Just The Rules: Nine Rules of Thumb for Color Distribution

"What color am I playing next?"

It is a time-honored tradition for players to study the wallchart searching for their next opponent. Wallcharts nowadays can be generated by pairing programs from the top scores on down for every round. This automatically places players in order within their appropriate score groups. Results sheets are often posted close by. That makes it easy for wood-pushers to see which players they could face in the next round.

First: check for byes, withdrawals, and other players dropping in or out of your score group. Only then can you split your group in half to find your probable next rival (top half vs bottom half pairings). Now, calculate what color you will play.

Ideally players alternate between playing the white and black pieces from one round to the next. Unfortunately, that is not always possible. Rule 29E (Color Allocation) takes up 13-plus pages of ink in dealing with color assignments. Even then, all the bases don’t seem to get covered. Within those 13-plus pages are nine TD TIPs, many detailed examples and seven variations of the basic color assignment rules. If you are interested in the details, check out 29E’s examples.

This column will not try to cover 13-plus pages of all that material. Instead, here are some “Rules of Thumb” that cover the basic ideas that help players guess at their next color assignment. Or, you can just wait for the TD to fire up their pairings program and crank out the games for the next round.


ONE:Rules of Thumb” are only estimations.

“Rules of Thumb” are not totally accurate. Rather, they are just general tips that work most of the time. There are going to be occasional rare exceptions.


TWO: Typically, a player will not play the same color three games in a row.

Playing the same color three times in a row is a rarity, yet, rulebook-wise, it is possible. One way is when there is no other way to pair a score group. Next, if a player needs to equalize the number of times they played the white and black pieces. Which brings us to…


THREE: Equalizing the color assignments for a player is more important than alternating colors.

This concept is typically called “due color.” The rules aim at making sure as often as possible that wood-pushers have played the white and black pieces the same number of times while also rotating between being the general of the white and black pieces.

Remember, in the even-numbered rounds balancing the color assignment is one of the primary goals.


Example: In a six round tournament, Player A was assigned B-W-B-B-W in their first five games. Balancing the number of both colors assigned — three blacks and three whites — is the aim for round six. According to our “Rule of Thumb,” this player’s due color for round six is white.


In the odd numbered rounds, there will always be a color imbalance. With an odd number of games there will be an odd number of color distributions.

By the way, FIDE more often emphasizes alternating colors rather than balancing colors.


FOUR: Byes and forfeits don’t count towards due color.

Example: Player A has essayed B-W-B-B-W while Player B has played B-W-BYE-W-B.

Player A has been the general of the black pieces more often than with the white pieces, so the colors are out of balance. Player B has had the colors of white and black assigned to them the same number of times: two of each (that bye does not count for color). If player A plays the black pieces in the next round— round six for them — that would mean four blacks in six games. If Player B plays either color in their next game— their fifth game — they would be out of balance either way. Their pairing is:

Player A (B-W-B-B-W-W) – Player B  (B-W-BYE-W-B-B)


FIVE: Swapping players is the preferred tool when fixing due color problems.

One player can be swapped — within limits — for another in the same score group. That way, as many players as possible get assigned their “due color.” These swaps can get very complicated, especially if the swap pairs two rivals that have essayed an earlier game against each other (not replaying the same opponent again trumps color assignment rules). Swaps avoid many of the nuances required in our “Rules of Thumb.” Swaps may produce unfair pairings by exchanging a much lower rated wood pusher for a much higher rated opponent. So, switches of more than 80 points between those players, to balance or alternate colors, are not recommended.


Example 1. The natural top half of the score group vs the bottom half of the score group pairings:

Player A 1594 (W-B-W) – Player B 1595 (W-B-W)

Player C 1550 (B-W-B) – Player D 1510 (B-W-B)


If Players B and D swap places the color assignments are solved. And the switch is well within the 80-point range.


Player D 1510 (B-W-B-W) – Player A 1594 (W-B-W-B)

Player C 1550 (B-W-B-W) – Player B 1595 (W-B-W-B)


Why the 80-point rule? Try this out:


Example 2. The natural top half of the score group vs the bottom half of the score group pairings:


Player A 2001 (W-B-W) – Player B 1967 (W-B-W).

