OTB Chess Events, The Good, The Bad And The Pandemic

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Playing over-the-board (OTB) chess is a necessity if your goal is to reach chess master. All official chess titles are given out by FIDE, USCF, or other national chess organizations. Prior to the 90’s, chess players only played OTB and they used analog clocks! Can you imagine? We had time scrambles with pieces flying everywhere as the small red flag would fall when time was up. This is where the term ‘flagging’ comes from for you youngsters out there.

The Good

There are a lot of benefits to playing OTB events. If your goal is to solely improve your online rating, I think it’s perfectly fine to never step foot into a chess tournament hall. OTB Chess tournaments are typically held by state chess organizations, local clubs, or chess affiliates.

Finding Tournaments

There are a few resources to finding chess events.

Official Titles

For most players, attaining a chess title is the end goal. FIDE titles are internationally respected and the most prestigious titles in chess. Here are the open titles, available to men and women:

Open titles, January 2020[4]
TitleMenWomenTotal
Grandmaster (GM)1,655371,692
International Master (IM)3,7381163,854
FIDE Master (FM)8,067378,104
Candidate Master (CM)1,708191,727
Total15,16820915,377
Source: Wikipedia

There are also four equivalent women’s titles, ranging from WGM to WCM.

Women’s titles, January 2020[4]
TitleTotal
Woman Grandmaster (WGM)458
Woman International Master (WIM)846
Woman FIDE Master (WFM)1,737
Woman Candidate Master (WCM)762
Total3,803
Source: Wikipedia

USCF and other national federations also have a titled called ‘National Master’ which tends to be a level below FIDE Candidate Master. The only way to get a chess title is to play a lot of OTB chess and to keep practicing with a physical board in addition to work on the computer.

Enjoyment

In a world of distractions and electronic devices grabbing our attention every few seconds, there is something very peaceful and rewarding about being at a chess tournament. In official events, players are not allowed to speak or distract the other competitors except for a couple exceptions. Electronic devices are usually required to be turned off or left out of the playing hall completely. The 100% focus on the chess board is an amazing feeling that every chess player should try at least once.

Playing in non-rated events also has it’s place. Enjoying the company of other chess players, analyzing games, and cracking jokes during a game over a beverage is always a fun social event. Playing in a coffee shop, a park, or a local club on an unrated event night are typically where you’ll play these games for fun.

Before we delve into The Bad and The Pandemic, we want to inform you of the current sale going on in the shop. All of our premium 12-week study plans are currently 25% off in the shop. This promotion will run through the end of the Chess.com Junior Speed Chess Championship, sponsored by Chesskid. The commentary is both educational and entertaining with the likes of GMs Robert Hess, Danya Naroditzky, Vidit Gujrathi, Eric Hansen, IM Danny Rensch, and FM Mike Klein. ChessGoals is ‘sponsoring’ the prediction segments for the event.

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The Bad

Nothing about OTB chess is really bad, but there are some potential downsides in comparison to playing on the internet which we will describe here.

Cost

Most chess club and tournaments charge money to play. This is usually required so the organizers can cover all of their overhead costs. Most chess federations and clubs also charge membership dues, which adds to the expenses. A third cost to consider is purchasing equipment. I’m going to recommend some of my favorite equipment that can get you started playing in tournaments for a low cost. If you use our Wholesale Chess affiliate links it helps support the ChessGoals project.

Sets

There are many options for pieces and boards. A vinyl board will not collect dust like silicone, and the pieces will slide nicely along the squares. The downside to the vinyl boards are that they can get wrinkled or not always lay flat. Silicone and mousepad boards are other good options, but overall vinyl is the most popular. The pieces in this recommended set are heavier than the entry level, which means they are less likely to tip over. And finally, I recommend having a carrying bag for the set that can also hold your scorebook and pencils. Combine all three for the Heavy Tournament Chess Set Combo.

Heavy Tournament Club Set

Scorebook

There are lots of options for scorebooks as well. Some people prefer the hardcover books, but two downsides are the amount of space they take up on the table and the difficulty keeping them propped open. I recommend the Softcover Quality Scorebook.

Rated chess event that are not in the blitz category will require players to notate their moves. Chess Notation – The Language of the Game gives a nice overview. One of the common issues I see for novice players is that they learn the basics of notating chess moves but struggle with quickly identifying the coordinates. Thankfully, there are two nice resources available to practice coordinate training online: Chess.com Vision and Lichess Coordinates.

Clock

The most expensive and probably important piece equipment you’ll buy is a chess clock. The clock that I use, and feel is the best bang for your buck, is the DGT North American Chess Clock. It’s easy to set, durable, and a reasonable price. It also handles both increment and delay settings, and has a bunch of preset time controls.

DGT North American Chess Clock

Efficiency

The other downside to OTB chess is the lack of efficiency in comparison to online play. It’s very easy to play a quick 30 minutes of chess online, but it may take 30 minutes commute just to reach a chess event. There is also the time spent waiting between rounds, etc. that all adds up. If all of that time was spent playing games online, studying tactics, performing game analysis, etc. you can see how much further each hour spent can go in terms of progress. With that said, it’s still important to play some OTB chess if your goals are to reach an OTB title someday.

The Pandemic

Since early 2020, most OTB chess events have been canceled. Not until recently have some tournaments started taking place, but the overall numbers are still way down for OTB chess. Many players are taking precautions and prefer not to play in the current environment. Most of our study habits survey data comes prior to March 2020, so keep that in mind when we look at the stats.

Survey Data

Here’s a plot of the percentage of playing time spent on OTB (otb_pct) versus player rating (startrating). For players below 1700, the percentage hovers between 15-20%. Above 1700 though we can start to see the trend line climb all the way up to 40% or so for masters.

OTB Chess Percentage vs Rating
OTB % vs Rating

As we’ve seen in How To Create A Chess Study Plan, the outperform variable takes a look actual rating gains minus expected rating gains. There appears to be a small bump up right around 20% of playing time spent on OTB.

Outperformance vs OTB %

The current study plans do not recommend spending any certain percentage of time on OTB chess. This is mostly due to the pandemic, and we plan to revise the recommendation to be somewhere between 10-30%.

Substitutions

I’m often asked if these plans are meant for improving OTB classical play. They are designed to improve play at all levels and focus on having as efficient of a study plan as possible. Most premium 12-week study plans recommend playing a combination of daily games, rapid/slow games, and blitz. If you’re looking to play say a 90+30 chess tournament on the weekend that won’t exactly be laid out in the plan.

There are two options that we recommend. As a time-saving option, you can substitute some of the daily, rapid/slow, or blitz games with your time spent playing OTB. For the best results, you can take out the least important activities like studying openings or add on OTB in addition to the full plan. The biggest thing is to be able to keep pushing ahead with the plan and not to get discouraged if you don’t check every box throughout the week.

Progress over perfection. Each training activity helps. Keep it fun!

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