Originally posted January 1, 2013.
Parents often ask how tie-breaks work, and the explanation is very technical. As a player, I never spent too much time reading about how the process works. I just trusted that the tournament directors (actually their tournament directing software) does things fairly.
The United States Chess Federation Rulebook (5th edition) dedicates a large and detailed chapter explaining tie-breaks (and it is a very boring read). It is even harder to explain it to others, because it is very technical, and requires examples with numbers in it.
What are tiebreaks? They are an automated process that determines who wins a trophy when more than one person has the same score.
Tiebreaks are usually done automatically using the Swiss Sys Chess or WINTD Tournament software. Tournament directors have the discretion to use tiebreaks that are supported by the United States Chess Federation. Furthermore, we announce them ahead of time to avoid confusion.
There are NO perfect tiebreaks (the rulebook even says that). The only thing a tournament organizer can do is use tiebreaks consistently (and even then, changes sometimes have to be made depending on the size of the tournament and structure).
Here is a little guide to help understand the tiebreaks we've used at Panda Chess Academy for the first 275 tournaments (at the time of writing this). These examples all show 3 round tournaments.
3 points: This is a perfect score. This guarantees first place. No questions asked.
2.5 out of 3: This is often the highest score. Sometimes it ties for 1st place.
If two players end up with 2.5 because they drew each other in the last round, they are required to do a play-off game to see who receives the trophy. This is to discourage players from "agreeing to a draw" without playing a hard fought 3rd round game. The downside of having a play-off game is that it makes the tournament run longer. Also the play-off game is usually a faster time control. At Panda Chess Academy we have the players who took a last round draw first switch colors, then play a 5 minute plus 5 second delay playoff game. This is only to determine who wins the 1st place trophy.
We use this tie-break system here only because we noticed that many players were agreeing to "quick" draws in round 3 with the logic that both would win 1st place trophies. An example of a quick draw is where both players play a few moves, then agree to a draw very early in the opening or middle game.
Agreeing to draws is very bad for kids, but it is sometimes done in a way that is illegal. If someone says: "If we take a draw, we both get a trophy" that is actually considered cheating. But overall, we use this play-off tie-break just to help kids avoid taking short draws and learning bad habits.
If two players end up with 2.5, but they did not draw each other in the last round (like they had a draw in the first round but beat other players and both arrived at 2.5 points in round 3) then they will both receive 1st place trophies. The logic is that both players, when they drew in round 1, had no idea that it would get them 1st place with 2.5 by the end of round 3.
2 points: If two players tie for first place with 2 out of 3, the trophy goes to the winner between the two that tie. If Bob has 2 points and Joe has 2 points, and Bob beat Joe, then Bob wins the trophy. The logic is: "When the two players that tied played each other, the player that won the game deserves to be the champion."
2 points is sometimes the highest score also.
3 way tie with 2 points: If 3 players have 2 points, we have a 3-way tie. Whoever wins round 1 and 2 is the champion and receives the trophy. There are not many good options for 3-way ties in a 4 person tournament.
When there are 4 people in a section, and 3 of them tie for first place, every tie-break option is imperfect. The method we use, of awarding the "early round winners" is known as the "Cumulative" method according to the USCF rulebook.
4 way ties for 1st place (!?): This has only happened once out of about 270 tournament, but if there s a 4-way tie then no one receives a trophy. This can happen if everyone draws every round. As a "rookie" tournament director, it never occurred to me that this is a possibility. Now I know!
Losing on tiebreaks is never fun. When I was a young player, I've had tiebreaks go in my favor and against me many times. One time, tiebreaks made me the state champions and I got to travel to a big tournament in Hawaii because of it. And I felt that the person I beat on tiebreaks was a much better player than me… and I didn't feel good winning this way. But the system was announced ahead of time, and my opponent, Andrei Zaremba, who is a good friend of mine now, was very gracious about it. I never asked why I won on tiebreaks.. I just know that the computer said I won.
Overall, the only thing a tournament organizer can do is keep the system consistent, and share the rules with the participants ahead of time.
Sometimes parents seem to question the tiebreak system or they seem suspicious that we are just making it up. Perhaps they assume that we are giving it to the kid who has the nicest smile, or the youngest kid because we want to encourage them. No, we have no problem saying "sorry, you did not win the trophy." It is always awkward when parents ask us to explain to them why their kid did not win a trophy, but we try our best to communicate this extremely technical topic. Tiebreaks are a consistent method that directors use. It's just incredibly boring and complicated to explain it. And again, different tournaments with different structures have to use different tie-breaks.
I do not think it is necessary for people to understand the tiebreaks to be a successful chess player. When I won on tiebreaks and lost on them, I never really thought: "I wonder if they did them correctly." I've always understood that it's complicated, automated, and if I really want to ask questions, the tournament directors will be there to provide boring answers.
If you are a parent who has questions about tiebreaks, please ask a tournament director privately. It's a bit awkward explaining to the parent, with kids present, why their kid did not win tiebreaks. I've had to do this a few times.. and it just feels bad having this type of "open discussion" involving very technical rules, just to explain to a young child why he didn't receive the trophy.
Also I can guarantee that if I ever make a mistake in tiebreaks (it's basically impossible to make this type of mistake) I will make sure the proper recipient receives the trophy plus an apology.