Tournament Rules Summary

Updated October 11th, 2022

Part I: Procedural Matters

This document outlines what you, the player, are expected to know when participating in a tournament, rated or otherwise. The information herein was borrowed—some might say stolen—from a guide created by Cincinnati Scholastic Chess and we thank them for sharing their valuable work with the larger chess community.

Rule #1: The First Rule of Chess Club, especially where tournaments are concerned, is to Have Fun—be a good sport, be a gracious winner and take your losses in stride, remembering that every loss is a true learning opportunity to make you a better player.

Communication: One of the key things to keep in mind when participating in a chess tournament is to let your tournament director know as soon as possible if you’ll be late for the start of a round, if you won’t be able to play in a given round, if you need to withdraw from an event or about anything else which may impact your participation in a tournament. For the Menlo Park Chess Club, sending email to is generally sufficient up to, say, 30 minutes before the start of a round—within 30 minutes you’re better off calling (650) 670-8569.

Registration: This typically occurs the first evening of a tournament and can delay the start of the first round if people arrive late. Please plan on being at the club 30 minutes before the start of the first round to register if you haven’t done so electronically via email, social media, etc. Late arrivals for registration may be given a half-point bye for the first round if pairings are already published.

Withdrawing: If you decide that you do not wish to play any remaining rounds, you may withdraw from the tournament at any time. However, you must notify a tournament director that you are withdrawingbefore pairings are done for the next round. If you leave the tournament without notifying a tournament director, you will be paired in the next round as though you are still playing. This leaves the player against whom you are paired without an opponent, results in a forfeit for you, and can cause other problems for players and tournament directors. Withdrawing without notice is bad for everyone — please don’t do it.

Byes: You may take an optional half-point bye for any round in a tournament except the last, so long as you make your request before the round pairings are posted. If a tournament has an odd number of participants one player in the lowest score group will typically receive a full-point bye in lieu of playing a game that round (though there may be a “house player” with whom a game may be arranged).

Schedule: Round 1 begins between 7:00-7:15pm, depending upon registration delays. Subsequent rounds in multi-evening events will begin at 7:00pm sharp–if you are late getting to your board and do not notify the tournament director of your delay, you may find your clock already running.

When Your Game is Over: When you finish your game, stop both clocks, indicate the game result on your scoresheet, sign your scoresheet and that of your opponent, making certain to do so in the correct space for the color you played during the game then:

  • On the board where you just played, set up the pieces in their correct starting position or place them in the bag if no one else will use the set for the remainder of the evening.
  • Record your result on the pairing sheet. To record the result, enter a “1” in the space to the left of the winner’s name and a “0” in the space to the left of the loser’s name. If the game was a draw, enter “½” beside both names. Both players are responsible for making sure that the game result is recorded correctly. Below is an example of a pairing sheet with results recorded.

Wednesday Night Marathon Round 1 Pairings

10Eric Enpassant      9251Cheryl Chester    1025
21/2Kimberly Knight 10001/2Benjamin Bishop 900
31Quentin Queen    8750Carlyle Castle       975
  • Please remain reasonably quiet in our chess room until all other tournament games are finished. If you wish to analyze your game with your opponent, please grab a board and set and do so in the room across the hall (our “skittles” room).

Beginning Rating: Your beginning rating is your rating at the start of any tournament. It determines what section(s) you are eligible to play in and is one factor which determines whom you are paired against. Your beginning rating will likely not change over the course of one tournament but will almost always change from one tournament to the next.

In rated tournament play, your beginning rating will be your current official rating unless you are officially unrated, in which case your most recent rating, if you have one, will be used. Official ratings are updated only on the first day of each month; your most recent rating will be updated every time a tournament you play in is submitted for rating. Accordingly, your official rating and your most recent rating will often be different. If you have neither an official nor a most recent rating, you will play as an unrated player and will earn a rating from the tournament.

Equipment: Pieces, boards, clocks, scoresheets and pens will be provided by the Menlo Park Chess Club. Players may use their own scoresheets, including approved electronic scoresheets or scorebooks if they prefer.