Player C 1904 (B-W-B) – Player D 1705 (B-W-B).


The swap of Players B and D is a lot more than an 80-point difference. While the color assignments get solved, look at the difference in those ratings — and therefore the playing strengths — between Players B and D. That swap would result in a 262-point difference — far from the 80-point limit — and a huge mismatch. A better choice is the swap of Players C and B. Their rating difference is only a 63-point spread. It also solves the color problems for all four players without any huge mismatches:


Player C 1904 (B-W-B-W) – Player A 2001 (W-B-W-B).

Player D 1705 (B-W-B-W) – Player B 1967 (W-B-W-B).


Yes, there is also a 200-point switcheroonie rule. It involves more complex swaps in order to solve way out of balance color problems. If you are interested check out rule 29E5b. These “Rules of Thumb” adhere to the “keep it simple” principle. This way, color assignments can be worked out in one’s head from the wallchart. That 200-point rule only kicks in when things are not simple plus way out of whack.


SIX: The player that is most out of balance typically gets their due color.

Example: Player A has essayed the colors W-W-B-W. Player B’s color scheme was W-B-B-W.

Player A has a surplus of three whites in four games. Player B’s colors are perfectly balanced. Player A is assigned to defend with the black pieces in their upcoming contest with Player B. Their round five pairing:

Player B (W-B-B-W-W) – Player A (W-W-B-W-B)


SEVEN: The higher-ranked player gets the nod for equalizing color assignments.

If opponents are within the same score group, then higher-ranked means higher-rated.

If an opponent comes from outside a higher score group, they are considered the higher ranked player even if their rating is lower than their opponent’s. The 2½/3 score group has an odd number of wood pushers. The lowest rated player in that group — Player A, rated 1502 — drops down to find an opponent in the 2/3 score group. Their opponent is Player B, rated 1599. Player A is the higher ranked player.

If two opponents have exactly the same color history in exactly the same order, the higher-ranked player will get the nod for their “due color” assignment.


EIGHT: Out of balance colors? Different color histories? Due the same color? Look to the past.

Example: Player A (B-W-B-W-B) –  Player B (B-B-W-W-B)

Player A and Player B are out of balance, both with too many black piece assignments. Each of them is looking to be assigned white for their next game. Looking back, they both played black in round five. The two of them also essayed white in round four; however, in round three they played the opposite colors: Player A was the general of the black pieces while Player B was the commander of the white pieces. So, for round six:

Player A (B-W-B-W-B-W) – Player B (B-B-W-W-B-B)


NINE: Don’t break up a score group!

Finding an appropriate opponent in another score group simply to balance color assignments is to be avoided. Players need to stay in their own score group, even if their color assignments are out of whack.

A wood-pusher can leave their odd-membered score group to make it an even membered group by jettisoning down into the next lower group. Typically, the lowest rated member of the score group moves down.

The free, updated US Chess Rules (Chapters 1+2 + 9 + 10 +11 from the 7th edition rulebook) are now downloadable and available online.

Want more? Past columns can be found here or by searching the Chess Life Online archives.

Plus, listen to Tim when he was a guest on the US Chess podcast “One Move at a Time.”

Tim Just is a National Tournament Director, FIDE National Arbiter, and editor of the 5th, 6th, and 7th editions of the US Chess Rulebook. He is also the author of My Opponent is Eating a Doughnut & Just Law, which are both available from US Chess Sales and Amazon/Kindle. Additionally, Tim revised The Guide To Scholastic Chess, a guide created to help teachers and scholastic organizers who wish to begin, improve, or strengthen their school chess program. US Chess awarded the 2022 Tournament Director Lifetime Achievement Award to Tim. He is also a member of the US Chess Rules Committee plus the Tournament Director Certification Committee (TDCC). His new column, exclusive to US Chess, “Just the Rules” will help clarify potentially confusing regulations.