My philosophy when it comes to money is that either you have enough or you don’t and if you don’t have enough you have a problem and if you have enough, don't complain. I’ve always been pretty lucky with money. I haven’t been unemployed except for 6 weeks in 1994 when I moved to Iowa and while I haven’t been able to provide everything my family has ever wanted, I’ve been fortunate enough to provide everything they’ve needed. But just because I have enough doesn’t mean I don’t want more and if I can get a bargain I take it. I think that other people feel the same way and that philosophy permeates the way I try to run my chess tournaments.
I’ve never tried to make money at chess tournaments but I don’t want to lose any either. I used to run youth tournaments where the entry fee was $10 and 21 players got $10 trophies except for the top 5 whose trophies cost an extra 30 dollars. I always referred to these tournaments in my notes as ‘+3’ tournaments since I needed 3 more players than trophies in order to get break even. They were fun tournaments but if I only had 22 or 25 players they didn’t work so well since I had just a few players out of the whole crowd that didn’t get a trophy and the odds were good I’d never see them again.
I ran these types of tournaments from 2006 to May of 2011 and generally broke even overall. When I moved outdoors last summer and switched to medal only prizes, I got stuck with a lot of money tied up in medals that are still sitting in my basement. That led me to the idea of printing my own medal inserts and ordering the medals in bulk. When I went back indoors, I set up my morning and afternoon tournament to only have 5 trophies each, a $5 entry fee, and a break even mark of 40 players. My tournaments are divided into 2 sections; a rated section for USCF members who have their games nationally rated and an unrated section that is meant for beginners but also affords a rated player who is in a slump to step back the level of competition or people who simply can’t afford the $14 to $30 a USCF membership costs the chance to play some chess in a tournament setting.
I was only giving trophies to the rated players but I have been getting more and more unrated players and it didn’t seem right to me that their entry fees were subsidizing the rated players’ trophies. I had a choice: lower the unrated entry fee or give them trophies. I really liked the purity of the unrated section playing for no extra prizes and just the enjoyment of the game, but in the end decided to offer them the same 5 trophies as the rated players and raise my break even number to 60. The only downside to this decision is that it doesn't encourage the top unrated players to move on to the rated section in order to get a shot at a trophy, but most of the successful unrated players have wanted to test themselves so there is no real downside after all. I get at least one player a month that wants to move to the rated section but doesn’t have the money and if I have an odd number of rated players, I get them a USCF membership and they round out my field and I can honestly tell them they aren't getting charity - they are helping me out by moving up.
I take a lot of pride in thinking that my tournaments are the best bargains in the state. Last Saturday, players got 4 or 5 games in for their $5 entry fee for a morning or afternoon of chess and if they decided to stay all day they got 8 or 9 games in for $8. Now throw in a medal, a chance at a trophy, and some chess (and a medal) for a parent, uncle, big brother, or coach in a free Parents and Friends tournament and you have a product even Ron Popeil would be proud to sell. Now that I’m moving my monthly tournament back outdoors for the summer, I’ve done away with the trophies but the entry fee is lowered to $3 for the morning or afternoon and $5 for a day of chess. I hope to be able to get in contact with more casual players who haven’t been able to get to West Des Moines or haven’t been able to afford my tournaments. I believe that there are more people like that than I can imagine, but I haven't been able to reach them. If you run a $20 dollar tournament you will rarely see the person who can barely afford a $10 dollar tournament and if you run a $10 dollar tournament you will rarely see the person who can barely afford a $5 dollar tournament and if you run a $5 tournament you will see everyone except those who can barely afford a $3 tournament, but who might you see if you run a $3 tournament?
I charged even less than that for a tournament on Monday. St. Francis has a budget for the chess club, but since I get ‘paid’ by being able to run monthly youth tournaments, I’ve only needed to dip my fingers into the till one time this year to pay for prizes to reward club members who demonstrate a checkmate with a Queen or successfully queen a pawn in an ending against me or my co-coach Chris. With the coffers flush with cash, I got permission to have a free club only tournament where everyone got a trophy. I felt I needed 3 hours to have the tournament so I arranged to use the meeting room we have our Friday morning club for the Monday afternoon tournament. I was a little disappointed to have only 23 players show up, but many of these kids have baseball, piano, and a whole host of other activities. Most of the best players in the club showed up and I divided them up into 3 grade groups (K-2, K-4,K-8) and let them go at it. The top 3 players in each group got a trophy that was one inch taller than the rest, had a white marble base instead of a black one, and said first, second, or third place on the label. Given those small differences, the players were highy motivated to grab some bragging rights and get in the top 3.
It was a fun afternoon and well worth the 3 hours I spent running it. Some of the parents asked me if I had laid out the money for trophies out of my pocket. I was happy to tell them no and they were happy to hear it. Everyone has been really supportive of my efforts this year and they see the value of having monthly youth tournaments open to all and especially like that I don't pressure their kids to play in these tournaments.
On Thursday, I’ll have another free tournament in Marshalltown like I've had nearly every Thursday for the past 3 years. I have to pay for the rating fees (around $3 a week), but at that price it’s a bargain for me to have the club members play rated games and once in a while get some out of town players to show up to test ourselves against. Some players throw me a couple of dollars which I occasionally keep, but most of the time I pass along the donations to our hosts at the Salvation Army to help with their great work.
I’d like to make my tournaments even cheaper, but that’d mean I have to pay people to show up for some of them and then they’d have to pay taxes!