Tiebreaks: When two or more players are tied by score, the order of finish among them will be determined by application of the standard US Chess Federation tiebreak systems. These are, in order of application: (1) Modified Median, (2) Solkoff, (3) Cumulative, and (4) Cumulative of Opposition.

Part II: Rules of Tournament Chess

Tournament chess has many rules in addition to the rules of the game itself. Outlined below are some of the tournament rules players encounter most often, a small fraction of what is found in the US Chess Federation’s “Official Rules of Chess”. Everyone playing in the tournament is subject to and should be familiar with the following.

1. Sportsmanship

The rules require and we expect that you will behave in a courteous and sportsmanlike manner at all times and never interfere in any way with anyone else’s game. Following are examples of courteous and sportsmanlike behavior:

  • Except when health concerns and common sense dictate otherwise, shake hands with your opponent before and after your game.
  • While your game is in progress, do not talk with anyone unless it is necessary to say something to your opponent or a tournament director about your game.
  • When your game is over, do not talk in the playing room (unless yours is the last game to finish).
  • Avoid behavior that might distract other players, including loud talk and noisy activity near where games are being played, whether you are inside or outside the tournament room.
  • Do not kibitz — ever! To kibitz is basically to butt in. It is unsporting and against the rules to meddle in any way in someone else’s game. Meddling includes commenting on the game and doing anything that distracts the players.

Never comment to anyone (except to a tournament director at his/her direction) about a game that is in progress.

Commenting includes not only audible verbal remarks but also gestures or facial expressions that could be construed as comments, whether directed to anyone in particular or not.

2. Clock-Related Rules

You must use a clock for your tournament games. You do not have the option, either individually or jointly with your opponent, to choose not to use a clock when a clock is available for use. After making a move, push the clock button on your side of the clock to stop your clock and start your opponent’s clock. This action is called “pressing the clock.” Do this after every move for the entire game.

  • Know how to pause the clock; if you don’t know, ask another player or the tournament director. When a clock is paused, its operation is suspended so that neither player’s clock is running. Most clocks have an obvious pause button or switch.
  • Know why to pause the clock. It is permitted to pause the clock when you have any question, claim or issue that needs the attention of the tournament director. You may not pause the clock for any other reason. For example, you may not pause the clock when you go to the restroom or when you consult your opponent’s scoresheet to correct your own. (In fact, you may not consult your opponent’s scoresheet unless your own clock is running.)
  • On each move press the clock with whichever hand you used to move your piece. You may not move your piece with one hand and then press the clock with the other hand. 
  • Until your opponent presses his or her clock, it is not your move, so do not make your move while your opponent’s clock is running. If it is obvious that your opponent has forgotten to press the clock, it is sporting to call attention to this, but you are not required to do so.
  • After pressing the clock to complete a move, remove your hand entirely from the clock until pressing it again to complete the next move. You may not keep your hand on or in contact with the clock in between moves.

Rules relating to the expiration of time:

  • If your opponent’s time expires, you may claim a win (or draw) on time if you have any time remaining on your own clock. To make such a claim, pause the clock as soon as you notice that your opponent’s time has expired — this will prove that you still have time remaining — and then notify your opponent of your claim. If there is any dispute about the expiration of a player’s time please notify the tournament director immediately. When a player’s time expires, it is said that his “flag fell,” the expiration of a player’s time is called “flagfall,” never mind that most modern digital chess clocks no longer have a flag.
  • When making a claim as described above, you will be declared the winner only if you have mating material, which means that with the pieces you have remaining on the board it is possible to checkmate your opponent. If you do not have mating material, the game will be scored as a draw. You do not have mating material if you have only a king, a king and a bishop, a king and a knight, or a king and two knights, and you cannot force a checkmate.
  • Only the two players who are playing a game may call flagfall in that game. In some circumstances a tournament director may do so also. For any other person to call attention to flagfall in any game in which he or she is not a player is unsportsmanlike interference in the game and is a violation of USCF rules, for which the penalty can be expulsion from the tournament and forfeiture of all games played, at the sole discretion of the tournament director.
  • If time expires for both you and your opponent without a claim of flagfall being made by either player, the game is a draw, regardless of the position on the board, unless the last move played was checkmate.
  • A player’s flag is considered fallen only when either the player or the opponent points this out. A checkmate or stalemate played on the board before flagfall is called determines the result of the game (as a win or draw respectively), even if the flag of the player who played the checkmate or stalemate had fallen before the move was made.

