Should I Withdraw from the Tournament?

The “¡No Más!” Tournament Withdrawal

I’m not talking about an early tournament withdrawal because of another commitment, or because you’re feeling legitimately ill. I’m also not talking about scheduling a last-round bye in advance. Let’s exclude withdrawing in order to return as a re-entry, too.

I’m talking about those cases where you could continue, but don’t want to — usually, because you’re having a bad performance and want to “stop the bleeding.”

Don’t worry, I won’t judge you. I’ve made this kind of quick escape more often than I can count. Plenty of my tournaments at the Marshall Chess Club have ended with this sequence:

  • I have a hopelessly lost position…
  • Repeatedly shake my head, make faces to no one in particular, and finally stop my clock…
  • I quickly shake my opponent’s hand and reset the pieces before others see the carnage…
  • Run to the pairing sheet…
  • Mark the win for my opponent…
  • Write OUT next to my name and circle it…
  • Race out the door without saying a word to anyone.
Tournament withdrawal is faster downstairs!
Running out the door is faster from the downstairs tournament room. Photo: Marshall Chess Club

This way no one has to see me explode or make an @$$ of myself. I do that in private…

Hypocrisy? Fake Encouragement?

Yes, I realize this “procedure” goes against my recommendation to do a post-mortem analysis with your opponent…but do as I say, not as I do, OK? Anyway, I said that step is optional!

I don’t condemn the “bruised ego tournament withdrawal” because I know it’s not easy to play your best with a sub-optimal state of mind. In fact, I don’t try to cajole my students into carrying on if they really don’t want to. That could do more harm than good.

There’s always another tournament. We can recharge and come back stronger next time.

Some parents and coaches won’t agree with my stance and will counter with platitudes like “never give up,” or “quitters never win.” My dad once threatened to never register me for a tournament again in my early years when I suggested withdrawing after a poor performance. I had to play, but didn’t learn some deep life lesson — I was just annoyed and lost badly.

Anger and disappointment can be powerful motivators. The same cannot be said of despair.

Author: Andre Harding

Since 2003 I've taught chess to thousands of students in public, private, and charter schools in the New York City area, and have given countless private lessons. I also direct USCF- and FIDE-rated chess tournaments.

6 thoughts on “Should I Withdraw from the Tournament?”

  1. It’s understood that we’re not talking here about round-robins, which constitute a rather small % of the tournament experience of most of us.

    As a director, I just wanted to know before I’d made the pairings, and certainly before I’d posted them. Whether you’re creating an odd or an even number of players for the next round would be a high-level altruistic consideration, but I don’t think players should sweat that one, because you never know; there could always be a last-minute or after-the-last minute withdrawal, or something else you don’t know about. I also felt that after a second upset loss, a player ought to withdraw, because he is not likely to get a competitive pairing while if he loses yet again, eyebrows might rise.

    There was just one time where I can remember proactively asking a player if he planned to withdraw. GM Vladimir Epishin had lost in the penultimate round of a swiss, taking him out of prize contention. He was still at the board for the post-mortem as time for the next round approached, so I asked and he seemed indignant as he answered no. I guess he had a different sort of upbringing.

    There was a promising junior player of that same approximate period who very seldom completed a weekend swiss tournament. Either he’d start off well and get out to protect his rating gain, or he’d start badly and get out to cut his losses. I didn’t understand this approach, but it appeared to be a parental decision.

    1. Oh yes, I’ve definitely seen my share of juniors withdrawing (or withdrawn by parents) to protect their rating. I decided to avoid that can of worms, but I was tempted to touch on it!

  2. Kudos for voicing an honest, unhedged, personal opinion that you probably know will be controversial.

    For my part, I fall in with those (probably a majority of competitive chess players and coaches who serve competitive players) who hold the 180-degree opposite view. I think withdrawal as a means of self-medication is unequivocally bad for any serious player’s chess development (regardless of age… though my gut tells me that the younger the player, the greater the damage). The impact on non-chess development — i.e., emotional health and growth — is harder for me to judge with any confidence… although there, too, I suspect that if a player is that hypersensitive to disappointment from competition, then his or her emotional development would be best served by sticking solely to less-competitive chess activities, like friendly games among friends, puzzle-solving (or, for the more talented and/or better educated, problem composing), watching only, or reading (or writing) chess books or articles.

