Playing in a chess tournament should be both a fun and challenging experience. It's certainly nothing to be scared of! However, many players who are new to tournament play feel a bit overwhelmed by the rules, customs, and requirements of the format, and some stay away just because they don't want to deal with any of the hassles they imagine they'll run into.
However, tournament chess is simple to get into, regardless of your level of experience or ability. Below, I've put together what I think is a fairly complete guide to playing in your first chess tournament. There's also a section at the end that talks about some of the special considerations that should be thought about when it comes to scholastic tournaments. Read up on this information, and you should be set to play in any chess tournament you come across!
Finding a Tournament
The first step in playing in a tournament, of course, is finding one. Many players start playing tournament chess by participating in a tournament at a local chess club. Many clubs hold regular tournaments where one round is played at every meeting, while other tournaments are played over the course of a single night. You should be able to find information about these events simply by visiting a local club (your national federation probably has a database of clubs on its website) or on their website, if they maintain one.
Another way to find tournaments is by looking at listings and announcements in chess publications. For instance, Chess Life features a Tournament Life Announcements section that features information on tournaments throughout the United States. This information is also available on the USCF website.
Registering for the Tournament
Depending on the tournament you enter, registration might be available in several forms. For a local club tournament, you'll probably enroll and pay your entry fee on site just before the tournament begins. For larger events, preregistration will likely be available, either online or by mail (or sometimes through both). Typically, preregistering will give you a slight discount over the "on-site" registration price. In some cases, on-site registration might not be offered at all!
When you register for a large tournament, there may be many options for sections that you can join. Since this is your first tournament, you should join a section that allows unrated players to participate. This always includes the Open section (in which anyone can play), but often also includes other sections that are restricted to players below a certain rating level.
Joining Your Federation
If you're playing in an event that is rated, you'll need to be a member of the organization or federation that is rating the tournament. For instance, in the United States, you'll want to join the USCF before attempting to play in any USCF-rated tournaments. Membership in your national federation is likely available online, and might come with some additional benefits, such as magazine memberships or discounts on equipment. If for some reason you forget or are unable to purchase a membership before the tournament begins, you should be able to join up at the tournament site.
What to Bring
Any time you enter a tournament, it's a good idea to bring a full set of chess equipment with you. While some tournaments will provide sets and boards, most do not, and it is always better to be on the safe side. Even if the tournament you play in does provide equipment, having your own will make it easier to play skittles games between rounds and analyze your games.
A good chess bag (which you'll likely find on sale at any major tournament) will carry all the equipment you need. That includes a set and board (make sure to use standard plastic or wooden pieces and a board with colors that are easy on the eyes, such as white and green squares for vinyl boards), a chess clock, and a book (and pencils!) for recording your games. If you don't have a clock yet, that's okay; your opponent normally will. However, if you'll be playing in many tournaments, it is definitely worth your while to purchase one for yourself.
Starting the Tournament
When you arrive at the tournament, make sure that you are registered properly. There should be an area where tournament information is posted to a wall, which - before the tournament - should include a list of all registered players.
Shortly before the first round, the pairings will go up. The pairings will tell you who you are playing, and where your game will be held. A typical pairing includes a board number, and will also let you know if you are playing white or black. Your opponent's name will also be listed, sometimes alongside their rating (which you can safely ignore). Find your board and sit down, setting up your equipment if necessary. Even if you and your opponent arrive early, wait until the tournament director tells you to start your clock to begin, as there may be some important announcements before the tournament begins.
Once the game is ready to start, shake your opponent's hand and have Black hit the clock. Enjoy playing your first tournament game!
Throughout the Tournament
After your first game ends, make sure to record your result on the pairings sheet. The tournament director will need this information to pair the next round. Even if you've lost your game, don't leave the tournament; players are not eliminated from chess tournaments for losing, and can continue to participate until the final round ends, regardless of their result.
At the start of each round, new pairings will be listed. Standings and other information will also be regularly updated so that you can see how you're doing, what kinds of prizes are being offered, and what your chances are of winning them.
If you decide that you can't play in a given round, you must let the tournament director know as early as possible. If you are just going to miss one round, you can likely receive a bye for that round (meaning you'll be given a half-point without needing to play). You may also receive a bye if there are an odd number of players going into a given round (in this case, you'll receive a full point, since you did not request the bye). If you feel you won't be coming back for any of the remaining rounds, you can instead withdraw from the tournament. However, it's still very important to tell the tournament director ahead of time, so that they know not to pair you for any future rounds.
After the Final Round
When your final game is over, report your result as normal. If you think you have a chance to win a prize, you'll want to stick around to see how the results play out and claim your winnings should you finish in one of the top spots. Note that you don't have to win all - or even most - of your games to win a prize in every case; many tournaments have prizes for the top player under a certain rating, or even the top unrated player, both of which you may qualify for.
Once the prizes have been awarded, your first tournament is completed! Within a week or two, you'll receive a rating based on your results. In the United States, you can look this up on the USCF website under the Member Services Area.
Scholastic tournaments are generally run in the same way as tournaments for adults, with a few notable exceptions. First, it's more likely that equipment will be provided for tournament players. While you should still bring your equipment just in case, it's hardly a disaster if you happen to forget.
It's also less important to get a federation membership before playing in a scholastic tournament. Most local scholastic tournaments feature both rated and unrated sections, allowing players who aren't ready for "real" tournament play a chance to compete for trophies against other novices. In these sections, rules enforcement is more about educating players than punishing infractions, and clocks are rarely (if ever) used. In fact, many scholastic sections only use clocks for games that are going long and threatening to hold up the tournament. Similarly, many scholastic tournaments do not require players to record their games (though it's a good idea for players who feel comfortable doing so).
When it comes time to play tournament games, keep in mind that parents are rarely allowed to stay in the tournament area while the children are playing. This means that as a parent, you'll have to wait outside (or in another room) while your son or daughter competes. If this makes your child nervous, remind them that you won't be far away, and that they should just have a good time playing their game so that they can tell you all about it later.
Finally, even if your child loses most or all of their games, there's no reason to leave early. In many scholastic events - especially in sections for new or young players - every single player will receive something just for finishing the tournament. While the top finishers will still get trophies commemorating their achievements, other players may receive medals for participation. If your child came with a team of players from his school, they may also win a team trophy that they can bring back to their school!