How are colors decided in chess tournaments? (Explored!)

The colors that you’ll get to use in chess can dictate a lot about the approach you will take. Lines from white for example are not applicable if you are wielding black.

So it is really important especially in a competitive setting, which will be the center of discussion here. How do chess tournaments get to decide the participant’s colors? Do players get some knowledge on what color they will play?

Colors are decided in tournaments by associating a color pairing on a bracket and giving the appropriate colors to players who land on the bracket. This ensures that players will have an equal amount of white and black instead of relying on chance.

The complete answer of course would have a wide variety of detail since tournaments are played all over the world (with different conditions). In fact, I have found some uncommon stuff that is unique to a specific country.

I don’t want to keep you waiting here, let’s begin immediately.

Will the organizers determine the color pairings beforehand?

If you’ve spent some time learning the rules of tournament chess, you’ll notice that the arbiters (basically referee) play some major role in these kinds of things. 

The organizers have the power to set a particular order of color rotation at their discretion. This power can override other factors unless there’s an ethical issue.

I have participated in a tournament before where the alternative colors are submitted to us beforehand. We did not vote or will any particular order to which we will play the colors, the arbiters did all that.

For the most part, the organizers will determine the color of the player at each round. If the directors are competent they will have several considerations when publishing the final (color) pairings.

You don’t get to choose your color, even if you negotiate. The organizers will seek to provide a fair environment by ensuring everyone get equal colors.

Of course there are exceptions to this but only when the arbiters allowed it. If the color pairings have been dictated beforehand, expect that there is no room for change.

Even if you and your opponents have somehow decided what color to play, it would not be a factor (unless the organizers decided so). This keeps things just for participants who have prepared for both colors.

After all one player can extensively study a particular color in detail hence the negotiation, but unable to play the other.

This means that the participant will already gain a significant advantage that is not available to other competitors (which makes it unfair).

Is the type of tournament a factor for the color pairings?

Organizers would decide for the most part yes, but they also have considerations to based their decision from. One of the primary factors is the type of tournament.

Several tournament formats will have “a bracketing” system that has a particular color in it then, whoever lands to that bracket will play the paired color.

This is a strict condition that is usually followed when determining color rotations in top tournaments. Prestigious competitions can be quite controversial if the organizers will have a lot of power.

For the most part, the organizers can only dictate the color in lower or mid-tier tournaments (although the tournament format is a consideration still).

Different tournament format will naturally have different color swapping, especially again, if it is pretty serious. There will be slots depending on the tournament format, and participants will take hold of the slots deciding the color.

This is an official practice that is commonly observed to keep any third party away from reach. Very important events in the chess world should be conducted away from any possible favoritism.

Some of the factors of the pairings are player ratings, recent placements, etc. especially if it is a world event that there are specific conditions to qualify.

Some pairings can even change as the tournament standings develop, therefore messing with the color rotation (Swiss).

The performance of the player will determine their opponents (in Swiss), therefore the color alternate should also swap as the standing progresses.

In the Swiss tournament format, the color of the players is not known at the start of the tourney. The initial pairing is determined by draw lots, then calculation takeover.

This means that it is one of the rare occasions where the colors are decided by chance (draw lots), but only at the start.

Another quirk that I have discovered (in Swiss) is that the bracket is added in a way where the stronger player is on the top.

It means that stronger players will always have White on this tournament format (if equal in performance). It is not only in swiss though, different tournaments can also host different color arrangements.

Will you get an equal amount of White/Black in a chess tournament?

We have learned that some tournament formats can change the color as they develop. That is applicable mostly to serious competitions though.

The organizers would ensure that every player gets an equal amount of colors most of the time, with few exceptions such as that of swiss.

Usually, all players would play both colors as equally as possible if there are no special cases (in lower-tier tournaments). And I think this will answer your question more if you’re not consistently engaged in serious chess.

But since I have joined a tournament before, I can tell you some things from personal experience. And one of those is the colors don’t really alternate, but still should be equally distributed in the end.

Yes you will change colors, but it is not a single flow (alternate) I had cases where I’ve played white 3 times in a row. It is surprisingly hard to predict the colors you will play in specific rounds.

They will only let you know about the next color after the game (from my second tournament), although some practices may differ.

Though I got to say, my first tournament granted us knowledge of color pairings beforehand so it might be an organizational-diverse thing.

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Do different federations impose different color pairings?

All the specifics that I’ve talked about earlier are applied in Fide (international body) but there are federations that do their own rules. 

In USCF (United States) tournament participants are allowed to settle their color at the very start of the round.

The color rotations can of course vary depending on the federation (like most of the tournament rules) The one I’ve discussed is from Fide (international body) but should not be conclusive.

Different federations will impose different rules regarding the colors. In lower tournaments in the United States (USCF) participants are asked to sort the colors out themselves via coin toss for example.

This may seem like the one in swiss (where they’ve got to perform a draw lot) with one other caveat. The players themselves can actually choose to negotiate the color unlike in Fide (swiss).

This is a common practice in USCF but is definitely highly discouraged on Fide. Though this only happens in the first round as a sort of ritual, the colors get distributed after that equally.

This to prevent the point that I’ve brought earlier, which is the player only preparing for one color and dominating. I believe they only allow the initial pairings to dictate the rest of the tournament (which should still be equal in the end).

How is the color pairing determined in tie-breakers?

Tie-breakers are a special breed of matches since they usually don’t follow regular conditions. And it should be since it is not designed to find a winner out of a long tournament struggle.

The color a player will get in tie-breakers are dictated by draw lots or other deciding rituals based on luck.

A tie-breaker will shove any event bracketing format since the event is technically over and there are no conditions to pull from. The organizers of course can sort of the colors if the tie-breaker is in a series (not in an individual match).

Armageddon however (ultimate tie-breaking match) can only be decided by a form of draw lots. Black after all in that particular time control is more favorable than white.

If you are curious as to why, this article (will open in a new tab) will tell you all about armageddon. But basically, white has extra time and has to win while black has a lesser time but can win on a draw.

To learn the full details you should check out the link (if you have time).

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In some posts, I embed this section with products related to that specific post so you may see this section throughout the website.

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Why is knowing the color in tournaments important?

Knowledge of the color to be played will help a player decide on a particular opening to prepare, as well as to what extent in which opponent.

After all, you can’t play an opening with white if you are black. Knowledge of the color is important to appropriately apply the correct openings, as well as to provide an approximation of the research’s depth.

The research (preparation) will adjust depending on the color the player will handle on a specific opponent. Colors determine the preparation, especially when a participant is an expert on a particular line.

Whether the “expert line” turns out to be applicable for white or black can change how things are conditioned. A player will get crushed if they prepared an inappropriate line that they won’t get to use because of the color rotation.

Some adept coaches and players can accurately tell which color they get on which round. You will naturally learn this with experience, this article just helps to paint the general picture (not specific).

Anyway, I still hope that I have sufficiently provided what you came here for. That is the point of this blog, sleep well and play chess.

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