    Any strong player will tell you that the ability to pick oneself back up and fight again quickly after a disappointment is the single personal quality most necessary for success at the chessboard. Of course, as a coach I’m sure you have read the interviews where Karpov, Kasparov and other champions said exactly that. (And it is no less essential for success at other challenging activities.)

    I can understand that my viewpoint might be a poor fit for many players, and many students — both children and adults. That’s no shame for them. But it is a shame, I think, for a coach who continues to collect fees from permitting, even encouraging, those individuals to compete in chess tournaments, which runs counter to his fiduciary duty to his clients (to safeguard their mental health, and avoid wasting their time and money).

  3. Obviously adults should make their own decisions. As a parent of a strong chess player, however, I am against the “rage quit.” But you have to know your kid.

    Last year, my son, 9, was at Marshall, U1700. His last time there, in U1600, he won all 4 games and over $200. He had improved a lot and was feeling it.

    First round: he earned a victory against his highest rated opponent ever, 200 points higher. I’m thinking will this kid ever lose?

    Second round: he’s up a pawn in the middlegame against another higher rated opponent. He can’t really see a way forward, though. He loses his advantage. Ends up in a drawn endgame, but turns down a draw, because he’s frustrated to have squandered his advantage. Also his opponent is down under a minute, though the delay will keep him alive pretty easily. My son, who still had 15 minutes, tries to play fast to pressure his opponent and blunders his rook, losing. He’s absolutely crushed and wants to quit. I say no.

    Unfortunately the next round started very shortly, so there wasn’t any buffer time, and he played impetuously, losing in 20 moves to a younger player 300 points lower rated. He really wanted to quit now! I say, first, let’s forget that ever happened. It doesn’t count. Let’s go take a walk.

    This time we have at least an hour until the next game. We start walking south and I’m thinking maybe a slice or an ice cream and chill, which I offer a couple of times and he turns down. We don’t talk about chess. But when we get near Chess Forum and I ask if he wants to check in; we hang out a little but he doesn’t want to play (he loves blitz and we used to go there a lot). We head to the park and there is Rahim, well known as chess coach to kids in the Village. They play a couple of games and joke around a bunch. Mood changed. How about we go back and see if the last round is on?

    We return and my son is paired with a similar age player who is about 75 points higher than him. He plays flawlessly with white and wins.

    Personally I think this is one of the most useful days of chess he ever had.

    You have to know your kid–if I didn’t think he could handle it I wouldn’t have forced him back out. He’s wanted to quit a dozen times at least. A few times we have preplanned early departures for other engagements, but I let him actually quit just once. That day he really didn’t want to go in the first place but I made him because that was what we planned, and I had been in contact with the TD over a mix up with his ID, and having required extra work of the organizer, I felt obligated to show. He took two losses in games that went the max time so he wasn’t going to have time for lunch, and wanted to quit, so he withdrew and I took him to lunch. Funny thing is after lunch I said Max Dlugy’s shop is two blocks from here, want to check it out? They were having drop ins and he played all afternoon. I had to drag him out to get home for dinner.

    My son has had a lot of success at chess. That’s what feels normal to him and he takes losses hard. He won his first tournament (unrated) and placed 4th and 2nd in his first two rated tournaments, and then won Chess in the Park U900 a few months later. That success has distorted his perception. I recently asked him what he thought his record was and he said even. He’s actually plus 30 in 169 games.

    Hence, dealing with losing is a really big deal for him as a life skill. I think the rare days he goes 0 or .5 out of 4 are important–they teach him he can lose and life goes on. And the days he fights on and finds some kind of success also give him examples he can cling to in the future.

    1. Thank you for sharing, Eric!

      You’re right: the main thing is it all depends on the person. It’s especially important for parents to know the makeup of their child.

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