Scheduling 101: The Basics

By Dwight Wynne


One of the most important parts of any tournament is the schedule. A good schedule can fairly crown a champion and allow every team competitive games. A poor schedule can inadvertently push a good team into a lower position than warranted by game play or even delay the tournament significantly. A well-thought-out schedule is a crucial part of pre-tournament logistics. In this article we will explore:

  • The three major types of schedule formats, and their advantages and disadvantages
  • Factors that influence the types of schedules you can run
  • How to run playoffs and finals

Round Robin

A round robin schedule is simple: every team plays every other team once. This format does not allow any team to “duck” scheduling a stronger team, and fairly seeds every team playing. A round robin also tells every team exactly who they are playing in what round and in what room the game will take place, which limits the chance that teams will end up going to the wrong room. The obvious disadvantage here is that most high school tournaments have more teams than packets. Therefore a “true” round robin is impossible. Most tournaments with more than about ten teams split those teams into two or more brackets, and run a round robin within each bracket. This allows every team to play a variety of teams of all skill levels, and ensures that every team in a given bracket has the exact same “strength of schedule.” However, designing the brackets requires at least a vague idea of who the best and worst teams are, so that you can spread the best teams and the worst teams across the brackets and ensure that no team will be seeded unfairly low or high in the playoffs due to an imbalanced bracket.

You can find templates for round robin schedules and guides on how to draw up round robin schedules by hand.

Swiss Pair/Card System

A Swiss Pair system matches each team’s second and subsequent opponents based on the results of the team’s previous matches. There are a variety of Swiss Pair systems. Most commonly, the statistically best team with a certain record is paired with the statistically worst team with the same record, the statistically second-best team with that record is paired with the statistically second-worst team with that same record, and so on, and so forth. Another variant matches the top two teams with a certain record, then the next two teams with that record, and so on, and so forth. Swiss Pair systems require a stat room filled with people who can quickly and efficiently input the results of many games, in order to minimize the amount of time teams are waiting for the next pairing. Also, mis-entering a single game or score in the stats program can affect the rest of the tournament. For these reasons, a true Swiss Pair tournament is rarely run in quizbowl.

A more popular variant of the Swiss Pair system is the card system, in which each team is given a card with a specific schedule written on it. After two teams play, the winner is given the higher-seeded card (typically with the lower number, or the letter closest to A, etc.) and the loser the lower-seeded card. Swiss Pair/Card System schedules typically only work when the number of teams is equal to 2 to the n, and for only n rounds. Outside of those parameters, teams with unequal records have to play each other, and figuring out the playoff qualifiers (and their seeds) is a mess. NAQT’s HSNCT is able to largely avoid those problems by (1) having a comparatively forgiving playoff threshold and (2) taking almost a full day to run its playoff system, which accommodates any number of teams within an expected range. You are advised not to use the card system just because “that’s what NAQT does,” because NAQT has spent a lot of time developing their system and you probably haven’t.

Opponents of card systems claim that you need a near-perfect idea of how each team will play, in order to minimize the ripple effect of upsets; however, card systems are also good when you have absolutely no idea how any team will play, and accordingly have no a priori way to judge what is and is not an upset. An example of a 5-round, 32-team card system that guarantees avoiding repeat matchups can be found here.

N-Loss Elimination

N-Loss Elimination, as the name implies, is a format in which teams are eliminated once they have n losses. Typically this is either single elimination or double elimination; once you start getting into triple elimination the drawbacks are so great that it doesn’t make any sense to use it.

N-Loss Elimination is great when you have a limited amount of time or space in which to play. For instance, many sports tournaments use single or double elimination because they have a maximum number of games that can be played given the amount of time they have a single court reserved for. Typically these time and space limitations do not apply to quizbowl tournaments. They especially do not apply to prelims, in which pretty much every team expects to play at least four or five games, no matter what region you’re in.

N-Loss Elimination formats are controversial for the playoffs, too. Many large tournaments use single or double elimination because they cannot secure enough staff to stay the entire day, and elimination formats quickly shrink the number of staff that must stick around. Single or double elimination also typically requires fewer packets than any sort of bracketed round robin or card system, so tournaments with a limited number of packets sometimes go this route. However, N-Loss Elimination typically does not fairly rank teams below the champion. This is quite important if your tournament qualifies more than one team for a future tournament, e.g., a state championship or a national tournament.

