The Swiss-System Chess Tournament

What is a Swiss-System Chess Tournament?

The Swiss-system is the method of pairing players together in a chess tournament. It’s used for most events and can accomodate hundreds of players if necessary. In the United States, think of the World Open, or Nationals. Internationally, think of Gibraltar or Biel.

In a round-robin event everyone plays each other, so a 10-player event would require 9 rounds. The most basic type of round-robin tournament is the quad.

A Swiss-system tournament could have 200 (or more) players in the same 9 rounds! The more complicated part is figuring out who plays who in each round.

Sections

There can be one section, or many sections to accomodate players of different ages or rating levels. Scholastic tournaments with three, four…even eight or more sections is common.

Every tournament has different criteria for a section. Rating-based sections might be as follows:

Open; Under 2000; Under 1600; Under 1200; Unrated

“Open” means open to all. A grandmaster could enter this section, and so could a new player without a rating. Typically, the players in this section will include everyone rated too high for the lower sections, plus lower-rated competitors who “play up.”

[Note: a section name like “Master,” “Premier,” or “International” typically means that only players rated 2000+ or 2200+ can play in it.]

The “Under” sections are open to anyone with a rating below the number given.

The “Unrated” section is open to players without an established rating (26 or more rated games).

Scholastic events often have names like “Novice,” “Primary,” “Reserve,” and “Championship.” The grade/rating requirements for these sections are varies from tournament to tournament, so read the descriptions carefully and talk to your child’s teacher or coach!

Pairings

I’m going to briefly explain “how the sausage is made.” Feel free to skip this part!

SwissSys.com screenshot

Homepage for Swiss-Sys tournament software, which I have used since 2003.

First, each section is independent from any other sections.

Within each section, the director sorts all the entries from highest-rated to lowest-rated.

The top half plays against the bottom half. So if a section has 20 players, the top half (by rating) is players 1-10 and the bottom half players 11-20. #1 plays #11, #2 plays #12 … #10 plays #20.

We randomly choose a color for player #1. All the odd numbered players get that color, while all the even numbered players get the opposite color.

Pretend Player 1 got white in Round 1. After the first round, suppose our results are like this (each player listed first had white):

White PlayerBlack PlayerResult
1111-0
1220-1
313½-½
1440-1
5151-0
1661-0
7171-0
188½-½
9191-0
20100-1

Here are our standings after Round 1:

PlacePlayerR1 Color and OpponentTotal Score
1-81W111
1-82B121
1-84B141
1-85W151
1-87W171
1-89W191
1-810B201
9-1216W61
9-123W13½
9-128B18½
9-1213B3½
13-2018W8½
13-206B160
13-2011B10
13-2012W20
13-2014W40
13-2015B50
13-2017B70
13-2019B90
13-2020W100

In Round 2, and all future rounds, we sort the 20 players first by score, then by rating. Within the 1-point group we again pair top half vs. bottom half as in Round 1, and do the same for the other score groups (½ and 0 point players). The result of this is that by the later rounds, similar scoring players will face each other, including the top contenders.

Swiss-system pairings try to answer the question “Who is the best player in this tournament?” without having everyone play each other.

Making correct pairings is usually messy. We need to avoid rematches, balance out colors, and alternate colors. So a player with white in one round would normally get black in the next round.

All of this makes pairing complicated, which is why it’s typically done by computer pairing programs nowadays. Still, a good tournament director will be able to explain a particular pairing to a player.

Pros and Cons of the Swiss-System Chess Tournament

Looking at our Round 1 pairings, you can already see the biggest problem with Swiss tournaments: lots of mismatches!

Early rounds of Swiss events tend to be non-competitive. I’ve directed plenty of tournaments where the higher-rated player wins every single game in the first round. Round 2 can be similar, and only by Round 3 do we see more balanced matchups.

Another problem for those seeking prizes (money, trophies, or otherwise) is that in a lot of Swiss tournaments, most players will not get a prize even if they have a good tournament. 3½ points out of 5 is probably not enough. Even 3 points out of 4 may not be enough.

On the plus side, a lower-rated player can gain lots of rating points with a couple of upsets. Young players who study hard can make a lot of hay playing in these events.

Of course, the biggest benefit is the large number of players who can fit into a Swiss-system chess tournament. With Swisses, the only limitation an organizer has for entries is the space of their venue.

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