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Chess Tournament Scheduling 101

By Laura Doman


What does it take to roll out a schedule of a dozen or more chess tournaments a year?  Figure that approximately half are for kids and half are for adults, with some that appeal to both.  Consider that some tournaments will focus on a specific demographic that may attract only a few dozen players,   while others will hold wide appeal and draw in hundreds or even more than a thousand competitors.  Now consider your overall budget and resources and determine if your prize funds will contain cash, trophies, or other sources of recognition.

So what does it take to do all that in a few months?  Dedicated volunteers and a lot of time!  This is the annual planning that the Georgia Chess Association (GCA) Scholastic and Open committees undertake every summer to prepare for the next school calendar’s (September – May) mix of events.  The GCA has just about finalized eight Scholastic and five Open tournaments for the 2015-16 season, with a few of the later events still holding tentative dates and venues.  There can be as many moving pieces to this process as there are those on a chessboard, but eventually everything falls into place.

Senior Tournament Director, GCA board member, and chess coach Ben Johnson starts with the basics: successful organization requires that the tournament coordinator clearly knows the answers to the “who, what, when, where, and how much” planning questions.

Who is the audience for the event?  Tournaments can be for adults, children, rated or unrated players – or a combination of all the above.  Ben notes that “Most players want to play against competition that is well matched to their ability. They want to know that there is a chance of winning at least some of the games played and that there will be hard fought battles that – win or lose – are exciting, challenging, and providing opportunities for learning and growth. Setting the tournament sections up so that participants can find a section where they want to compete helps increase turnout and satisfaction with the experience.”

It’s important to know what type of tournament will appeal to potential players. Decisions have to be made on the number of rounds, time control, and the number of days to play. Scholastic tournaments are usually four or five rounds at a fairly fast time control, such as Game/30, and held on one day. Open tournaments usually have much longer time controls and are played over a two or three day period. Blitz events can be played in a single evening with many fast games played in the course of only a few hours.

Scheduling a Scholastic tournament needs to take into account school and holiday calendars, which often differ across school systems. Since school systems do not coordinate their calendars, it can be challenging to find dates that do not fall on a break when many families may be traveling.  Planning an Open tournament requires awareness of other chess events that may already be in place on or near the date that is being considered. Events held simultaneously or too close together may end up competing for the same target audience, with the result of each being hurt by drawing fewer players than expected.

The venue is an important part of the equation. In fact, finding a venue that is the right size to hold the anticipated attendance at a price that fits within the organizer’s budget is the most difficult part of planning a tournament.  Ben says that “Unlike the movie mantra of Field of Dreams, ‘if we build it, they will come’ is not a good philosophy for venue selection. Having just slightly less participants than venue capacity is optimal, but it requires a little crystal ball gazing!”

Given the above, the tournament organizer still has to determine how much each participant will be charged and how much will be paid out in prize money (or in trophy expense). Entry fees should be in line with other events that people could participate in and trophies, prize money, stipends, and honorariums should be calculated and added to other costs to determine a pro-forma budget for the event. Most organizers are looking to at least break even. While expending the time and energy organizing a chess tournament has many intangible rewards, very few organizers have deep enough pockets to regularly lose money on the events they host.

Tricia Hill, Co-Chair of the Scholastics committee and the Coordinator for many of this year’s upcoming Scholastic tournaments, offers an insider’s look at what it takes to manage a tournament well:

“When a chess tournament runs well, it looks easy. And when things go wrong, EVERYONE is upset. My personal goal of each tournament is that everyone walks away thinking that it was a good way to spend the day. That usually means that the tournament runs on time, the location is easy to access, there is free WiFi, food is readily accessible (and not too expensive), and parents and kids have the necessary space between rounds to enjoy themselves (nice days with fields or outside areas to play are best!). Did I mention that free WiFi is really important?

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Tricia Hill will be the Coordinator for the Quick Start, Grade Levels, Invitational, and Qualifier tournaments for the 2015-2016 year. When not running a tournament, she can be found here in her “office” working on other chess-related items.

“We typically begin scouting locations 8-10 months in advance of a tournament. We take up a lot of space. If we run a 500 player tournament, that means we have to have tournament hall space that will hold 500 players and a Skittles area that will hold over 1,000 people (those 500 players, plus parents and siblings). That’s a lot of space.

“Finding a venue is probably the toughest and most time-consuming of all the tasks. Simply finding venues that are affordable is difficult, much less venues that are easy to access, are available for the day we need them, are willing to let us come in the night before to set up, and have the resources available for all the people (I mentioned the WiFi, right?). For this year’s Grade Levels tournament, we toured and met with the Event Managers for eight locations from Stone Mountain to downtown Atlanta before finding that ninth one that finally met all our needs.

