Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Playing In Your First Tournament . . . But Didn’t Know Where to Ask!

By Larry Hodges

General Tournament Information 

I’m thinking of entering my first USATT tournament. What do I need to know?

You need to know where the tournament is and the type and format of events held, and how the tournament rating system works. You also need to know about tournament etiquette. You could also probably use a few tips to help you play your best. These and other questions are answered below.

How can I find out when and where USATT tournaments are being held? (This is for USA tournaments.)

See the USATT Tournament Schedule.

What are the fees and requirements to play in a tournament?

There are three fees. First, all players must be members of USA Table Tennis, which (circa 2011) is $49/year for adults, $25/year for those under 18, with other amounts for household, college, or for three years. You can join USATT at the tournament site. Second, there are the event fees for each event you enter. Third, there is the tournament processing fee ($10, circa 2011), to cover the processing of ratings and registration.

What types of events are held at tournaments? Are there events where I would be competitive?

There are events for all levels and various ages. You may be eligible for one of the age events, which normally include Under 10, Under 13, Under 16, Under 18 and Under 22 for boys and girls, and Over 40, Over 50 and Over 60 for senior players. You can also enter the Open, if you are very good or very brave. There is also Women’s Singles.

However, for most players in their first tournament, there is a better option. USA Table Tennis (USATT), the national governing body for table tennis in the U.S., has a national rating system, and all matches in USATT sanctioned tournaments are rated. Most events in tournaments are actually “rating events,” where players must have a rating under a certain limit to be eligible. For example, in an Under 1400 event, you must be rated 1399 or lower to be eligible.

The best players in the country are around 2700. An average tournament player is in the 1400-1800 range. A beginner is usually in the 200-1000 range. NATT has events starting with Under 800/Novice (which is open to unrated players), and continuing up every 125 to 150 points to Under 2500. Whatever your level, there is an event for you. (More on ratings below.)

What is the format for the various events?

The most common format of tournament events is an initial round robin of 3-5 players, with the winners of each group advancing to single elimination. Some events are single elimination from the start.

What is a “Round Robin”?

A round robin is where a group of players each plays all of the other players in the group. If there are four in the group, each player will play the other three.

What are rating doubles events?

Most tournaments have doubles events with a rating cutoff, such as Under 3200 or Under 4200. This means the two players’ combined ratings must be under the cutoff. Unrated players cannot play in a rating doubles event – another reason to establish a rating!

Are there prizes for winning an event?

The finalists in all events get either a trophy or prize money – see the entry form for each specific event. (In the Open event, there is usually prize money for the final eight or final 16.)

Is there a dress code?

Yes, but it’s pretty lenient. Shirts and shorts (women may wear skirts), with the color not matching the ball’s color. (The entry form for each tournament lists the ball’s color, which is always white or orange.) Most players wear warm-ups (unless it’s hot), but remove them to play. Wear rubber-soled athletic shoes. Some referees won’t allow you to wear a hat.

Are there rules on what equipment I may use?

You must use USATT approved rackets and surfaces – but most rackets and surfaces are USATT approved. Two rules that first-timers are not always aware of is that sandpaper is illegal, and that the racket must be black on one side, red on the other. (The former damages the ball; the latter is so players can’t use two very different surfaces and fool their opponent by flipping the racket.) The control desk will provide balls. 

What’s the difference between the tournament director, the referee, and an umpire?

The tournament director runs the tournament. The referee makes sure the rules are followed (both by players and the tournament staff in setting up and running the tournament), and is the final say in all matters pertaining to rules. Umpires are assigned for some matches, and they keep score and enforce the rules for the match they are assigned to.

When I arrive at the tournament, what do I do?

Make sure to come at least 30 minutes before your first match. (The entry form will list when your event starts.) When you arrive, check in at registration, and you’ll get a player’s schedule, which tells you when and where your matches will be. At smaller tournaments there will not normally be a printed schedule and players are called when their match is ready to be played.When it’s time for a match, go to the control desk to pick up the match slip (which is on a clipboard with a pen) and ball. You’ll meet your opponent there, and the two of you will then go off to the appointed table to do battle. When the match is over, the winner of the match returns the match slip (with the scores of the match written in) to the control desk, along with the ball.

Tournament Ratings

How does the USATT rating system work?

A complete description is online at the USATT Ratings Pages. The system is similar to chess. In each match, there is an “exchange” in rating points, with the winner going up, the loser going down. (If the players are more than 237 points apart, there is no exchange.) If a higher rated player beats a lower rated player, there is only a small exchange of points. If a lower rated player upsets a stronger player, there is a larger exchange of points. If a player has a very good tournament, he may be adjusted upwards. The goal, of course, is to get your rating as high as possible! 

Will I be able to play in rating events in my first tournament, since I’m unrated?

Yes, but you cannot advance out of your initial round robin if you are unrated, except in the Novice event. Once you have established a rating, you are set and can advance in any rating event you are eligible for the rest of your life! So it’s usually good to enter a couple of rating events, just to get the matches in the preliminaries to establish a rating. Most round robin groups are four players, so you’ll typically get three matches.

