Picking The Right Chess Tournament Section

AnalysisChessStrategyTournamentOver the board
You plan a tournament and realize you could play two different sections. The question is: Which section should you play in?

Here is how you decide which section to play in without feeling remorse afterward.

Pros And Cons

In short, the higher-up section is better for your long-term improvement as a player, while the lower section can help you boost your self-confidence and aid your short-term growth.

Here are the pros and cons:

Higher Section

Playing mostly against higher-rated opponents, you have some big improvement advantages but also some risks involved.

  • More learning opportunities
  • Higher Motivation
  • No Pressure


  • More Losses
  • Opponents that are too strong (300+ points stronger)
  • Bad results lead to demotivation

Lower Section

Playing mostly against lower-rated opponents, you will feel more pressure and have higher expectations, but the likelihood of many positive results (wins) is higher.

  • Fight for 1st = Motivation
  • More wins = Higher self-confidence
  • Prize Money


  • High Pressure
  • Less learning opportunities
  • Too easy wins


Open Section

In addition to specific rating sections, sometimes you have the chance to play an open-for-all section. These sections have the benefit of potentially being paired against a titled player.

Depending on your rating and the amount of tournaments you play, this can be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The problem with Open tournaments is that most games you will play will have a big rating gap.

You get paired either down (>-200 points) or up (>+200 points). Those games have the risk of being too one-sided. This results in fewer learning opportunities.

Play open sections only if you have no choice or love the thrill of playing stronger players (but are ok with losing without a real fight from time to time).

Which Chess Tournament Section Should I Play In? Step #1

The first step for any decision should be asking yourself: what am I aiming for?

If you want to impress your crush by winning many games, the lower section is for you. On the other hand, if you want to learn as much as possible and grow as a player, the higher section is better.

Understanding what your (long-term) goals are is important to be able to make a well-informed decision.

In short:

  • Win many games & play for prizes = Lower Section
  • Become the best possible chess player = Higher Section
  • Potentially play a GM = Open Section

Which Chess Tournament Section Should I Play In? Step #2

As you read a chess improvement article, I believe you will most likely optimize for growth and improvement. With that goal in mind, playing the higher section is logical.

But there are still some risks involved.

Even if you want to improve as much as possible, it might be that a bad tournament has such a horrible short-term effect that it is a risk not worth taking.

The worst-case scenario would be losing so many games that you end up quitting chess.

No learning opportunity is worth risking to give up your hobby! Yes, it would also be good to work on your mindset in that case, but that’s a discussion for another time.

Step two is a very simple but not so easy to answer question. Ask yourself:

“Am I able to enjoy and learn from this experience even if I lose a lot of games in a row?”

If you are like GM Vincent Keymer, who took going 0/9 as a Kid like a true champ and now is close to the Top 10 of the World, then you should always go for the higher-up section. You will learn more, push yourself harder, and progress much quicker.

On the other hand, if you haven’t played OTB in a while, or this is your first tournament, I would recommend taking it a little easier and going with the simpler route (the lower section).

The idea is to fuel your motivation and love for the game with a positive tournament experience so you have more future learning opportunities.


Instead of a never-ending decision tree leading to some emotional decision, you can ask yourself two simple questions to decide which tournament section you should play in.

#1: What am I optimizing for?
#2: Am I able to enjoy and learn from this experience even if I lose a lot of games in a row?

Then, make a decision without second-guessing yourself. You shouldn’t sit at the board and think, “If I only played in the other section...”

No matter in which section you play, have fun, give all you can in every game, analyze all your games, and learn from the experience.

Once the tournament is over, reflect on your choice and make an even better decision next time.

Keep improving,

This article was originally posted on my own Blog, NextLevelChess.
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