Whether you were enthralled by Netflix's The Queen's Gambit or awed by 12-year-old Abhimanyu Mishra snatching the 'youngest-ever chess grandmaster' title from its previous title holder, Sergey Karjakin - or you were just bored during lockdown and craved a stimulating pastime... whatever the reason, you're now considering taking part in a chess tournament.

Good for you! We wish you luck and hope you'll let us know how you did.

Superprof wants to help you prepare for this momentous event, one that will either turn you into a total chess buff or turn you away from the game altogether. We sure hope that doesn't happen!

Let's lay out what you need to do so that you'll be ready for the challenge.

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Know The Rules

So here you are, all registered for your first chess tournament and itching to discover whether you'll deploy the Ruy Lopez or the Sicilian Defence first. Or, if you got into chess because Beth Harmon's saga made the game so compelling, you might open with the Queen's Gambit...

Did you know that that series spurred a renewed interest in chess the likes of which hadn't been seen since Bobby Fischer beat Boris Spassky nearly 50 years ago?

Kasparov made sure that all of the chess elements in The Queen's Gambit were authentic
Did you know that chess great Garry Kasparov consulted on The Queen's Gambit? Photo credit: Orest U on Visualhunt.com

While the show was spot-on in its knowledge of chess, it didn't really serve well to educate about chess, especially not the rules the players must abide by, such as the touch rule or more obscure rules, like having to use the same hand to move chess pieces as you do to activate the chess clock.

For instance, if you're playing White and use your left hand to move your queenside knight or rook, you must also use your left hand to stop the clock even if you have to reach across your body to do so. Naturally, that's provided the table is set up with the chess clock on White's right side. We'll talk more about how things are set up in a bit, though.

Other chess tournament rules you should know about include:

  • noting every one of your moves and those of your opponent on the score sheet
    • if you are not yet familiar with chess notation, you should learn it before your tournament
  • no interruptions or distractions; avoid bathroom breaks during games if you can
  • never use your phone while engaged in a chess game
    • it might be best to switch your phone off during the tournament
  • never solicit or accept help or guidance from anyone while you play - not from your chess coach, other chess players or casual observers
    • you can ask a tournament director to clarify a rule, though
  • you mustn't let the clock run to zero; doing so will cause you to forfeit the game
  • record the match's outcome - win, lose or draw.

We saved the most important rule for last: the touch-move rule means that, if you touch a piece, you have to move it.

As you ponder your next move, you might be tempted to let your fingertips rest on the bishop's balled head or the queen's crown. That's not terrible if you do, in fact, move the piece you're touching. However, if, after some consideration, you decide to not move the touched piece after all, you will be penalised.

The touch-move rule holds even if you're touching one of your opponent's pieces.

If a capture is imminent, many tournament chess players will remove the soon-to-be-captured piece from the board and then move their piece to the square the captured piece occupied. Here, again, we paint the scenario wherein a player ponders their move while their fingers rest on a piece and, in the end, decide on a more prudent course of action.

The bottom line is: don't touch any chess piece, yours or theirs, unless you intend to move it.

There is one exception to that mandate. Should you find that a piece is not quite properly in its square, you may say 'Adjusting' and then carry out the adjustment. Remember that you must say that word for each piece you move.

There are hundreds of rules that govern the game of chess but only a few are critical. Once you've got them down pat, you can focus on enjoying the game.

Always follow the touch-move rule in tournament games
The touch-move rule is the most important rule to obey in tournament chess. Photo credit: quisnovus on Visualhunt

Study the Customs

Chess isn't called the game of kings for nothing. Besides the many rules that govern gameplay, there are several points of etiquette every tournament chess player should know and exercise.

Shaking hands is a common tournament custom; here's how to uphold it.

At the start of the tournament, you will receive your first pairing, along with which board you will play and which colour, White or Black. As soon as the pairings are posted, make your way to your assigned table and make sure everything is properly set up. You may greet your opponent but you cannot start playing until the tournament official says so.

