The Ultimate Guide to Choosing the Right Chess Tournament for You

I vividly remember the first time I analyzed my tournament results in more depth. In late 2019 I checked various factors such as tournament length, the starting time of games, and the importance of the result.

What I discovered was insanely valuable and surprising at the same time.

I wish I would have done it 10 years earlier! That is why in this article, I will share my experience on how to choose the tournament that fits your style & needs best.

Factors That Influence Your Play

For a long time, my idea of good Form looked very simplistic: training well before the tournament & being energized during the tournament. But there is so much more to it.

Some people tend to play super well when they can sleep in their own bed. Others will play inspired at 3 PM but will blunder their Queen at 10 AM.

In order to find out where you excel and which tournaments you should avoid, you will need to analyze your previous tournaments and ask some questions.

There are hundreds of small factors that play into your playing strength at a tournament. But for starters, I will focus only on the 5 factors that I believe to be most important:

  • Starting Time of the Rounds
  • Company at the tournament
  • Ability to rest before the tournament
  • Opponents Ratings
  • Tournament System (Closed, Swiss-System, Team Events etc…)

Starting Time Of The Rounds

Chess professionals are usually night owls. World Champions such as Kramnik & Carlsen basically refuse to start a game of Chess before 1PM. That is why on Top Level we never really see morning rounds.

But if you are not in the Top 10 of the World, you have a wide variety of tournaments to choose from.

Most Amateur tournaments will feature at least one morning round (last round). Some of them even consist of nearly only double rounds in order to save time!

I’ve heard dozens of Friends (professionals and amateurs alike) complain about every single morning round they played. When I ask why they still play tournaments with (many) morning rounds, they simply tell me “that they have no choice”.

Luckily, this is wrong in most cases. You actually have a choice! Especially if you are an amateur and play chess as a hobby!

Why would you ever force yourself to play a tournament with double rounds, if you dread to wake up early and play at 9 AM? Yes, you “save some time” because you don’t have to take 9 days off.

But wouldn’t it be so much nicer to play 1 amazing tournament which lasts 9 days instead of playing two 5-day tournaments? After all, not only in training is the Quality more important than the quantity! In tournament games, this is even more true!

Apart from the fact that you force yourself to do an activity that you dread 50% of the time (double round tournaments usually have 5 mornings and 4 evening rounds or vice versa), you will also not learn more if you are not at the top of your abilities.

The tilt you might build up by blundering because of tiredness will carry on in your afternoon games and maybe in the next tournament you play.

Fit The Tournament To Your Lifestyle

No matter if you are a professional or amateur, try to find tournaments that fit your lifestyle.

If you are getting up every day at 6 AM, playing morning rounds might be a great fit. While others still are sleepy, you are used to working hard at 9 AM!

This was one reason why I scored two of my three GM Norms in double-round tournaments. I always wake up around 7-9 AM and start working/training pretty early.

While I was used to focusing in the early mornings, my night owl opponents were still sleepy during the most important part of the games. But it actually was not until 2019 that I really understood this!

I just thought it was a coincidence that I basically always played well in the Grenke Chess Open and last rounds.

I remember playing a tournament in Lienz (Austria) where the games started at 6 PM. In the first round, I was still playing at midnight! For somebody that uses to work until 4 or 5 PM and sleeps at 10 PM, that was a total catastrophe.

For the whole tournament, I complained about that silly starting time. Only later did I understand that it would be smart to check it before agreeing to play this tournament…

The tournament was clearly made for amateurs that liked to spend their day skiing or were even working during the day. Like this, they could spend their normal free time playing some chess.

What we usually can’t avoid is one single round (out of 9) that does not fit perfectly. As said, last rounds are usually starting earlier. In this case, think about a fitting schedule before the tournament and DO NOT complain like a victim.

Try to make the best out of it and DO NOT find excuses already before the game starts.

Once you say things like “I will anyway play badly at this time” you will prove yourself right…

Make the best out of the situation and focus on the fact that 8 rounds fit your schedule well!

Company At The Tournament

Another extremely important factor is who you are with at tournaments. Some prefer to go alone, others like to bring their partner or go with friends.

There is no right or wrong. There is only a good or bad fit for your current situation & needs.

Think back at tournaments you really enjoyed and others that were a bad experience. Who were you with then? Did you share a room or had a single room?

If you know that a certain friend is snoring, it might be smarter not to share a room again with him.

You can go together, but make sure to get a good night’s sleep and book a single room.