“As a coordinator, I am able to manage nearly 100% of the pre-tournament to-do’s: printing result slips for each round, creating new signs, making volunteer badges, purchasing volunteer food, setting up the chess boards in the tournament hall, labeling the boards with numbers, ordering trophies, setting up the trophy display in the tournament hall, loading and unloading all chess supplies from our storage area to the tournament location, putting up signs, ensuring our GCA materials are printed and available at Chess Control, working with the volunteers to assign them positions and provide information for their day-of duties, and coordinating efforts with any additional things that are occurring during that day (e.g. a simul for the kids, Chess Kid coming in for free game analyses, a charity project). The day of the tournament typically finds me answering a lot of questions from parents, directing players to the tournament hall or helping them find their boards, putting up paper pairings, and ensuring the tournament runs on time.

“But, from my Coordinator perspective, the true tournament heroes are the people you probably never see: the ones running the computer system for the entire tournament (i.e. “Informatics”). They enter the results, review the results, pair the rounds, withdraw players, change bye requests, post the pairings online, and print the paper pairings for each round (and the standings after the third round). Results need to be turned around in 15 minutes (while I pace nervously next to them). Accuracy matters. Results are checked and double checked. New pairings are reviewed to ensure they look correct. As soon as the pairings are posted online, parents check the pairings and kids begin to scurry off in all directions trying to get to their boards. For those not checking online, I post paper pairings (and generally get quite mobbed while doing so!).

“It takes a village to run a chess tournament! For a 500 player chess tournament, there are typically over 20 volunteers (chess control, scorekeepers, and assistants to help parents and players with information or to help K-1 kids), 3-4 Informatics people, 15-18 TD’s (Tournament Director’s – the ones in the Tournament Hall who wear the red vests), a Coordinator, and, if we are fortunate, an Assistant Coordinator or Office Manager that helps with day of printing and getting volunteers checked in and at their assigned position.

“Personally, I really enjoy it. I like seeing the event unfold from start to finish and it’s especially awesome when everything goes well. When it doesn’t, the scholastic committee regroups and discusses what went wrong and how we can avoid those issues in the future. We strive to constantly improve to make the day an enjoyable one for both kids and parents.”

So what’s on the calendar for both Scholastic and Open players?  While we will gladly post other chess organization’s events (just send us an email with the details!), here is the list of upcoming GCA tournaments. Please note that the events with tentative dates or venues are marked with an asterisk.  Details will be posted on the GCA online calendar (  as they are made available.


Scholastic Tournaments

October 17, 2015              Two unrated QuickStart tournaments  for beginning players, one in Atlanta and the other in Douglasville.

November 14, 2015         High School Grade Level — kids compete within their own school grades for the championship. Winners in each grade receive a stipend to compete in the National Grade Level tournament. (Stipend is good only for that tournament.)

November 15, 2015         K-8 Grade Level – kids compete within their own school grades for the championship. Winners in each grade receive a stipend to compete in the National Grade Level tournament.  (Stipend is good only for that tournament.)


January 9-10, 2016           Georgia State Scholastic Invitational Championship – top Scholastic players are invited to participated based on their USCF ratings. Champion K-8, high school, and female players are nominated and receive stipends to compete, respectively, in the national Barber, Denker, and NGIT tournaments held in summer 2016 as part of the US Open.


January 18, 2016               MLK tournament – includes a service project that the kids can choose to participate in between rounds to honor the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.


February 6, 2016               Metro Atlanta K-8 Team State Qualifier* – school team competition.  The top teams are invited to compete in March for the state championship.


March 19, 2016                  Georgia K-8 Team State Championship*– top Metro Atlanta teams are joined by school teams outside of Atlanta to compete for state championship titles.


March 19, 2016                  Georgia High School Team Championship*


Open Tournaments

September 12, 2015          2015 Georgia Women’s Open


September 26-27, 2015   12th Annual Georgia Senior Open


October 9-11, 2015            2015 Georgia Open


November 20-22, 2015  2015 Georgia Class Championship


Spring 2016                         2016 Georgia State Championship*


*=tentatively scheduled dates


If you are interested in learning how to become a tournament coordinator, watch this space! GCA president Fun Fong is working on an upcoming seminar for aspiring tournament organizers. Announcements will be posted on the GCA homepage (, but if you’d like to be among the first to know, please email Fun at


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