That's when you shake your opponent's hand and, if you're playing Black, hit the clock.

Of course, in these post-COVID times, handshakes may be out of the question; perhaps the tournament director will propose a fist-bump or other formal acknowledgement, instead. At game's end, be sure to acknowledge your opponent again.

Remember that keeping distractions to a minimum is a rule while you play but it is a courtesy you should extend to other players if you're not playing during a round. Snacking, talking on the phone or doing anything to break players' focus is not just poor form, it could actually cost you points.

Did your chess coach ever tell you to play to the bitter end?

Many coaches teach their players to play the game out, presumably because you can't checkmate your opponent after you resign the game. While that statement is true, it's nonsensical to push on to the bitter end when the game's outcome is already clear. Besides, it's just bad form to waste your opponent's time playing out a foregone conclusion.

Calling your loss is good form, especially when it's obvious you will have no chance for a recovery. Likewise, when it seems neither you nor your opponent will be able to checkmate, offering a draw is the proper thing to do. Just be sure to not offer it too early and, if your opponent offers you a draw, once you arrive at the same conclusion, accept it.

All major chess tournaments in the UK have their own rules of etiquette so, if you've entered a tournament in a different chess club from the one you belong to, it would be best to study up on the host club's rules and customs.

Prepare Your Kit

This tidbit likely doesn't come as a bombshell: not all chess clubs have full treasury vaults; most operate on razor-thin financial margins. Sure, hosting tournaments helps boost the bottom line but consider that they have to pay out prize money and/or buy trophies, too.

So, when you enter a tournament, don't be surprised to find that players are asked to bring their chess sets, chess clocks and notepads. Don't forget a generous supply of pencils!

Even if the tournament organisers don't ask participants to bring everything, you should make it a habit to do so anyway, on the off-chance that more participants turn up than there are chess sets available for play.

Besides, having your chess set handy lets you get a sideline game up while you're waiting for your next pairing. Those are called skittles games, just FYI.

If you don't want to play any skittles games, you can recreate the game you just finished so you can study what went well and what could have gone better. That's another reason to record every move you and your opponent make.

You might consider investing in a chess bag to keep all of your tournament gear together and in one place, especially if you plan on making chess a staple of your leisure time. As for chess clocks: these days, digital models are standard in tournaments but no worries if you have an analogue clock.

Or if you have no clock at all. Your opponent will likely have one; if not, the tournament organisers might have one to spare.

Also, discover when and where the best UK chess tournaments are...

If you want to enter rated tournaments, you have to join a chess federation
Joining a chess federation will allow you entry to every rated tournament. Photo credit: Avital Pinnick on Visualhunt

Should You Join A Chess Federation?

As you register for your first chess tournament, you will likely be asked what chess federation you belong to. No need to worry about that question; as this is your first tournament, you might not belong to any federation.

Whether you should join one or not depends on whether chess will be more than a passing fancy.

If you intend to pursue chess at any level, meaning you intend to play in more tournaments, maybe even strive toward earning titles, you should definitely affiliate yourself with a chess federation.

One reason to do so is that you must be a member of the federation that will rate the tournament. For instance, many of the best UK chess tournaments are ECF-rated, meaning that the English Chess Federation will be apprised of the tournament's outcomes and assign or adjust the Elo-ratings for all of the participants.

However, there is no mandate to join any chess federation. If you intend to become a member of your local chess club just to have a place to play chess and natter with like-minded chess enthusiasts, that's perfectly fine. There are plenty of Open tournaments you can enter as an unrated player if you want to play in more tournaments.

But why not join the federation anyway? Doing so provides more than a few benefits. You might get a discount on chess equipment and books; you may even enjoy discounted magazine subscriptions. And the best reason: you can enter more chess tournaments.

You may even get a discount on the cost of entering chess tournaments...

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Sophia

A vagabond traveler whose first love is the written word, I advocate for continuous learning, cycling, and the joy only a beloved pet can bring. There is plenty else I am passionate about, but those three should do it, for now.