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Sandbagging in Chess

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If you’ve played in any major chess tournaments, you may have run into players talking about other players who they believe are “sandbagging.” This is a practice that is generally frowned upon, and many tournaments take steps to prevent players from sandbagging whenever possible.

What is Sandbagging?

Sandbagging is the process of purposely lowering a rating in order to hide one’s true strength. Players will generally do this by losing games that have little meaning to them (other than in terms of rating points), such as in local club tournaments, in order to have a lower rating for a major event.

The key here is that in order for losses to be considered sandbagging, players must be losing on purpose for the specific purpose of lowering their rating. A player that simply goes on a losing streak, or one who changes their opening repertoire and suffers a few losses as a result is not sandbagging. Also, choosing to study and not play in tournaments – thus improving a player’s strength, but not their rating – is not a form of sandbagging, as players are never compelled to play in rated events.

Why Sandbag?

Players will normally sandbag in order to qualify for a lower section at a major open tournament. Since every section in a major open event (such as the World Open) will have substantial prize money, sandbagging allows players to compete against weaker competition and give them a better chance of winning thousands of dollars by winning or placing highly in their section.

Combating Sandbaggers

Tournament organizers do have some tools at their disposal in order to combat the process of sandbagging. Most notably, tournament organizers can put into place rules that do not allow players who have ever had a rating substantially higher than the cutoff for a section to play in that section. Usually, this restriction will only last for a short period of time; for instance, for an Under 1400 section, there may be a rule that players with ratings over 1450 in the last year cannot participate. This prevents players from sandbagging in the months before a tournament, but does not punish players who had a hot streak years ago or who have lost playing strength over the years.

Other techniques can also be used. Players who have had good results at an organizer’s tournaments may be saddled with a “minimum rating” that applies at all of that organizer’s events, thus preventing them from sandbagging in the future.

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