Ten Trivia about the Biel International Chess Festival

by Eduard Frey
7/14/2023 – The 56th Biel Chess Festival, one of the most traditional and beautiful chess tournaments, begins next Saturday, 15 July 2023. In his review, Eduard Frey presents ten surprising and interesting facts about the history of the tournament. | Photo courtesy of the organiser: Playing Hall, Congress Centre Biel

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Ten trivia about the Biel International Chess Festival series

The traditional Biel International Chess Festival, held annually since 1968, is a highlight in the classical chess calendar. The author, who lives in Biel, presents some amusing trivia from its rich history.

The festival in the bilingual Swiss-German and French metropolis of Biel/Bienne in the canton of Bern in Switzerland, began in 1968 as an open with 34 players in a restaurant, and has been held every summer without interruption ever since (even during the Corona pandemic there was a reduced event), expanding step by step during the 1970s.

The winner of the very first International Biel Open in 1968 was the Swiss Edwin Bhend (IM since 1960, the man who had beaten the great Tal in the first round of the Zurich Invitational in 1959), on a better tie-break over the young Dutchman Jan Timman, who won the Biel Open the following year in 1969.

The unforgotten Tony Miles from England won the first International Grandmaster Invitation Tournament in Biel in 1977, two full points ahead of Oscar Panno from Argentina, Roman Hernandez Onna from Cuba and Ulf Andersson from Sweden who shared second place (16 players).

The Open (now called Master Tournament, MTO) continued, and additional chess events such as an Amateur Open (called Main Tournament), youth competitions, sometimes a "B" group or ladies tournament, rapid, blitz exhibitions as well as simuls and other events are held every year.

Biel has hosted a FIDE Interzonal Tournament (IZT) three times, namely in 1976 (winner Bent Larsen), in 1985 (winner Rafael Vaganian) and in 1993 (also the last Interzonal ever, it was  a Swiss tournament, Boris Gelfand came clear first). Worth mentioning: In 1994 the 4th World Senior Chess Championship, won by Mark Taimanov, also took place during the festival.

At the Interzonal in 1976 a total of 820 players from all continents played during the festival, at the Interzonal in 1993 no less than 1344 players participated, the highest number in the series.

Biel has truly established an international chess festival, offering not only a major closed invitational tournament, but also a strong and large open tournament, plus an amateur section and several side events. Not many festivals offer both a major invitational and a major open.

The festival caters for all family wishes, such as a father accompanying his son: Magnus Carlsen, playing in the Invitation Tournament, watches Henrik Carlsen (with glasses), playing in the Open at the Biel Festival 2018. | Photo: Organiser

Record winner

The record winner is Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, who has won the Grandmaster Tournament four times. MVL won in 2009, 2013, 2014 and 2015. The Frenchman also won a match against Svidler in 2016 (no invitational round robin then).


Maxime Vachier-Lagrave playing mini-golf during an excursion during the Biel Festival in 2013, and pictured again at the festival in 2016. | Photos: Organiser

Longest winning span and biggest winning margin at the Biel Festival (Grandmaster Tournament)

Viktor Korchnoi has by far the longest winning span in the elite Grandmaster tournament in Biel: 22 years (from 1979 to 2001). Korchnoi also has the longest winning span in Beverwijk / Wijk aan Zee: 19 years (from 1968 to 1987, with a total of four victories) and, for example, in Bosna, Sarajevo: an incredible 29 years (from 1969 to 1998, with three victories in three participations).

He won the Grandmaster tournament on his first appearance in 1979, and again in 2001, shortly after his 70th birthday, as the clear winner of a strong double round-robin, ahead of Svidler, Gelfand, Grischuk, Lautier and the Swiss player Yannick Pelletier, who had beaten both Carlsen and Korchnoi in individual games in Biel.

Viktor Korchnoi also holds the record for the biggest margin of victory in absolute points in the Biel series. In 1979 (half of the 14 players were from the host nation Switzerland) Korchnoi drew his first game in the ninth round against Wolfgang Unzicker and won the event with an amazing 12 out of 13, an unbelievable 4.5 points ahead of runner-up IM Heinz Wirthensohn, who thus won the title of Swiss National Champion (Korchnoi was stateless at the time, and the Swiss Chess Federation was not yet prepared to allow him to become National Champion, despite the fact that Korchnoi had played for Switzerland and had won the individual gold medal on board one at the Chess Olympiad 1978).

Master Class Vol.15 - Viktor Korchnoi

In this video course, experts (Pelletier, Marin, Müller and Reeh) examine the games of Viktor Korchnoi. Let them show you which openings Korchnoi chose to play, where his strength in middlegames were, or how he outplayed his opponents in the endgame.