3. Touch-Move

The touch-move rule is in effect for all tournament games. You do not have the option, either individually or jointly with your opponent, to choose not to abide by the touch-move rule.  A player may neither ask to “take back” a move nor permit his or her opponent to do so. In simple terms, the touch-move rules states:

  • If you intentionally touch one of your own pieces, you must move that piece if you legally can.
  • If you intentionally touch one of your opponent’s pieces, you must capture that piece if you legally can.
  • If you legally move one of your pieces to a square and release it (that is, let go of it so that physical contact between your hand and the piece is broken), it must remain on that square whether or not that is the square to which you intended to move it.
  • If you move a piece that you cannot legally move, you must put that piece back on the square where it was before you moved it and make a legal move.

The touch-move rule does not apply to any piece touched accidentally or to any piece not on the board. The touch-move rule also does not apply to adjusting a piece as long as a player adjusts the piece in the proper manner (that is, by saying “adjust” audibly before touching the piece). 

4. Taking Notation

“Taking notation” means recording the moves of a game, move by move, as it is played. You must record not only your own moves but also your opponent’s moves. The form (or paper) on which moves are recorded is called a scoresheet. If you do not know how to take notation, read the instructions provided in Part III of this document.

You are required to take notation during the entirety of your game save for one exception: Both players are excused from the requirement to take notation when either player has less than five minutes of time remaining on his/her clock. If you fail to take notation during your game (except as noted in the previous sentence) you are subject to a penalty, which is usually a reduction of the time on your clock. However, players should not conclude that this penalty makes taking notation optional, as though they have the choice of taking a time reduction in exchange for being excused from this requirement. A player who is required to take notation and repeatedly refuses to do so becomes subject to more severe penalties, including the forfeit of a game and expulsion from the tournament, at the tournament director’s discretion. Also, notation requires that the actual move played be recorded. It is not sufficient merely to record an “x” or checkmark or similar mark to signify that a move was played.

During the course of a game your opponent might want to consult your scoresheet, or you might want to consult your opponent’s scoresheet, to correct moves or fill in missing moves. Doing so is allowed by the rules, and it is unsportsmanlike to refuse to allow your opponent to look at your scoresheet for this purpose, or for your opponent to refuse you the same courtesy. However, you may use your opponent’s scoresheet to make corrections to your own scoresheet only when your clock is running. If any issue arises in connection with scoresheets, pause the clock (in this case it is permitted) and request the assistance of the tournament director.

5. Player Claims

In certain situations, such as when your opponent’s time expires or you think that your opponent has violated a rule, you can make a claim to the tournament director for the imposition of a penalty or the determination of the game’s result. Examples are:

  • Claiming a win on time when your opponent’s time has expired
  • Claiming that your opponent made a move in violation of the touch-move rule
  • Claiming that your opponent made an illegal move, such as failing to get out of check or castling illegally
  • Claiming a draw due to repetition of position or the 50-move rule (see 7. Rules for Draws)
  • Claiming any activity that is against the rules, such as leaving a hand on the clock in between moves, engaging in any distracting or unsportsmanlike behavior, or using an electronic scoresheet in an unpermitted manner

The correct way to make a claim is to pause the clock, get the tournament director’s attention and explain the situation to the tournament director when he or she arrives at your board. The tournament director will then decide whether to uphold or deny the claim. If you are uncertain whether you have grounds for a claim, or simply have a question, bring the matter to the tournament director’s attention immediately when the situation arises in the game! Do not wait until the game is over to raise the issue because then it is too late to investigate or correct it.