After I play in my first tournament, when will I be rated?

It usually takes about two weeks after a tournament for it to be rated. Once the tournament is processed, the ratings will go online at the ratings page for USATT, which is linked to their home page at www.usatt.org.  Your name and rating will also be published in USA Table Tennis Magazine, the national magazine for table tennis, which comes out every two months. USA Table Tennis has about 8000 members, nearly all of them rated.

Who runs the USATT ratings?

North American Table Tennis is contracted by USATT to run the rating system. They also run many of the major tournaments in the U.S.

Tournament Etiquette…

…Warming up

At most tournaments, all or most of the tables are used for matches. To warm up, you wait until a match is completed, and then that table is available for practice until another match is scheduled on it – so it’s yours until two players with a match slip show up. If there is a shortage of tables to warm up on, players can practice four to a table, with each pair taking a diagonal and hitting corner to corner.

…Before the match

Be on time for your match – you have a schedule, so use it! It’s not nice to keep an opponent waiting. When you meet your opponent at the control desk, it’s customary to shake hands. Come ready to play – make sure to warm up with someone before going to the control desk for the match.

If it’s a round robin event, then you’ll be playing several other players. There should be a playing schedule on the round robin sheet – make sure to play in order, unless a player is missing. If a player is missing, let the control desk know, and then play the next match that can be played. After about 15 minutes, if a player doesn’t show, the referee will default him.

Before the match begins, you are allowed to examine your opponent’s racket to see what type of equipment he is using. Don’t start a match without knowing what your opponent is using – inverted, short pips, long pips, antispin, hardbat, and all the possible combinations (since a racket has two surfaces). (If you don’t know what these surfaces are, you need to ask an experienced player or coach about them. It’s best to ask about it before you find out the hard way in a tournament match!)

Once you are at the table, you and your opponent are allowed to warm up for two minutes. It is customary during this time to hit “forehand to forehand” and “backhand to backhand,” corner to corner, to warm up and groove these two strokes. More advanced players may also warm up their “loop” (a heavy topspin shot).


Once both players are ready (or two minutes has passed), you have to figure out who serves first. By the rules, you flip a coin. In the great majority of matches, it is customary for one player to simply hide the ball in one hand under the table, and the other chooses which hand it is in. The winner gets choice of serving or receiving or  which end to start play on, [or may choose to let the other choose first.] Then the other player gets to choice whatever is left (service order or sides).

…During the match

It is generally considered impolite to talk to an opponent during a match, except to clear up who serves, what the score is, or similar issues. If you know your opponent, or if he seems willing to talk, then of course that’s up to the two of you.

During a match, some players become somewhat … animated. There’s nothing wrong with being a bit high spirited, but don’t go overboard and start screaming or (worse) swearing. Remember, it’s only a game!

If you or your opponent has a coach during the match, note that coaching is only allowed between games and during a legal timeout. Also, only one person may coach a player during a match.

If, by some chance, you and your opponent have a dispute of any sort, you need to call for the referee, who can make a ruling and/or assign an umpire for the match.

…After the match

Always shake hands. If your opponent had a coach, shake his hand as well. If you had an umpire for the match, shake his hand. When in doubt, shake everybody’s hand!

Check to make sure the scores were written properly in the match slip, and then the winner returns it (along with the ball) to the control desk. If it’s just one match in the middle of a round robin, then you have to wait until all matches are played before the group’s winner returns it to the control desk.


Make sure to find out early on when the big matches will be played. You don’t want to miss them! This is your chance to see how the “big boys” play. You should be relatively quiet during points, but cheer your head off after the point is over, especially if it was a great point. Never boo – it’s considered in poor taste in table tennis.

…Photography & Videos

You are allowed to take photos during a match, but never use flash in a tournament – it affects play. Stay outside the court when taking photos, but you can get as close to the barriers as you can get as long as you don’t go past them. You might want to let the tournament director know in advance you are taking pictures.


It is normally OK to videotape both your matches and others, including the big matches. However, at some tournaments, videotaping of major matches is prohibited. Check with the tournament director or control desk if you aren’t sure.

How to Play Your Best

Here are a few tips to help you have a successful tournament.

  • Get plenty of sleep.
  • Eat lots of carbohydrate foods just before and during the tournament, and get plenty of liquids. You might consider bringing your own food and sports drinks.
  • Get a good warm-up before you play. Ideally, arrange the day before to meet with a practice partner you are comfortable with to warm up with. The entry form says when your event starts, so be there at least 30 minutes in advance. If it’s your first tournament, you probably want to come an hour early.
  • Play lots of practice matches in the last few days before the tournament
  • Practice your serves!
  • Get a coach. See online coaching list.
  • Playing well should be your goal, not winning. If you play well, the wins will come.
  • Watch and listen to the top players, and you’ll learn a lot.