Chess: Moving from online chess to over the board events
Since 2010 I have been playing online chess regularly. I first started playing on FICS, later on various other platforms and settled with Lichess eventually. Since approx. 2 years I am now playing in over the board (OTB) events as well. I didn't do so before because there was no noteworthy club or chess scene in the rural town I was living in back then.
This post details the difference I've observed between online and OTB chess, which might be useful to you if you yourself want to start playing OTB after playing online basically exclusively (or vice-versa, but that's less likely probably).
I am rated 2000-2100 on Lichess usually and should cross 1700 DWZ soon. Although not that relevant for this post, it may give some context. Some aspects describe in this post are derived from my playing experience in Germany, but should overall be independent of the area you are playing in.
Online it's straightforward: Pick a site you like such as
OTB: Find clubs in your area. Visit them in the weekly gatherings. There may also be training or tournaments. Then, become a regular and join formally. This allows you to play in leagues/team events.
In addition, take a look around at tournaments. Sign up and play. Club pages have calendars and/or mailing lists that notify you about upcoming tournaments. Subscribe to them. Of course, simply use your favourite search engine too to find tournaments in your area.
So, let's dive into the differences between online and OTB chess.
Visualization and vision
If you first sit down on the board, you'll notice something is different. You are, somehow, not "seeing" as much. It's more difficult to process the board, it seems harder to calculate. At least, it's very likely you will feel this way. From my own experience and from talking to various people, it's much easier to calculate on the 2D board than 3D board.
Be prepared for that. Initially, you will miss a few things you are less likely to miss online, such as that Bishop on the other side of the board sniping down at your pieces...
There is no solution here but practise. You can try some approaches such as standing behind your opponent (with enough distance), thereby taking a look at the board from his perspective. You may notice a few more things this way. Overall though, once you have accumulated enough over the board experience, the issue with visualizing will have largely resolved itself.
If you play online, chances are you are mostly focused on fast time control. That's what online chess is mostly about these days. In the days of FICS, longer games were more common. However, places like ICC and FICS seem to be dying out. Browser-based sites such as Lichess and chess.com are more common, usually focused on fast time controls. This may be a reflection of the times we are living in, but also may be explained by the fact that a quick game is just a new tab and a couple of clicks away. The smartphone app is also always there when you want to pass some time on the train.
OTB, the time control depends on the tournament of course. There are blitz tournaments, rapid and classical. It depends upon the organizers what time control is chosen. In a blitz time control, you might get increment too. However, you'll quickly notice that a 2 second increment in a 3 minute blitz game is basically nothing, while online it may seem like an eternity. The reason is quite simple. It takes a while to make a move. There no premoves, and you also need to press the clock. You need a significantly larger increment to accumulate time over the board. Therefore, the same time control may require a different approach OTB vs online.
In particular, classical time controls will be uncharted territory for you. Be prepared for, say, 1 hour and 30 minutes for the first 40 moves, with maybe 30 seconds increment. After move 40 you might get more time or not. Again, it depends. I've had games that lasted for over 5 hours. Needless to say, you aren't as sharp at some point as in the beginning of the game.
Here, physical fitness and age might become factors. These are aspects you can also use to your advantage, which gets us to the next point.
Psychology and meta-game
There is a bit of psychology involved in online chess, not much though. Your self-esteem may melt away if you see your opponent is 300 points higher rated or if you see a "IM" next to their handle. Or you are playing a mini-match against somebody, and you already got crushed 3 times in a row. Good luck coming back from that. With time, you get better at this though, these things will affect you less.
Body language: One particular aspect that is absent online is body language. OTB, you can look at your opponent. You can assess whether they are nervous or not. What are the facial expressions saying? Are the ears turning red? What's the breathing frequency? Short intervals, long intervals? Those may indicate whether the sympathetic or parasympathetic nervous system is active. It may give you some indication how confident your opponent is about the position.
Alternatively, if you see you are in trouble yourself you can try to come across as relaxed. Try to appear calm and make a neutral face.
There those, although rare, who are completely, poker-faced stoics. They can win a pawn for free and nothing changes about their demeanour. You can be a bishop up and they seem completely unbothered. You won't learn much from the body language of such opponents. This makes it kind of tough to play them. You are always wondering where their confidence comes from and whether you are missing something.
Draw offers: Draw offers may also reveal something. You don't offer a draw if you think you are better (unless you are low on time). Therefore, draw offers can be a sign of weakness or they fear the position cannot be hold. Find out why your opponent wants to get away with a draw. I also think refusing draw offers may make your opponent nervous, which can only be good for you. Of course, don't play on in a obviously dead-drawn positions.