I remember a tournament with a good friend of mine back in 2016. We had great chemistry, but there was one problem: I was used to sleeping from around 11PM-8AM while he was used to sleeping from 3AM-11AM.

This lead to him disturbing my sleep in the evening, while I usually woke him up way too early for his taste. Make sure to think about such things before sharing a room with somebody.

After all, you need to sleep well in order to have a great experience. Let alone play well…

What Do I Need When I Play Bad?

In most cases, you will be in a great mood when playing well. Even if your friend is a bit annoying, or pissed because he is playing badly, it won’t really affect your mood.

But if you are playing badly (which will happen!) you will be much more sensitive to the people around you.

Some friends have this positive aura to push you and keep you going.

Others seem to be more focused on themselves and do not really have empathy left when playing a tournament.

So before deciding to go to a tournament with someone, ask yourself these 2 questions:

  • Will the experience be enjoyable even if I play badly?
  • Will the experience be enjoyable even if they play badly?

If you can’t answer both questions with a definitive yes, you might have to re-think if they are really the right company for you.

This is also a great exercise for introspection. While I believe to be a great person around if you are playing badly, I was absolutely no fun to be around when I played badly.

As I knew that only a few people will understand my bad mood and be able to get me out of it, I was extremely picky when deciding to go to tournaments with other players. The safest choice for me was always to bring my girlfriend.

This did not guarantee success but made it less likely to be a horrible experience even if I played badly.

Is It The Right Time To Play A Tournament?

There are different phases in everyone’s life. In some you feel rested like a baby, in others, you are stressed. Playing a tournament requires a lot of energy and nerves.

That is why it is super important to think if you have those reserves before actually playing a tournament.

If you work in a job that generates 90% of stress in January, it probably isn’t smart to play a tournament at the beginning of February. You will be totally exhausted and there is basically no way you will enjoy the experience and play well.

My father used to accompany me to tournaments when I was still a teenager. Playing the famous Grenke Open with 9 rounds in 5 days, he used to still work Thursday morning before driving 5 hours and then playing a game at 6 PM.

Before the 4 double rounds even started he was super exhausted already! The disaster was programmed.

Later on, he actually started to take Thursday morning & even Wednesday off and played much better chess, which did not surprise me at all.

So before you plan to play a tournament ask yourself:

  • Will I be able to take some rest before the tournament?
  • Will I be able to enjoy the tournament without having to bring tons of work?

I get it. You might only have 4-5 weeks of holidays a year. You might also have kids & a wife who’d like to spend some vacation time with you.

But still, I believe it is much better to play FEW tournaments and really enjoy them, than cramming lots of tournaments in your plan and feeling stressed & playing badly in all of them.

Be creative in finding ways to get energy before tournament games:

  • Use your overtime to take afternoons off before an evening game at your local club
  • Take at least 1 day off before a tournament
  • Ask your colleague to help with some work & help them out whenever you have more time (and no tournament)
  • Decline a saturday night party in order to get some good sleep before a tournament

I absolutely get that 99% of you are no professionals.

But that does not change that you invest a lot of time & energy in your chess. You owe it to yourself to be fresh while playing tournament games!

There is nothing worse than training really hard, spending money on Coaches, products, travel & tournament fees to then feel tired at the board and thus playing badly.

Opponents Ratings

It is actually crazy, but 80% of Chess players I know do NOT check which rating range they perform well or badly against.

Most likely you are one of them, and I was too. I’m talking about knowing due to checking hard facts, not “remembering that I always play well against stronger opponents”.

Because I had this feeling too! The last time I did check my stats there were INCREDIBLE differences in my performance depending on the opponent ratings. Those are my stats from 01.07.2019-17.11.2020 (my average rating was 2551):

  • 2400>: 100% score –> I was always “scared” to play against much lower rated. Nonsense.
  • 2400-2500: Performance 2587. Ok performance, but scoring less points than against the next step:
  • 2500-2600: Incredible results. 11W/6D/2L = Performance 2735!
  • 2600-2700: Performance 2481. I thought I was doing very well in this range. Yet I performed by far worst against these opponents. A single win was standing out while I “forgot” about several losses…
  • 2700+: Performance 2663

Now I could write a full article on why I had these results and what I changed. And I will do that in the future. But for now, I just want to ask you to check your stats as well. If you want to make it simple, take 3 categories:

  • Equal Opponents: +- 50 rating
  • Stronger Opponents: >+50 rating
  • Weaker Opponents: <-50 rating

In order to make it more fun, guess what your performance against each of these rating ranges is. I bet you will be quite surprised that our feeling can vary a LOT from the cold results.