Oldest winner

Of course, Viktor Korchnoi (1931-2016) is the oldest winner of the series at the age of 70 years and four months, taking a clear first place in 2001 ahead of sole runner-up Peter Svidler, the defending champion of the 2000 Biel tournament, and Boris Gelfand in sole third place.

Still in FIDE's top 50 at the end of 2001, Korchnoi was behind Gelfand, Svidler, Lautier and the up-and-coming Grischuk, all world elite players. Let us not forget: Korchnoi was (roughly) forty to fifty years younger than Gelfand, Lautier, Svidler and Grischuk!

Korchnoi played very lively chess, constantly searching for new ideas. His triumph was no fluke, he was leading or co-leading from the first two rounds, beating Grischuk in the first round, then beating Gelfand in a typical counter-attack with Black, grabbing material, disturbing the balance, defending like a lion in unorthodox style, until he finally counter-attacked and defeated his opponent in a brilliant endgame.

Gelfand-Korchnoi, 2001

Bilingual newspaper report about Viktor Korchnoi and founding figure Hans Suri before the 2001 edition, which was won by the multi-talented Korchnoi. | Photo by Grandmaster Golubev, Twitter

Biel/Bienne, part of the canton of Bern, lies on the language border between the French-speaking and German-speaking parts of Switzerland and is bilingual throughout. Biel is the German name for the city, Bienne its French counterpart, and it is often referred to in both languages simultaneously. Since 1 January 2005, the official name is Biel/Bienne.

The city lies at the foot of the first mountain range of the Jura, on the north-eastern shore of Lake Biel, and has been an industrial and watchmaking centre of Switzerland since the 19th century. Today, Biel/Bienne has a population of around 55,000 and the surrounding agglomeration almost 110,000.

Youngest winner

Magnus Carlsen is the youngest ever winner of the GM Invitational, aged 16 and a half in 2007, after a speed play-off against Alexander Onischuk (after four draws the fifth and final play-off, an Armageddon, went to the Norwegian), Grischuk, Pelletier, Judit Polgar and Radjabov finished third to sixth, a total of ten players in a single round robin.

Video footage of selected tie-break games and a short interview with the young winner

Watch this Armageddon game:

As world number one Magnus Carlsen played twice in Biel but could not win: Wang Hao triumphed at the 2012 Biel GM Invitational over Magnus Carlsen, followed by Giri and Nakamura as joint third and Bacrot as fifth (special football scoring was in effect with three points for a win, Wang Hao had six wins and three losses and benefited from this rule).

In 2018, Mamedyarov won, Carlsen, the World Champion, was the clear runner-up, Vachier-Lagrave and Svidler shared third place, Navara finished fifth. The decisive moment came in round 9.

Background story by André Schulz and in-depth analysis by Grandmaster Golubev of this famous encounter, which turned out to be Carlsen's last defeat in a classical chess game for a long time. In fact, Carlsen went on to achieve an unbeaten streak of 125 games in the classical time format!

Biel: Mamedyarov defeats Carlsen and wins it all

Mamedyarov vs. Carlsen during the penultimate round at Biel 2018. | Photo: Lennart Ootes

In total, Carlsen and Korchnoi, both, played seven times in the GMT Invitational at Biel Festival, and both won twice. Remember, Magnus played three times a the age of 16 or younger, Victor three times at the age of 70 or older. Chess is a game for all ages!

Master Class Vol.8 - Magnus Carlsen 2nd Edition

Let our authors show you how Carlsen tailored his openings to be able to outplay his opponents strategically in the middlegame or to obtain an enduring advantage into the endgame.

Best woman ever

At the 50th and Jubilee edition in 2017, Hou Yifan from China is the first woman to win the elite event, outright above nine men! Hou Yifan triumphed in style with a tournament perfomance of 2810 Elo. This is amongst the best perfomances by a woman, and certainly the best personal chess career achievement of Hou Yifan.

Etienne Bacrot took the silver medal half a point behind, Pentala Harikrishna won bronze. On shared fourth to seventh place were Ruslan Ponomariov, Peter Leko, surprising Swiss Nico Georgiadis, and Alexander Morozevich. David Navara was eight, veteran Raf Vaganian ninth, the other Swiss player, Noël Studer came in last.

Eight World Champions playing at Biel Festival

Eight undisputed World Chess Champions played at Biel Chess Festival (Interzonals included): Smyslov, Tal, Petrosian, Karpov, Kramnik, Anand, Carlsen, and Ding Liren. Spassky and Kasparov were guest of honour and gave a simul at Biel, Spassky during a Festival, Kasparov in a private visit organised by Hans Suri. Max Euwe witnessed Biel as FIDE president during the closing ceremony of the Interzonal in 1976. Several Women’s, Junior, and Senior World Champions played, too.