In a game a little over a month ago, such meta-game was successful for me. In a league game, I was playing a guy who came a few minutes late. During the game, he was always walking around, checking out other games. He even did so while it was his move to make, so his clock was ticking down while he was focusing on other games. Even at the board, he was taking ages for each move. I quickly noticed this behaviour and simply started moving quickly, playing on his clock. I refused his draw offers even though I had no objective reason to. Eventually, my gamble payed off: He blundered in time trouble and I won the game. Had I simply ignored these aspects, it probably wouldn't have ended in my favour.
Overall, chess and psychology is very fascinating to me. A lot more can be said about it. For example, a good attitude is extremely important. It's probably better to overestimate yourself a little bit, a thing a certain Magnus Carlsen has said repeatedly. It also seems a lot of people are mentally beaten when their position gets difficult. Then it's almost a given that their position indeed collapses.
Still, my advise would be not too focus on psychology too much. Don't over-think these things. You could also be wrong. Facial expressions may be misleading. You could be misinterpreting things. Your great idea of starting to blitz because your opponent is low on time may quickly backfire.
Play the board, not the player.
Spectators are something you are hardly used to online. Well, unless you are streamer but that's not the norm. I am not saying you never have them, but usually you don't. It's also just a number that indicates the presence of spectators, maybe their nicknames, but otherwise they don't bother you much.
It's a different story OTB. If you are playing a tournament, expect spectators at some point. When they watch the game, you know they are there. Yes, they probably have an opinion about what's going on and how good your moves are. Yes, they may whisper among themselves after you make a move. Indeed, after the game some of them are eager to point you could have won quicker or held the position if you only played this or that.
It sucks in team events. Can you find the right moves to win or hold that difficult endgame? Because if you don't, your team may lose the match. Now here you are, you have to deliver with all your team mates watching, as well as the team mates of your opponent. No pressure...
My personal highlight was in a rapid tournament. There were several rounds per day as usual. My game was the last one still going on in that round. I was trying to grind down a guy several hundred points above me with not much time left. The win was merely a "matter of technique", as chess players like to say. More than 10 people were gathered around the board, a few a little bit too close for my taste. I wasn't used to so many eyes on me, and only managed a draw. To this day, I am sure I wouldn't have messed it up if I could have remained unbothered by the spectators presence.
Overall, spectators around your board is something you will learn to deal with. Anyway, don't be annoyed by them. In fact, that's a substantial part of OTB chess. Dont't forget: You are also a spectator to others when you are watching a game. This should make it easier to get over the initial nervousness spectators cause to you. Spectators are also one of the aspects that sets OTB chess apart from online chess, adding a social factor that is missing online.
Further (human) factors
Pressure to finish: Some aspects of peer pressure have been covered above. There are more, not directly related to chess, but nevertheless influence a game. For example, if you are playing in a tournament you might have come there with friends from your club. You may have arrived in the same car and you will have to leave in the car. You might feel some pressure to finish your game soon if yours is the last one still going on. Sure, they are chess players, they understand. But they are also humans. Everyone will love you if you try to hold a dead-lost position for another hour, wasting everybody's time as they have to wait for you. Bonus points for doing so on a Friday/Saturday evening. A similar situation are tournaments where there multiple (blitz/rapid) games per day, and the next round cannot start until all games have finished.
Time of the tournament: Sometimes a tournament is scheduled to start at 9am on a Saturday or Sunday. If you have to travel 1-2h to get there, you may naturally not be at your best. This may simply not work well your usual sleep cycle. You wouldn't play at inconvenient times online, but here you have no choice. Well, you could simply not attend such tournament, but overall this usually wasn't enough to deter me. Nevertheless, this tends to influence games. However, as it's probably not just you, this may also another psychological aspect. Your opponent seems tired? Choose an approach that might lead to longer games :-).
Weather: Last year I played a game at the hottest day of the year in a hotel with broken air conditioning... me and my opponent settled for a draw earlier than we would have in normal circumstances.
Anonymity: Of course, the fact you are not anonymous OTB may influence your play. Online, nobody may know that its you behind a particular account. Offline, you are playing with your name, which may add additional pressure, but also can be a motivating point to try harder.
All these aspects may influence a chess game. They are lost in history though, they are not reflected in the score sheets and databases.
Did you ever make an illegal move online? Hardly, the server makes sure this is not possible. Now, in the real world the board does not magically enforce the chess rules. Illegal moves aren't as rare as you might expect. Even among experienced players they tend to happen, at least in time trouble.
Usually, an illegal move has to be called out by the opponent. He stops the clock and calls the arbiter. What happens after that depends on the tournament rules. Often, a single illegal move leads to a time penalty, i. e. the opponent gets more time. Another illegal move and you lose the game. Sometimes, already the first illegal move loses.
Anyway, it will happen to you eventually. You will move into check, you will try to move a pinned piece, and so on.
Three-fold: Similarly, to get a draw by three-fold repetition, you have to claim it. Unlike on some online platform, there is no option to automatically do so... you will have to keep track of this yourself, which is one of the reasons you are writing down moves (in longer games).
