How to Calculate Cash Prizes

Experienced players can skip this post, but it might be helpful to newer players and to parents.

I would also encourage Organizers to keep in mind the following advice given to me by the late Mike Anders at the 2008 National High School Championship:

How do you split $100 three ways? Give each player $35 and thank them for coming!Associate National TD Mike Anders (1955-2013)

Important: US tournaments almost never apply tiebreaks for cash prizes, unlike with trophies! Every player’s points count the same.

Well, what are the prizes, anyway?

Guaranteed Prizes

Fully-guaranteed prizes are as advertized: they do not increase or decrease.

One possibility is to guarantee some of the prizes, say 1st and 2nd place, and calculate the rest based on entries, as we’ll see next.

The organizer could also guarantee a certain percentage of the prize fund, say, 70%. In that case he or she would be on the hook for at least 70% of each prize, assuming there is at least one player eligible to win it.

Based-on Prizes

It’s best to show an example. The Tournament Life Announcement (TLA) in Chess Life says:

$480 based on 32 entries

The event is unlikely to get exactly 32 entries, so the prizes will probably be higher or lower than advertised.

20 entries? Prize fund is $480 x (20 ÷ 32) = $300.

42 entries? Prize fund is $480 x (42 ÷ 32) = $630.

Each prize in the total prize fund is calculated the same way.

Now that we are sure what the actual prizes are, there are two magic words to prize calculation:

Add and Split

Let’s take the basic example of three prizes:

1st Place: $100

2nd Place: $50

3rd Place: $25

There is no issue if the top three places have different scores (for example, 4-0, 3½-½, and 3-1 in a four-round tournament). This seems to happen rarely, however!

Scenario 1
Player A and Player B both score 3½-½. Player C scores 3-1.

Players A and B do not both receive $100, and Player C $50! A player once got upset with me at the World Open when I explained that all players tying for 4th place do not get a full 4th place prize!

Players A and B share 1st and 2nd place equally: $100 + $50 = $150. $150 ÷ 2 = $75 each.

Player C receives $25.

Scenario 2
Player A scores 4-0. Players B, C, and D each score 3-1.

This time Player A receives $100. Players B, C, and D share the next three prizes, if they exist. There are only two prizes, so those two prizes are split three ways:

Players B, C, and D share 2nd and 3rd place equally: $50 + $25 = $75. $75 ÷ 3 = $25 each.

Class Prizes and Under Prizes

Open tournaments often feature additional prizes beyond “place” prizes. This is to give lower-rated players a chance to win something for their efforts as well.

Compare the following prizes:

Class A: $35

1800-1999: $35

Under 2000: $35

The first two prizes are synonymous, because Class A is defined as 1800-1999. A tournament ad could use either wording.

The third prize is not the same as the first two! It’s available to any rated player Under 2000, so a 1680 who has a good event can win this prize for himself or herself. If the Organizer wants to make unrated players eligible for this prize, it should read like this:

Under 2000/Unr: $35

Note: One cash prize per player. A player can only win the highest prize available to them, not multiple cash prizes. So if they go 4-0 they get 1st Place (using $100 as before), and someone else gets the Class or Under Prize.

It is possible to win a cash prize plus other prizes such as a trophy, plaque, qualification, or free tournament entries.

One Last Example


1st Place: $150

2nd Place: $100

3rd Place: $50

Under 1800: $50

Under 1600: $40

Final Standings:

Amy (2231): 4½

Bob (2174): 3½

Charlie (2071): 3

Diana (1993): 3

Edward (1770): 3

Frank (1692): 2½

Gabby (1575): 2½



How are the prizes calculated?



Amy gets 1st Place ($150), and Bob gets 2nd Place ($100).

Charlie and Diana are only eligible for 3rd Place, but Edward is eligible for 3rd Place and Under 1800. We figure out which prize is larger for Edward: either 3rd Place + Under 1800 divided by three players, or Under 1800 alone. Clearly, it’s the latter. Therefore:

Charlie and Diana share 3rd Place ($50) and receive $25 each.

Edward gets Under 1800 ($50).

Gabby gets Under 1600 ($40).

This is by no means an exhaustive treatment, but I hope it demystifies prize-giving for those new to tournament play! Good luck!

4 thoughts on “How to Calculate Cash Prizes

  1. Ron Young

    One time at the Marshall a player came upstairs to claim the third prize. I explained that third prize was not his, as three people had finished ahead of him. He thought that the two who were just ahead of him should split second prize, and he should take third. I tried to appeal to his sense of logic by pointing out that he would then be winning more more money than two who had outscored him. I guess this made some impression, because he then asked if he could just have his entry fee back.


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