FAQ (Starting Out)
Learn About Chess
November 30, 1999

 

FAQ- Frequently Asked Questions

 


 

 

 

How do I play in a chess tournament?
Check out our Clubs & Tourneys area to find a tournament in your area. If you're not comfortable playing right away, you are free to observe any event. Most tournaments have skittles rooms, where players compete casually, often in blitz games and tournament participants analyze their games. You also might want to investigate a club in your area. Search our Club directory.


What's a chess tournament like? How is it different from playing a friendly game?
Rating points and prizes are usually at stake in chess tournaments, so the atmosphere is much more competitive and quiet than in a casual club or cafe game. There are special tournament rules like "touch move." Check out the tournament play section of Rules of Chess for more details.

 

If I play in a tournament, who will I play against?
In the large majority of chess tournaments, computers determine pairings. In the first round, players are ranked by their ratings (Unrated players are ranked at the bottom, alphabetically.) The Swiss system of pairing is then used. Swiss pairings split the field into two halves and pair the top of the first half with the top of the second half. If there are 50 players in a tournament, #1 will play #26, #2 will play #27, etc.

 

 

 

What's a chess rating and how do I get one?
A chess rating is an estimate of your playing strength based on prior results. Before completing 20 games, your rating is provisional and changes drastically after winning or losing. Later, ratings change incrementally based on your result and the rating of your opponent. (You gain from 1 to about 40 points for winning a game.) USCF assigns ratings to members who play in official tournaments. Ratings range from 100 to around 2800. You can lose rating points as well as gaining them (unlike in bridge) but you cannot lose your USCF rating. Once rated, always rated.

 

There are also separate ratings for various chess organizations from the international chess body, FIDE to Internet chess clubs.

 

Chessplayers often worry or obsess over their rating, because it determines pairings, which tournaments they can play in and reflects their current playing strength, so much that one professional player compared losing 10 rating points to losing 10 liters of blood! (This is actually MORE blood than the average human body contains.)
In many tournaments you can only play if you are over or under a certain rating. For instance, there are Under 1200, 1400, 1600, 1800, 2000 and 2200 sections in the biggest open in America, the World Open, held each year in Philadelphia. The prizes are as high as $10,000 for the winner of each section. This leads to occasional "sand-bagging," losing points on purpose to lower your rating artificially in order to play in a weaker level tournament. This is an offense that could get you kicked out of the USCF for life. On the other hand, telling strangers at tournaments that your rating is 2600 is a good way to earn their total respect for the entirety of the elevator ride- until your 12-year-old daughter shows up and says "Daddy, how could you miss Ne5?!!"

 

My friend is too weak for me. I beat him every game. How do I find an opponent of my level?
Internet gaming rooms are great ways to meet up with players of all levels. ICC, short for Internet Chess Club, and Playchess are two popular servers. These both charge a fee for membership, but in return you get grandmaster analysis of top games around the world. A popular free chessplayer server is yahoo.com. On all these servers, you earn ratings, ranging from about 500 to 3000. Ideally, you want to find an opponent with a similar or slightly higher rating than your own.
If you're yearning for some real-life chess action, check out if there is a club in your area through the USCF chess club directory. Or, send out an email blast to your friends or post an ad on craigslist or myspace (be sure to meet in a public place). You'd be surprised how many potential chess partners there are in your circle. A lot of people love and learn the game early, but give it up since it's tough to find an appropriate opponent. In this way, chess is a lot like tennis.

 

 

 

What's a Grandmaster (International Master, Master)?
The United States Chess Federation awards the national master title to any player who reaches a rating of 2200. Less than one percent of rated players hold the title. A life master is a National Master who has played 300 games with a rating over 2200. Grandmaster (abbreviated often to GM) is the highest title you can achieve in chess. Like International Master (abbreviated to IM), it's an international title, and is awarded by FIDE, the International Federation of Echecs.

