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A Beginner's Guide to Attending the Vermont State Scholastic Chess Tournament

by Mike Stridsberg

Updated 3/20/2018


I've put together this guide to introduce new players and their parents to the Vermont State Scholastic Chess Tournament. Chess tournaments are loads of fun, but can be intimidating if you don't know what to expect. This page is designed to introduce you to the way things run so that you can be prepared and can have a great day. Please note, though, that this is just a guide, not hard and fast rules, and we sometimes change things to meet unexpected situations.

Preparing for the Tournament

For starters, register early if you can. It saves you money, and it helps us prepare for the event, as well as get everything started on time on tournament morning.

If you are a participant, make sure you are familiar with the rules of the game. You don't need to memorize the rule book, but it's important to know all the moves, including the 'special' moves -- castle, en passant, and pawn promotion. Be sure you understand the difference between checkmate (a win) and stalemate (a tie). If you're new to the game, make sure you know how to checkmate an opponent with only a few pieces on the board.

It's also important to understand "touch move" as we follow this rule. In short, touch move means:
        1) If you touch one of your pieces, you must move that piece (if there's any legal way for you to do so)
        2) If you touch one of your opponents pieces, you must capture that piece (if there's any legal way for you to do so)
        3) Once you let go your piece after moving, the move is final -- no taking it back.

If possible, learn how to notate your games. We encourage notation at all levels, and expect it for players above 7th grade. Notation is simply the process of writing down each move you and your opponent make. It may look complicated at first, but it's easy when you get used to it. The chess board is labeled as a grid, like the game Battleship, and you just need to jot down which piece moves to which square.  There are some standard abbreviations to make it quick and easy. Notation has two big benefits -- one is that it allows you to replay your games later and learn from your experience. The second is that if there is ever a problem during a game, there is a record to help correct errors and resolve any disputes. A printable notation sheet is available here.

What to Bring

Chess tournaments can last several hours, so plan accordingly. If you need any medications or health supplies, be sure to bring them. Food concessions will be available for breakfast and lunch, so consider supporting the worthy organizations that run our food concessions.  You can certainly bring your own food and drinks, but no nuts please!

If you are a player, bring any equipment that you want to have with you -- chess set(s), notation pad, and a chess clock if you have one. Please label everything! We suggest putting your name on the bottom of the board, and your initials on the bottom of each piece. We average about 150 players for the State Tournament, and many sets look exactly alike.

A note about chess sets -- non-standard sets, such as sets in odd colors or with unique characters, are fine for practice games, but don't plan on using them for tournament games. Also, don't worry if you don't bring a set -- we have several, plus only every other player needs to bring a set for us to have enough!

We will have a chess vendor on site (Rochester Chess Center) which can be a handy and inexpensive way to get all things chess, including sets, books, and novelties.

Tournament Day

On the day of the event, be sure to arrive on time and check in at the registration table, even if you registered ahead of time.

After checking in, relax in the gym, which is our "skittles" room. "Skittles" is the chess term for practice games. This is a good time to patronize the food concessions and check out the vendors, and possibly join in a simul. Dave Carter, USCF Life Master and highest rated player in Vermont, will take on up to a dozen players (kids and adults) simultaneously for fun.

The actual tournament games take place in classrooms throughout the school, and will be separate by grade or division. Each room will have a room monitor, who is responsible for making sure the players are matched with the right opponent, oversee the games, and be available if questions or issues arise. (If you are an adult, consider volunteering to be a room monitor! It's a great way to be involved and see some great chess.)

The Tournament Director will announce when the first round is ready to begin. Grade levels will be called via the PA system, and head down to their assigned classroom as a group with their room monitor. Parents, friends, and coaches can accompany their players to the room to hear final instructions and wish their kids well, but must leave the playing room before the games start. This is often the biggest surprise for first-time attendees, but it has proven to be a sound practice. Kids invariably play better without the stress of people watching them, and it ensures fair competition. The one exception to this is the High School area, where watching at a discrete distance is allowed.

As each game finishes, the players will go back to the skittles room to share their experience, relax, and get ready for the next round. The length of the rounds can vary, but will never be more than an hour. Subsequent rounds typically begin about 10-15 minutes after all the players in the age group finish the prior round. Be aware, though, if you are one of the first ones done it can be a much longer wait while the rest of the games finish. The rounds occur on demand rather than at a prescribed time, because younger players tend to play much quicker than the older players, and it doesn't make sense to make the little kids wait if it can be avoided. Listen carefully for announcements!

It is important to realize that a loss in the first round is not the end. At scholastic tournaments, all players play every round -- there are no eliminations. Many players have rebounded to take home trophies after a first round loss. Don't get discouraged!

For the first round, players are matched by random draw in grades K-6 and by USCF rating in the Middle and High School divisions.  Beyond that, we use the Swiss system of pairing to determine who plays who. Although the rules for pairing are extensive, the general pattern is that players with the same win/loss record play against each other. For example, in the third round, players with 3 wins would play against each other, players with 2 wins and a loss will play each other, players with a win and 2 losses will play each other, and players who have yet to win a game will play each other. So in general, the games get closer and more competitive as the day goes on. For a full explanation of Swiss pairing, go here.

If a player must withdraw from the event before it's over for any reason, please let us know. Otherwise it can mess up the pairings when we set up for a round and a player is missing. Parents and guardians, you must stay at the event while your kids are there. We cannot assume responsibility for your child.

The tournament is scored as follows: players earn 1 point for a win, half point for a draw, and no points for a loss. Standings are posted after each round. The number of rounds will depend on the number of players in the grade level. Each section will play a minimum of four rounds, but in the case of larger groups, five or even six rounds may be necessary to determine winners.

Trophies and/or medals are awarded by the number of points accumulated throughout the day. Each section will have a clear winner, but is likely to have many ties for subsequent positions. Those ties are resolved by a complex system of tiebreaking rules as prescribed by the USCF. For an explanation of how it works, go here. The tiebreakers are only used for awarding trophies, not positions. For example, if there is a four way tie for second, all four players are considered to have finished second, even though one of them will end up with the 2nd place trophy and one of them will end up with the 5th place trophy.

Award ceremonies happen as each group finishes and final scores are tallied -- we don't wait until all groups are finished. Certificates will be given to all players, and trophies given to the top finishers. Immediately after your award ceremony is done, we take a group picture, so please stay for the photo!

After it's over, be sure to bring home everything you brought with you! That includes clothing, chess sets, lunch boxes and anything else you brought along. If you brought a chess set to the playing room, don't forget to retrieve it. We almost always find lost items when we clean up after an event, and it can be a challenge to get things back to their owners.


Within a day or two of the event, final results will be posted on the web site, along with group photos and candid photos from the tournament. Results for the Middle School and High School divisions will also be sent to the USCF for rating and publication. It can take a few weeks for the tournament to be processed by the USCF, so please be patient.

If you have any questions that were not answered here, feel free to contact me at