If you only play very few games (less than 5 games per category) these stats can be tricky. One stupid blunder will decide if you fare well or badly against a certain range. So try to check a period with at least 50 games total or at least 10 of each category.

Should I Only Play Against Opponents I Score Well?

Now that you have your stats ready the question is what you are doing with them. In case you wonder: I don’t think you should only play against opponents you score well.

But you should be mindful before choosing a tournament if it will be rather hard or easy to score well.

You might want to choose a specific tournament to challenge yourself against the range you are scoring worst. That makes perfect sense if you choose it knowing it will be hard.

But it can be a nightmare if you are not aware of your trouble with this kind of opponent! You’ll go with a ton of expectations and they will most likely get shattered.

Let me give you an example of how I used these pieces of information to play tournaments that suit me better.

When I planned to play a very important tournament I would usually try to play another “warm-up” tournament around 1 month before the main one. The goal of that warm-up tournament was to get a good feeling and get confidence.

Maybe also test 1-2 openings or specific points I worked on in training.

In that case, it was smart to choose a tournament I would most likely get some good results! That means playing a tournament with a lot of 2500-2600 players.

Could be an open (early rounds would be <2400 which is also good!) or a closed tournament with only 2500-2600 players.

It is certainly no guarantee for a great result. But the likelihood that I play well would go up. Thus I would gather confidence and feel better in the main tournament.

On the other hand, you might want to win a specific tournament (club/state/national/international championship) at some point. Now check out which players you most likely have to face there.

If you play badly against them you’ll need some practice against this kind of player in tournaments where the result does not matter! Choose a tournament with similar players and go learn!

Tournament System

On the same note, you should think about which tournament system you want to excel in. If you want to go up to the Top of the World, you should play well in closed tournaments. The higher up, the more closed tournaments there are.

But if you dream of winning the European Championship (like I did) you should learn to score extremely high in very strong open tournaments. In order to know where to go, you should first know where you stand at.

Check the performance of your previous tournaments and compare them.

  • Closed Tournament (mostly for Titled Players)
  • Team Tournaments (Like the European Leagues)
  • Weekend tournaments (double rounds!)
  • Swiss System Tournaments with 1 round/day
  • Weekday tournaments with 1 round each week in the evening

Where do you excel at? If you always play badly in weekend tournaments and don’t particularly like them, then simply don’t play them anymore! Nobody forces you to do so.

Only invest in a certain tournament system if you either or both:

  • Like to play this type of tournament
  • Would like to win a tournament of this type

As most of my readers are Amateurs I would heavily focus on the fun part. So if you realize that in a certain type of tournament you just play badly, don’t force yourself to play them!

Life is too short to spend time on tournaments you don’t really love to be at.

Choose Wisely!

Now that you are aware of some key points of Chess tournaments, choose wisely. Take some time in the research of tournaments and think: Would I really enjoy playing there?

A great question I ask myself nearly every day is: Is it a HELL YEAH? Are you super excited to play in this tournament? If it is not a HELL YEAH, then it is a no for me.

Check out the book of Derek Sivers if you want to know more about the HELL YEAH or no approach.

Now we also have to be realistic. The World is not focusing on making just us super happy. So there might be no absolutely perfect option. But knowing what you like & excel at will make it easier to find tournaments that fit your style & wishes.

In the end, your performance will depend vastly on how good you feel. If the only reason you play a tournament is “trying to improve my rating” then STAY AWAY FROM THAT TOURNAMENT.

I can tell you from experience. That is the ultimate recipe for disaster.

Once you feel good, you’ll also play well. Or as my good friend GM Avetik Grigoryan from ChessMood would say: right mood, right move!


PS: If you liked my article you will certainly also like my FREE Guide to organizing your Chess Training. Get it HERE.

I firmly believe that

anyone can improve their chess through the right mindset and training techniques.

I’m here to guide you on your journey to chess mastery.

Related articles:

Stay Up to Date

by signing up to my e-mail newsletter

Enter your email address below to sign up for receiving all my new insights, articles, books & courses

– a very short mail, without fluff or Spam

Thousands of readers and students

have already boosted their ratings and derive greater enjoyment from the game

Each week

you will receive an update on all my new articles, books & courses A very short mail, without fluff or Spam Just a little reminder to keep improving your chess.