Only the two players engaged in a particular game may make a claim relating to that game. No other person, except a tournament director in certain circumstances, may make any claim on behalf of a player or indicate in any way that such a claim is possible. Any person who does so is subject to penalties at the discretion of the tournament director, which may include forfeiture of games and expulsion from the tournament.

The usual penalty when a player violates a rule is to increase the opponent’s remaining time by two minutes; however, the tournament director in many cases has the authority to impose a different (harsher or lesser) penalty, or no penalty, at his/her discretion.

6. Announcing Check

You are not required to say “check” when you put your opponent in check, and most experienced players do not. Every player is always responsible for recognizing when he or she is in check.

If your opponent fails to recognize check and makes a move that does not get him or her out of check, you have the right to claim an illegal move. You may choose to make a claim or not. If you choose to make a claim, call a tournament director as explained under 5. Player Claims above. If you choose not to make a claim, you should, without making a move, immediately restart your opponent’s clock and point out the check. Whether or not you make a claim, your opponent must “take back” the move and make another legal move, subject to the touch-move rule.

When both you and your opponent fail to recognize a check, any later moves played stand until one player or the other recognizes the check, in which case you should pause the clock and bring the matter to the attention of a tournament director.

7. Rules for Draws

There are several ways for a game to end in a draw:

  • Stalemate: You are stalemated when (1) it is your move, (2) you are not in check, and (3) you have no legal move. This does not mean that you have no legal move for your king; it means that you have no legal move for any piece that you still have on the board.
  • Mutual Agreement: You and your opponent can agree to end the game as a draw. To do this, one of you offers a draw and the other accepts; but there are some rules about how to offer and accept a draw.
    • The correct time to offer a draw is after you move and before you press the clock. 
      • If you offer a draw after pressing the clock — that is, when it is your opponent’s move — your opponent may accept or reject your offer, or simply ignore it because you didn’t offer it in accordance with the rules.
      • If you offer a draw before making your move, your opponent has the right to have you move before deciding whether to accept or reject your draw offer. The draw offer stands until your opponent decides, regardless of what move you make, unless the move you play gives checkmate.
    • If you offer a draw correctly, your opponent must accept or reject it before moving. If your opponent moves without verbally accepting or rejecting it, the act of moving constitutes a rejection.
    • Once rejected, a draw offer is null. In this case either you or your opponent must make a new draw offer (on a different move) for the game to end as a draw by mutual agreement.
    • Frequently offering draws that your opponent rejects is unsportsmanlike behavior.
  • Insufficient Mating Material: The game is drawn if both players have insufficient mating material. In this case both you and your opponent have only a king, a king and a bishop, a king and a knight, or a king and two knights, and neither of you can force a checkmate.
  • Repetition of Position: If the identical position occurs for the third time in a game, either you or your opponent may claim a draw. Two positions are identical only if all the same pieces occupy precisely the same squares and possess the same rights with the same player to move. “Rights” refers to the ability to castle or to capture en passant. The occurrences of the same position do not need to be consecutive or even close together.
    • The correct time to claim a draw by repetition of position is when it is your move and you have not yet moved. Pause the clock and get the tournament director. (If you and your opponent are in agreement that a third occurrence of the position exists or will exist when the next move is played, there is no need to involve the tournament director to rule on a claim. In effect, this is the same as drawing by mutual agreement.)
      • If the third occurrence of the position will come about as a result of your next move, write your move down on your scoresheet but do not make it on the board. Writing the move on your scoresheet signals your intention to play that move.
      • If the third occurrence of the position already exists as a result of the last move played by your opponent, you do not need to make any move. In this case do not write anything down on your scoresheet.
      • If the tournament director confirms the claim, the game ends immediately as a draw; otherwise the game continues. The tournament director can and probably will impose a penalty for an improper claim.
    • When claiming a draw, you must be able to prove the repetition of position by: 
      • demonstrating a perpetual check, which is a situation where you can force the repetition of the same moves to keep your opponent in check; or 
      • demonstrating the occurrences from your scoresheet. If your scoresheet is incomplete or inaccurate so that the repetition of position cannot be demonstrated, your draw claim will not be upheld. You are not permitted to use your opponent’s scoresheet to help prove your claim.
    • A claim for a draw by repetition of position must be made on the move when the third (or later) occurrence of the position actually happens. If, after any occurrence of the position, a move is made that alters the position, a repetition of position claim cannot be made unless and until the precisely identical position occurs yet again.
  • 50-Move Rule: If both players make 50 consecutive moves without moving any pawn and without making any capture, then either player may claim that the game is a draw unless the last move played resulted in checkmate. This series of 50 moves can begin at any point during the game, but if any capture or pawn move occurs, the 50-move count must begin all over again. To claim a draw on the basis of the 50-move rule, you must either have a reasonably complete scoresheet or agree with your opponent on a third party (such as a tournament director) to count moves while you and your opponent continue the game.

