What is the Swiss System?

People playing chess in Swanston Street.
The Swiss System. Regis Martin / Getty Images

In most chess tournaments, you’ll likely hear that organizers are using the “Swiss system” to determine pairings. Virtually every tournament that a club player participates in uses this system, with the exception of occasional round-robin events. Here’s a quick look at how this popular tournament format works.

Swiss-System Basics

The Swiss system was first used in a chess tournament in Zurich in 1895, which is how it earned its name.

In a Swiss-system tournament, players are never eliminated. Instead, players are paired in every round -- the number of rounds is predetermined -- and the winner is the player who earns the most points by the end of the tournament. Players typically earn a single point for a win and a half-point for a draw, though other scoring systems are possible. In every round, each player is paired against an opponent who has the same -- or a similar -- number of points in the tournament. 

Additional Rules and Variations

In a Swiss-system chess tournament, organizers try to give each player a similar number of White and Black games by the end of the event. Organizers rank players in each group according to a rating system where players are separated into a top and bottom half. Players in the top half of each group are then paired against those the bottom half.

For instance, if there are six players in the top-scoring group, player No.

1 will play against player No. 4, player No. 2 will be pitted against player No. 5 and player No. 3 will face off against player No. 6. This system is technically known as the "Dutch system," according to FIDE, the international chess federation. But this pairing method is still considered part of the Swiss system and is the most common form of pairing in Swiss tournaments.

Another pairing variation of the Swiss system is the Monrad system, which is often used in tournaments held in Norway and Denmark. In this system, pairings are slightly different than in the Dutch system. In this same six-person group, for example, player No. 1 would be paired against player No. 2, player No. 3 would face off against player No. 4 and player No. 5 would be pitted against player No. 6. 

Determining the Winner

In either pairing method, players cannot play the same opponent more than once in the same tournament. In larger events, players from the same club or school are often prevented from playing each other in early rounds or in games that will not have implications for the awarding of prizes. At the end of the tournament, players are ranked according to their cumulative scores. If there is a tie, the winner is determined by the total of his opponents' scores. Final rankings, for second, third place, fourth place and so on are determined in the same manner.