Chess tournaments have a variety of formats
As a chess player, I get a lot of questions from non-chess players about tournament structure. Most people assume that chess competitions are knock-out events, but this is actually the least common tournament format.
The knock-out event (lose and go home) is an exciting format, but it becomes quite difficult and expensive for out-of-town players to book flights and hotels. Occasionally tournaments are run this way, albeit rarely. Knock-outs are especially exciting for the spectators, but it means half the participants are gone after one round.
This tournament format, which is the most commmon, pairs people with each other based on their rating and the number of points they’ve amassed after each round. If you win the first three rounds of a chess tournament, you will very likely play someone else who has also won all their games. The Swiss is great for organizers, since pairings can be made relatively easily regardless of how many participants enter.
The next most common type of chess tournament is the round robin, which is limited to smaller events, because everyone plays everyone else! This is the format used this year in the upcoming 2012 U.S. Chess Championships (www.uschesschamps.com).
Because each player gets to play all the other competitors one time, this format is considered to be much fairer than the Swiss. Of course, if an event had 100 players, you could see how the logistics of a round-robin event would be impossible, so the Swiss is a suitable substitute. The U.S. Championship features 12 players and the U.S. Women's Championship has 10, so a round-robin format is an excellent fit for each event.
Double round robin
Some of the super-elite events, which feature the top grandmasters in the world, will invite an even smaller field and hold a double round robin, where each player gets to face every other player twice. This is probably the best way to create an even match-up as each players gets one game with the white pieces and one game with the black pieces against every other opponent.
Players, spectators and organizers alike will argue which format is best for each event, but for those playing in a typical tournament, you should expect the tried-and-true Swiss system.
Ben Finegold is the GM in residence at the St. Louis Chess Club and Scholastic Center.