Factors that Influence What You Can Run

There are three different categories of limitations on how to run your tournament: time limitations, space limitations, and team expectations.

Time Limitations

These limitations affect the number of rounds you can run. Time limitations are most commonly caused by either the number of packets or by your room reservations. The number of packets, obviously, limits the number of rounds you can run. You typically want to reserve at least one, more commonly two, packets for finals, so the maximum number of rounds you can run is actually less than the number of packets you have. Room reservations affect the amount of time you have to run those rounds. A standard budget is 25-30 minutes per round for timed NAQT rounds, and 30-40 minutes for untimed NAQT or ACF-style rounds, depending on the speed of your readers. This also incorporates the chances of buzzer malfunctions, protests, teams getting lost, and other delays that can’t be planned for. You also need to include 60-90 minutes for lunch. If you only have room reservations for eight hours, you can’t run more than 12-14 rounds.

Space Limitations

Space limitations include the number of rooms you have reserved, the number of staff you have lined up, and the number of buzzer systems you have available. Essentially, space limitations limit the number of teams you can have playing at any one time. The typical rule of thumb is to cap the number of teams that can enter as two times the minimum of {expected rooms, expected moderators, expected buzzers} plus one, though creative schedulers can get by with more teams (for instance, it’s possible to run a 21-team tournament with 9 rooms).

Team Expectations

Expectations differ from region to region. In some regions, teams don’t think they get their money’s worth unless they have at least eight or ten games. In other regions, teams expect to only play four or five prelim games and then go home if they don’t make the playoffs. When you make your schedule, you need to consider what teams are expecting when they sign up. Providing too few games, or causing forfeits when teams that don’t want to play more games leave in the middle of the tournament, can result in teams being angry at your tournament.

Playoffs and Finals

For prelims, pretty much every respectable tournament uses either a bracketed round robin or Swiss Pair/card system. For playoffs, the card system pretty much amounts to a single elimination format with consolation games, so it’s easier to consider tournaments as using either a bracketed round robin or single elimination as a playoff format.

A bracketed round robin allows the top teams in each prelim bracket to play many games against each other, ensuring that the tournament champions will have been tested by a majority (if not all) of the other best teams there, and places non-playoff teams in consolation brackets containing teams of roughly the same skill level. Single elimination is more common when there are a large number of playoff teams, and time or space limitations that preclude you from running bracketed round robins; haphazard consolation games between teams that want to stick around for an undetermined amount of time are easiest to set up in the single elimination format.

When deciding on a playoff format, you first need to decide how many teams are going to make the playoffs. Once you do that, you should use a bracketed round robin for a small number of playoff teams, or single elimination for a large number of playoff teams. Under no circumstances should you do something wacky like a bracketed round robin followed by single elimination.

Finals Formats

There are two finals formats that are in wide use: winner-take-all and ACF Finals Format.


The top two teams play a single game to determine the champion. This is most common following a bracketed round robin playoff in which the playoff teams are divided into two playoff brackets; the bracket winners play each other for the championship.

ACF Finals Format

The most widely used and respected format, the ACF Finals Format states that no final is played if a team has cleared the field by two games at the end of the playoffs, a winner-take-all final is played if two teams are tied, and an advantaged best-of-three final is played if a team is one game ahead of the second-place team. Typically the team with the better record has the advantage, though some modifications of the format give the advantage to the team with the better head-to-head record.

If You Don’t Know What to Do, Ask Someone!

If you have time or space limitations and can’t figure out how to accommodate all your teams within those limitations, the absolute worst thing you can do is come up with your own weird format that has never been used before. It’s much better to ask for help. In particular, the forums are filled with combinatorics lovers willing to puzzle out your problem, and tournament directors that have run tournaments with all sorts of similar problems; post your problem in the Theory Section and you’ll probably have one or more solutions within twenty-four hours.


  • For preliminary games, most tournaments use either a round robin, bracketed round robin, or Swiss Pair/card system format. For playoffs, most tournaments use either a bracketed round robin or single-elimination format. For finals, the ACF Finals Format is preferred, though the Winner-Take-All Format is also used.
  • Define your time and space limitations, and know how many rounds each team expects to play, before you start creating a schedule.
  • If you can’t figure out how to create a schedule given those limitations, ask for help rather than trying to create your own format. The forum denizens in particular are great at quickly offering solutions to specific scheduling problems.