The Never-Ending Dilemma

It’s the dilemma that every chess player faces prior to every open tournament.  “Do I play ‘up,’ or do I play in my section?”  I can recall asking myself this question too often to count.  I go through the exact same procedure that I bet you, reader, go through as well.  I place myself into the pre-registrations, dismiss the first round byes, slice the field in half, and match up one-to- one to see who I would play if the standings didn’t change.  After much deliberation, weighing the pros and cons of each decision, you finally do make that choice.  I know – after some point, it does get repetitive.  However, there’s actually more you have to think about than just the ratings and the people around you.  Today, we will discuss a couple of these other factors you should include in your decision-making process.

#1:  The number of rounds and the length of the tournament

Thinking about the number of rounds and the length of the tournament (number of days) should definitely help you narrow down your choices and make the overall decision easier.  I’m sure most of us, if not all, have come back home from a tournament to find ourselves exhausted and physically unable to function any longer.  From what I’ve realized, this is somewhat correlated to the number of rounds played per day.  Some tournaments these days have 3-4 rounds per day and only last one day in order to fit more in a shorter amount of time.  If the tournament schedule looks a little something like this, I suggest you play in your section.  The reasoning is this – playing more than two games will make you tired.  On top of that, we all know how grueling it is to play higher-rated players; more often than not, the game uses almost all of the time allotted.  Playing these long games along with having to play multiple per day will physically kill you, and possibly before you even finish the day.  Playing up with more than a couple rounds per day is a recipe for disaster.  Now, here’s a second situation.  Imagine this is a tournament with a very relaxed schedule – one to two games per day.  The typical open tournament has five rounds, so we’ll go with this.  This means that the tournament will span three days.  As a result of the fewer number of games per day, tiredness should not be as much of a problem.  So, playing up doesn’t seem all too bad here.  However, there’s another point to consider.  In a five-round tournament, there might not be enough rounds to give you a chance to perform well.  Assuming you are one of the lower seeds and end up losing the first couple of rounds, it will probably be around round 4 that you finally play someone around your rating.  By that time, you might just want to end the tournament and might finish around 1.5/5.  Also, there’s always a chance that being one of the lowest seeds might leave you with a full-point bye in one of the rounds, which would mean you only play four games now.  So, the fact that five rounds might be too short to perform well might be a deterrent to playing up.  From this, we can conclude that a five-day tournament over three days can go either way – a tossup if you will.  You can either play up or play in your section.  But we’re not done yet – there’s a third situation, and it is the polar opposite of the first one.  Let’s say this is a longer tournament at nine rounds played over five days.  Many of America’s large open tournaments follow this format.  Here, we still have one to two rounds per day; but now, there are four more rounds.  The difference here, compared to the previous situation, is that there is no shortage of rounds when playing up.  Firstly, these tournaments have many more participants, so it is much less likely to receive a full-point bye.  Secondly, the surplus of rounds gives you an opportunity to play a variety of ratings.  Think of it like this – you get a few opportunities to perform well against higher rated players.  If you do perform well, great for you, you’ll be rewarded with even more chances to repeat success.  If you don’t, then so be it; the rating impact won’t be much.  In this case, you’ll get the chance to play other players who also haven’t had the best of luck; then, it’s an even match.  If you win the games against people at your rating or lower while trying your best against the higher rated players, it can definitely be labeled as a successful tournament.  With these in mind, I suggest that tournaments like these are ones that are ripe with opportunity if you play up.

#2:  Consistency vs. Variety

We all hope for that one good result in a tournament, and it usually means playing up.  Sometimes, people are so set on trying to achieve this goal that they never give themselves an opportunity to prove themselves in their own section.  Sure, the periodic increase in rating might be all that matters, but there’s a chance that rating gains due to this could very well be inflated – that is, higher than the level that the player performs at.  So, when the time comes where you finally play people at your own level or below, it might be much harder to beat them than at first thought!  You might wonder, “Why am I not able to beat the players below me?”  The answer is quite clear – they aren’t played enough.  Playing so many higher rated players has probably changed the mindset to the point where you forget how to play against lower rated players.  This is why I suggest to you, don’t always play up (Alice Dong recently discussed this topic a bit, you can find her article here).  This goes the same for playing in your section.  Eventually, once you become good enough at beating players below you, it is probably time that you try playing up once or twice to try your luck – it will probably pay off!  It is best to have a variety of options at your disposal.  Play a couple tournaments in your section, build rating and experience, and then give the higher section a go.

Obviously, there is never a 100% reason for why you must play in a certain section over another.  There are always exceptions, and benefits do exist.  However, the views presented here are merely just suggestions based on the experiences I’ve gained throughout my chess career.  I hope you are able to take these other factors into consideration the next time a decision has to be made about which section to play in, and it may help your game, too!  As always, I will see you next time.

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