8. Forfeits

Starting with the second round and for the remainder of the tournament, players who did not request a bye for a given round and do not appear at their assigned board for that round before half of their time for the time control has elapsed shall forfeit that game and be withdrawn from the tournament. A player who abandons a game in progress likewise forfeits. A player is considered to have abandoned a game if he or she (1) began the game by making one or more moves, (2) left the board and did not return for the duration of the round, and (3) did not resign or accept a draw offer before leaving the board. Any player withdrawn from the tournament because of a forfeit may ask the tournament director for readmission, which shall be at the tournament director’s discretion.     

Part III: Chess Notation

Chess notation is a system for recording the moves of a game. The official system now in use, algebraic notation, is described here. We strongly encourage players new to tournament chess to become familiar with notation by recording a few games before playing in their first tournament. However, such players should not be unduly concerned: while notation is required, perfect notation is not. Everyone makes mistakes and even very experienced players can forget to write down some moves. If you forget to write down one or more moves, just skip a line on your scoresheet and carry on from where you are in the game. The more games you record, the easier recording gets! Moreover, recording your games so that you can replay and analyze them is one the best ways to improve as a player.

Squares are identified using the files and ranks as coordinates (see diagram below):

  • The files are the rows of squares that run from one player to the other (or, in the diagram, “up and down” the board); they are labeled “a” through “h.” The ranks are the rows of squares that run across the board from left to right; they are numbered 1 through 8. Each square is identified by its file and rank: a6, d4, etc., with the file letter always preceding the rank number. Files are always identified by small (lower case) letters. Thus “b” designates only the b file.
  • The white pieces are set up on the side of the board where the files run from a on the left to h on the right, and the ranks run from 1 (closest) to 8 (farthest away).
  • From the point of view of the person playing black, the black pieces are set up on the side of the board where the files run from h on the left to a on the right, and the ranks run from 8 (closest) to 1 (farthest away).

Pieces are identified by letters:

  • K = King
  • Q = Queen
  • R = Rook
  • B = Bishop
  • N = Knight (be careful not to use “K” for a knight)
  • No letter is used for pawns
  • Pieces are always identified by capital (upper case) letters. Thus “B” designates only a Bishop.

Moves that do not involve capturing a piece are recorded as follows:

  • For pieces other than pawns, moves are recorded by identifying the piece being moved and its destination square. For example, Nf3 means that a knight moved to square f3.
  • For pawns, only the destination square is recorded. For example, e4 means that a pawn moved to square e4.

Moves that involve capturing a piece are recorded with an “x” inserted before the destination square. The “x” signifies a capture:

  • For pieces other than pawns, captures are recorded by identifying the piece being moved followed by an “x” and its destination square. For example, Nxf3 means that a knight moved to square f3, capturing a piece that was located there.
  • For pawns, captures are recorded by identifying the file that the pawn moved from followed by an “x” and its destination square. For example, exf6 means that a pawn moved from the e file to square f6, capturing a piece that was located there.

If two pieces of the same type can move to the same square, either the rank or the file that the piece moved from is indicated in order to make clear which piece was moved. For example, when a rook is on a1 and another rook is on f1, and they can both move to e1, the move is recorded as Rae1 if the a1 rook was moved, and as Rfe1 if the f1 rook was moved. Similarly if a knight is on f3 and another knight is on f5, either knight can capture a piece on d4, so the capture is recorded as either N3xd4 or N5xd4.

