Modern chess tournaments began in the 1840s and the first international tournament was held in London, in 1851. Strong international tournaments were still quite rare and in the 1880s a master would have been lucky to be able to play in one reasonably strong tournament a year.
By the 1890s, however, a master could enter many strong tournaments throughout the year, and the prize money offered at tournaments made it possible for masters to have a professional chess career.
Nowadays there are many strong tournaments for masters and grandmasters, but there are also a huge number of tournaments for players of every strength. Weaker players today have the chance of improving their play by taking part in such tournaments, which are very competitive.