Types of people in OTB chess
Well, what can be said about the kinds of people you can meet in a chess tournament. Your opponents can be very old or very young. I can't think of a sport where the age range is so diverse. You have the fast, talented, tactical wizards kids and the sharp, old experienced seniors and everything in between. I played against kids who were 6. I played in tournaments where the oldest participant was over 90. You shake hands, you play your game and you maybe analyse afterwards. You talk about the critical moments, you both laugh at your stupid mistakes. This is the majority of my experience.
There are some who are not into this. They may utter a "hi", shake hands maybe but that's it. No analysing. I don't mind though, you are not always in the mood, particularly after a tough loss. However, more extreme forms of this type exist. For them, even the first handshake is too much, no small talk and they barely acknowledge your presence. They resign by stopping the clock, or just walk away. Overall though, these are rare. Some could be merely be shy, others are probably simply rude though. Curiously, my first rated OTB game ever was against the rude type, but I learned they aren't necessarily representative for the chess world.
Others are simply... difficult. Somehow, in their games something always happens. Illegal moves, violation of the touch rule, other forms of drama... The arbiter has to be called (again). Alternatively, you somehow irritated them, your manners are bad, you distracted them with whatever... Luckily I never had the pleasure of playing this type yet. They too are the exception confirming the rule. But you will eventually see this type in action at some point. They are "that guy", everyone in the local chess community knows their name.
Women: Judging my own OTB experience, there indeed aren't many women in the chess world. I would say even (slightly) less than among computer science students in university and IT usually. I don't have stats, it's a gut feeling and as a general statement, may not apply everywhere of course.
Formal chess education and you
If you are like me you didn't have that much formal chess education. You may have scanned a book, watched a couple of videos, watched GM plays and so on. I learned a things or two from the live commentary. But I didn't bother much with openings etc.
Some players you encounter at the club had a different path. For instance, clubs often have a particular focus on teaching kids. Children learn the rules and then get trained by decent players from a young age. After some time, they pick up things related to theory you may not know. They may know more opening theory than you. It doesn't mean they are better players (but often they are). However, they may talk about openings you never heard of and may be more familiar and deeper familiar with standard endings.
Therefore, at some point, you may no longer rely on your talent or online experience. Being good and quick at tactics is no longer enough. You may need to pick up books or courses. In other words, you may need to start to actually study to progress.
Depending on the tournament, you have to pay a fee to take part. Unless you are an FM, IM, GM, then you are usually exempt. If you the defending winner of a recurring tournament, then you usually you don't have to pay the entry fee either. Anyway, the fee is usually around <= 15 € in my experience, some other tournaments went as high as ~50 € though.
There is also price money. If you are new, you have a decent chance at getting some of it. This is because some tournaments have rating prices. When you first start playing, you do not have a rating yet. This means you have a good shot at winning the section "best under 1500" or similar.
Generally, I don't mind paying an entry fee. Clubs organizing the tournament rarely make money. They may manage to cover the costs for the playing venue (excluding volunteer's time) and price money, but overall the tournament may simply be held at a loss for the club or organizing federation. Anyway, the prospects of winning price money also add an additional element of motivation and excitement. That excitement may quickly turn to stress though, particularly in the last rounds and if you are after the big price. However, overall it's inevitable that money is involved and not necessarily a negative.
If you enter the scene, particularly team leagues, it's highly probable you will have to travel a little bit. This is a nice side effect, a good opportunity to check out another place after or before a game. Generally, it appears to be a rule: The better you are the more you travel, with the world elite at the top playing in various countries in the world.
All human factors aside, chess is a game of logic. But since it's played by humans, emotions come into play. They can be quite intense. The highs are very high, the lows are low. If you don't like to lose offline, you'll hate it OTB.
Of course, it depends upon how important Chess is to you. But generally, chess players don't take losses very well. Imagine playing an exhausting, 5 hour long, well-fought game, only to end up losing it. It sucks. I will never forget the feeling when I started a tournament with two losses, against players in my rating range no less. I am not sure how to properly describe it, but it was extremely depressing. If something like this happens, you are down for the rest of the day or maybe more. Of course, eventually you pick yourself up again. You know it's just game. You are imperfect human that makes mistakes, no big deal. On the flip side, the feeling of having won a beautiful game is something else. It makes up for all the negatives. It's just amazing.
Overall, whether you win, draw or lose, there is always that sublime beauty in the game. Isn't this the reason why we play the game, online or OTB?
There many differences between online and OTB chess. So many, it seems these two are like different games at times, the OTB variant being the more enjoyable one with more depth. If you enjoy online chess, definitely give OTB a shot! Hopefully, with this post I may have provided some insight as somebody who was there before.
For comments/remarks: Contact me
Disclaimer: Opinions are my own. If you act on the information presented in this post, you are doing so at your own risk.