no points for losing a game. In each round after the first round, the players compete with others who have the same number of points. If there is an odd number of players in a score group, the lowest ranked player in the group is paired against the top available player in the next group down. Players never compete against the same opponent twice in a tournament, and efforts are made to alternate the color of the pieces the player uses each round. Nobody is eliminated in a Swiss System tournament. All players are expected to compete all of the way through the tournament.

If your child has to miss a particular round, he or she can request a “half-point bye.” This second type of bye awards a player the same score as a draw. In most tournaments, half-point byes must be requested before the player begins to play in the event and are not available for the final round. They are most often taken in the first round, when a player cannot get to the tournament by the time it begins.

If a player becomes ill during a tournament, he or she can withdraw. The withdrawing player will receive zero points for that round, and his or her opponent will receive a point by default (the game will not count toward ratings, however). In case of an emergency when a player cannot complete the tournament, a parent or coach must inform the tournament director that the player will not attend the next round. It is unfair to other players to leave without telling the director, as it means that at least one other player will not get to play a game (or the withdrawing player's opponent will have to sit and wait during the round for the requisite amount of time before declaring a win by forfeit). Of course, parents and coaches should discourage players who wish to withdraw merely because he or she is upset about losing games. Players who leave because they lose are missing some of the greatest benefits of the game. Learning to come back after a defeat is very important in much more than just chess.

The Award Ceremony

In most scholastic events, the top players will win some kind of award (usually a trophy, medal or money prize). In most tournaments, a pre-determined number of top prizes (usually trophies) are awarded at the end of the tournament in a casual "awards ceremony". Most often, there are ties between top players (e.g., two or more players won all their games). In such cases, a tiebreak system may be used to determine the rank of each player. The most common tiebreak system determines the strength of the players' competition by counting the number of points the opponents earned. (Ratings are irrelevant to tie-breaks.) This system, like every other, is not completely “fair,” but are used in almost all chess tournaments. Parents should encourage their children to stay for the awards ceremony even if they did not win an award, to support their schoolmates and friends.

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