Special moves are noted as follows:

  • Check is indicated by “+” written at the end of the move, double check by “++”, and checkmate by a “#”; for example, Qa4+, Nh3++, Rd8#.
  • Castling is written as 0-0 when it is done on the kingside (the kingside of the board is files e through h) and as 0-0-0 when it is done on the queenside (the queenside is files a through d). A convenient way to remember these codes is that the number of zeroes corresponds to the number of squares that the rook moves when castling: two squares on the kingside and three on the queenside.
  • En passant capture is recorded as is any other pawn capture. For example, when a pawn on the e file moves to f6 and in the process captures a pawn that was on f5, the move is written “exf6.” The move record indicates the capturing pawn’s destination square, not the square occupied by the pawn that got captured.
  • Pawn promotion is written as any normal pawn move followed by “=” and the letter for the piece that replaces the pawn. For example, b8=Q indicates that a pawn was moved from b7 to b8 and promoted to a queen, while exf8=N indicates that a pawn on the e file captured a piece on f8 and was promoted to a knight. When the promotion results in check, double check, or checkmate, then +, ++, or # is added at the end of the move as applicable.

A complete move record comprises a move by white, always written in the left column, and a move by black, always written in the right column. Conventionally these move pairs are numbered, but the numbers are for convenience of reference and are not required for the game record. (On printed scoresheets the move numbers are pre-printed, so players do not need to write them.) This example illustrates:


To distinguish moves played by black from moves played by white when the moves are not presented in columns (as in a scoresheet), it is conventional to use an ellipsis (“…”) to designate moves played by black. Therefore, when an ellipsis precedes a move, it signifies the move was played by black and not by white. For example: “Bb4” can mean only that white moved a bishop to b4, while “… Bb4” can mean only that black moved a bishop to b4.

Only specific things can be recorded on a scoresheet, as detailed below: 

  • Before the game begins (usually), a player fills in the scoresheet header with identifying information, which may include some or all of these items: the players’ names by color, ratings, and pair number; the event name, date, section, round, board, and time control; and the opening played (to be filled in after the game is over).
  • While the game is being played, the players record only the moves played (by white and black), and optionally any or all of the following: the move numbers if these are not preprinted on the scoresheet, notations of time elapsed or remaining, and draw offers (designated by “=” written after the move when the offer is made). Players are not permitted to record any other comments or notations of any kind on the scoresheet.
  • When the game is over, the players may complete the scoresheet by recording the result and filling in information missing from the header. It is not uncommon that each player will also sign the other player’s scoresheet.

When either player has five minutes or less of time remaining, both players are excused from recording further moves.

All scoresheets used in a tournament are the property of the organizer of that tournament, who may choose to collect them or not. Sometimes the organizer specifies a particular scoresheet form that must be used in the tournament. In the case of the Menlo Park Chess Club, we offer US Chess pre-printed carbon copy scoresheets and the club keeps the copies, you keep the originals.

Illustrative Game

The illustrative game below uses algebraic notation and includes some comments, expressed with either symbols or words, as an example of analysis which might be added for the published game record after the game was played (this game was contrived only for the purposes of illustrating all the elements of algebraic notation and is decidedly not an example of good chess):

Black’s move results in discovered check (by the bishop). There is no notation to distinguish a discovered check from any other check.
Even though both of his rooks have the black knight en prise, white is unable to capture it because doing so would not rescue his king from the simultaneous check by the bishop. He has no choice but to move his king.

Since black already has a queen on the board, what does he use for this second queen? It is common now for tournament sets to include two queens of each color. Alternatively, players use a queen borrowed from another set, or (in the US) a rook turned upside down or even two pawns placed on the same square.

55Qcd2# or Q1d2#
 Qfe3# or Q4e3#
 Qcf1# or Q1f1#
 Qff1# or Q4f1#
And we see the final coup de grâce ― black can checkmate with any of four moves above, and each of these moves can be written in either of two ways.