 

How do I get better?
If poker takes a minute to learn and a lifetime to master, chess takes a weekend to learn and several lifetimes to master! But you can have fun, challenge yourself and improve at any level, and that's one of the greatest things about chess. Becoming a good player requires a firm grasp of tactics (short-term operations to win material or deliver checkmate) so you should check out our puzzle galleries or go to USCF's online chess shop for tactics books for your level. If you're looking to improve your strategical skills, there are a number of good books available on strategy, such as the classic My System or the more modern, Reassess Your Chess. To get a feel for how strong players approach different positions, I recommend looking over annotated games from the Chess Life archives. Also, play, play, and play. If you combine concentrated play with study, you will improve!

 

 

 

I'm a single guy in college, and I heard chess is nerdy and devoid of womenfolk. Why should I play?
Chess is a great game that can lull its devotees to trance like states of concentration. Finding a wonderful and surprising move can fill you up with aesthetic joy and the pride of discovery. A game of chess or a tournament can test your will power, discipline and sportsmanship, resulting in intense situations that draw many to the game. In the chess world, race, gender and class are invisible. It's inspiring to see eight-year-olds competing with senior citizens, and Gucci-clad investment bankers fighting it out with high-school janitors.


Chess is not nerdy at all. We've come a long way since the days of cheap "chess is nerdy" jokes in Saved by the Bell! Celebrities who are crazy about chess include supermodel Carmen Kass, pop star Madonna, actor Will Smith, magician David Blaine and boxer Lennox Lewis. International chess superstar Garry Kasparov has been interviewed in every place from Charlie Rose to Playboy, and starred in a Pepsi commercial. Alexandra Kosteniuk, a Grandmaster from Russia has done modeling shoots for Vogue, Elle and Mademoiselle. If you still think chess is nerdy, browse through our U.S. player galleries for more evidence to the contrary.

 

The lack of female participation is a serious problem in chess. I hope that doesn't cause you to leave chess, but rather to think about changing chess. Do you have a female friends or sister who is sharp witted and confident? Teach her chess and bring her to a tournament. The male-dominated atmosphere scares many women at first, but many warm up to the attention they get at tournaments. Now there is usually a critical mass of girls and young women at tournaments. Often, these female participants meet and bond together, making the environment less alienating.

 

What do I have to bring with me to play in a tournament?
Most tournaments expect the player to bring a chess set and a clock. The USCF store sells sets and clocks for newcomers to the game. Some tournaments provide score sheets on which you can record the moves of your games. You might want to purchase a booklet of score sheets so that you don't lose them.

 

 

What's a chess clock and how do they work?
A chess clock is actually two clocks! When you're thinking, your clock ticks down. After making a move, you hit a button at the top of the clock and your opponent's clock starts ticking. If you run out of time, you lose the game, unless there is checkmate on the board or your opponent has insufficient mating material. There are two main types, the digital and analog clock.

 

What time do I set my chess clock for?
It depends on the event. Different limits are referred to as time controls. There are blitz tournaments in which each side only gets 5 minutes a piece. Blitz time controls are very popular in casual park or cafe games. Even shorter games, bullet set limits as low as one minute per player. Think it would be hard to play a decent game in one minute? You should watch GM Hikaru Nakamura or GM Larry Christiansen playing chess on the Internet. For the inexperienced, bullet chess will mean flying pieces and broken clocks, so start slow!

 

 

What's the difference between a digital and analog clock and which should I use?
Many players prefer digital because they know exactly how much time they and their opponents have. With an analog clock, it can be unclear whether you have one minute or three. Tournament directors prefer digital as well, because it allows them to set the clock for increment or time delay if there is an argument over whether one player is trying to run the other out on time, but is making no progress or has insufficient winning chances. Some still think analog clocks are more beautiful. Digital clocks also malfunction occasionally, resulting in bigger disasters than an analog malfunction would.

 

What is the purpose of the USCF? The USCF is a non profit organization devoted to promoting chess in America. The USCF organizes chess tournaments, publishes Chess Life magazine and manages the ratings of over 85,000 members. For mission statement, staff info and how you can help, go to About USCF.