Scoring Systems in Chess Tournaments

How tournament organizers work to avoid draws

Midsection Of Businessman Playing Chess At Table
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Most tournament chess players are familiar with the traditional method of scoring a chess tournament. However, there have been many alternative systems attempted over the years, ranging from small and simple changes to complete overhauls of the current scoring system. Here are a few of the more notable scoring systems used in chess history.

Illustration of chess tournament scoring systems

Illustration: The Spruce / Maritsa Patrinos

Traditional Scoring

In most chess tournaments held since the middle of the 19th century, there has been a very simple scoring system used. Players who scored a win in a game were awarded a point, while those scoring draws were given a half-point. Losing a game, as you might expect, was worth zero points.

There were, and continue to be, many good reasons why this system became the standard in tournament play. First, there’s a certain logic to the “zero-sum” nature of the scoring. Every game is worth exactly one point, and (barring unusual circumstances such as double forfeits) the players will also find a way to split that point amongst them. It’s very simple for fans to keep track of, and while a score can’t always tell you at a glance how many games a player has won or lost, it can at least tell you if the player has more wins or losses. For instance, a player with a 4/7 score can also have their score expressed as 4-3, or +1, which tells us that they won one more game than they lost during the tournament.

Another argument in favor of this scoring system in modern chess is that the rating system is based on the idea that a draw is half as valuable as a win. If scoring systems are changed to incentivize wins over draws, players may play in ways that are successful in tournaments, but which hurt them in the ratings, making those ratings less accurate.

3-1-0 Scoring

Recently, some tournaments have moved to a 3-1-0 scoring format. This format has also been called Football Scoring, thanks to the fact that it has widely been adopted in soccer leagues around the world.

In this system, players are given an added incentive to win games. Each win is worth three points, while a draw is only worth one, and losses are still worth zero. The major difference in this scoring system is that players who score a win and a loss are ranked above those who have scored two draws (three points vs. two), so fighting play is encouraged.

Many organizers have used such a scoring system as a way to discourage draws in tournament play, arguably with some level of success. Since a player must only win more than one-third of their decisive games to do better than drawing every game, many risky moves are actually correct to play, even if the outcome is unclear.

One interesting consequence of this scoring system is that it is possible for a player who would have finished behind someone under traditional scoring to finish above them under the 3-1-0 system. While both systems are essentially arbitrary, these results still seem “incorrect” to many players, as the traditional scoring system has become deeply ingrained in the culture of chess. A more convincing concern is the potential for collusion when such a system is used in double round-robin events, as friendly players could do better by “trading wins” rather than simply drawing two games against each other.

Other Scoring Systems

From time to time, organizers have tried more radical approaches to changing the scoring system in order to liven up their events. One notable effort in recent years was the Ballard Antidraw Point System, better known as BAPS. The scoring system was the brainchild of Clint Ballard, a chess organizer in Washington who was looking for a way to ensure that players wouldn’t want to draw their games. His answer was BAPS, which scored games as follows:

  • Black Wins: 3 Points
  • White Wins: 2 Points
  • Draws: 1 point for Black, 0 points for White
  • Losses: 0 Points

Given the slight disadvantage for Black, the second player is consistently given more points for the same result as White. However, White has a second disadvantage: they do not receive any points whatsoever for a draw. This makes a draw no better than a loss for White. The scoring system was most prominently used in a “Slugfest” tournament organized by Ballard back in 2005 but was not otherwise widely used.