Just the Rules: The Unrated Prize Puzzle

just the Rules by Tim Just

An unrated player is a puzzle waiting to be solved. On the one hand they are often—especially at the scholastic level—beginners that are just learning the basics of the royal game. But sometimes they are not beginners. They are individuals—usually adults— that have been essaying games for years with family and friends or with strangers at beaches or public parks. Those wood pushers typically are not weak. Then there are players that are rated in far-off lands that are now competing in tournaments here in the U.S.A. In their first US Chess event they have no rating; they are Unrated. This mix of abilities is the puzzle that needs solving in events that offer prize money. Scholastic unrateds are an entirely different discussion for a future column.

Our rulebook does address the unrated prize fund puzzle. They can only claim top place prizes or designated unrated prizes. Any variations from these regulations needs to be advertised by the organizer.

The rules briefly mention that unrateds can have prizes designated just for them—“Top Unrated = $50” is one example. The rulebook does mention this idea but also says that it is not advised; however, many organizers do use this plan and advertise it

The upside is that unrated wood pushers, no matter what their score or playing strength, can only take home gold specified just for them. They can’t claim any dollars designated for rated wood pushers.

The downside is that if there is only one unrated in an event, they automatically get that prize. It often makes them happy and encourages them to come back again sporting a provisional rating.

The TD can assign a rating to an unrated player. This method addresses the unrated prize puzzle solution without any advanced publicity. There are a series of steps in the rulebook outlining how to make this happen. The procedure involves finding proof of an unrated’s ability via foreign rating lists, FIDE rating lists, club won-loss records, etc. A rating for that player—typically higher than what is discovered in that research— is then assigned on the wallchart. That assigned rating is good only at that tournament for pairings and prizes. It allows an unrated player to compete for all the money that their assigned rating qualifies them for—top prizes, class prizes, under prizes, etc.

In my humble opinion, it seems risky to assign a rating below 2200 to any unrated player with gray area playing strength credentials. 

Limiting the amount of money an unrated can win is yet another method not encouraged by the chess law givers. It is, however, a fairly common advertised practice for solving the unrated prize puzzle.

The upside is that it prevents strong non-rated players, that have no US Chess rating, from claiming prizes aimed at rated chess warriors.

The downside is that it is messy, messy, messy. Especially if the cap on unrated winnings is lower than the rated player prize that their score would otherwise qualify them for?

Check out this example: In a five round event, first place is $100 and second place is $50. The unrated prize cap is $25. The unrated scores a perfect 5-0, the only player to do so. Now, where does the rest of the gold—you know, that extra $75—go? The rules tell us where to distribute those funds—not how to distribute them.

Here is one of many ways to shift that left-over loot—downward. That $75, in this example, could go to the second-place finisher. Since the second-place finisher can’t claim both the leftover loot ($75) and second place money ($50), where does that extra money ($50) filter down to? In this instance the organizer can create a new (unadvertised) third-place prize of $50.

Another variation—using this example—is to give the unrated their $25, the second-place claimant gets their $50, then create two extra unadvertised prizes from that leftover $75. One of many possibilities is to hand out $45 as a new (unadvertised) third place prize plus $30 as a new (unadvertised) fourth place prize.

These two methods of distributing leftover funds are only a couple of many. And let’s not even get started on what to do with the leftover money when ties are involved with players that have prize caps—that is even messier.

What have you seen in practice?

  • 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 “Just the Rules” columns can be viewed here.
  • 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 recently 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. Tim is also a member of the US Chess Rules Committee. His new column, exclusive to US Chess, “Just the Rules” will help clarify potentially confusing regulations.


I prefer carving the unrated amount out of the place prize the unrated received and add the remainder to the next prize as long as that doesn't result in more money than the prize being added from.
Example from above.  <A> Carve out $25 for the 5-0 unrated. <B> add the remaining $75 to the second place $50 <C> note that the sum of $125 is greater than the first place $100 <D> reduce second place from $125 to $100 and push the remaining $25 to the third place prize (creating one in this case).
New prize fund: $25 1st(for the unrated player), $100 2nd, $25 third.
If it had been a 6-way tie (or more) for first (maybe at 4-1 or 3.5-1.5)  then the unrated would have only received what everybody else received and there is no need for any manipulation.
I dislike a $25, $75, $50 division because that is essentially dividing one prize between two people when there are still remaining prized to be split.

We always allow the unrated player to share in place money if his score permits. So in the case of the 5-0 first place unrated player we would award him the full first place prize.

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