Further famous players

The near complete elite of the last fifty years played at the International Chess Festival of Biel, this is a record only matched by Wijk aan Zee, and Dortmund.

A selection of important players at the International Chess Festival of Biel, running since 1968, IZT 1976, 1985, 1993, GMT since 1977:

As mentioned eight undisputed World Chess Champions, plus Korchnoi, Larsen, Andersson, Miles, Nunn, Short, Speelman, Adams, Timman, Sosonko, Piket, Giri, Lautier, Bacrot, Vachier-Lagrave, Topalov, Georgiev, Kurajica, Ljubojevic, Portisch, Sax, Adorjan, Leko, Rapport, Gheorghiu, Navara, Pachman, Hort, Unzicker, Hübner, Lobron, Naiditsch, Geller, Polugaevsky, Beliavsky, Ivanchuk, Morozevich, Gelfand, Grischuk, Svidler, Shirov, Salov, Bareev, Khalifman, Ponomariov, Vaganian, Radjabov, Mamedyarov, Karjakin, Nepomniachtchi, Nakamura, So, Caruana, Kamsky, Gulko, Seirawan, Christiansen, De Firmian, R. Byrne, Vallejo Pons, Panno, Quinteros, Zapata, Torre, Spraggett, Rogers, Tabatabaei, Le Quang Liem, Harikrishna, Sasikiran, Vidit, Gukesh D, Wang Hao, from young Abdusattorov to the senior Taimanov – to illuminate a bunch of prominent names in no particular order, who played on various occasions at the Biel Chess Festival.

Rustam Kasimdzhanov acted as one of the Festival commentators, as Daniel King, Miso Cebalo or Klaus Bischoff, to mention only a few more.

Zsuzsa (Susan), Sofia and Judit Polgar, Nona Gaprindashvili, Maia Chiburdanidze, Pia Cramling, Tatiana Lematschko, Jana Bellin / Miles, Helene Mira, Ildiko Madl, Alisa Maric, Nana Ioseliani, Nana Alexandria, Barbara Hund, Corina Peptan, Alexandra Kosteniuk, Tatiana Kosintseva, Nadezhda Kosintseva, Elisabeth Päthz, Kateryna Lahno, Almira Skripchenko, Yelena Dembo, Monika Socko, Monika Seps, and, of course, Hou Yifan – among many other women – played as well at the Biel Chess Festival.

Milov (tied for first with Karpov in the GM Invitation in 1996 as well won the Open twice), Gavrikov (he too won both the Open and GM section), Nemet (winner of the Open in 1982), Partos (winner of the Open in 1978), Bhend (winnner of the inaugural Open in 1968), D. Keller, W. Hug, Lombard, Wirthensohn, Trepp, Franzoni, Züger, Känel, Huss, Costa, Gobet, Landenbergue, Forster, Brunner, Jenni, Ekström, Gallagher, Pelletier or recently Studer and Georgiadis, represented the hosting nation in different formats.

And many further strong but sometimes outshined grandmasters who all played at Biel Festival, too, such as Dreev, Ehlvest, Epishin, Yudasin, Kuzmin, Kurnosov, Alekseev, Alekseenko, Motylev, A. Sokolov, Romanishin, Tukmakov, Onischuk, Vitiugov, Volkov, Volokitin, Eljanov, Avrukh, Smirin, Sutovsky, Rodshtein, Grünfeld, Greenfeld, Gutman, Stean, McShane, Howell, Chandler, Campora, Shankland, Henley, Dominguez Perez, Nogueiras, Bologan, Safarli, Sturua, Socko, Bartel, Wojtaszek, Smejkal, Ftacnik, Flesch, Almasi, Balogh, Nikolic, Kozul, Saric, Ostojic, Janosevic, Sahovic, Ciric, Vukic, Soos, Glek, Wahls, Hickl, Lutz, Meier, Kindermann, Klinger, Robatsch, Hansen, Hellers, Bauer, Fressinet, Edouard, Tkachiev, Mariotti, IM Toth, Illescas, Bellon Lopez, Anton Guijarro, I. Sokolov, Van der Wiel, Van der Sterren, Van Wely, Hjartarson, Salem Saleh, Adianto, Adhiban, Negi, Ni Hua, Nihal Sarin, Ngoc Truongson Nguyen, and countless more.

Preferred Partner is Yannik Pelletier, born in Biel/Bienne, he got by far the most invitations, namely 13 times in the leading GM-group. Alas, he never won, and never was sole or shared runner-up.

The three Interzonals

Tal playing Liberzon, last round at IZT 1976 in Biel. | Photo: Pinterest, Salsa Mus

Under Hans Suri (1928-2013), Biel organised three FIDE Interzonal tournaments, in 1976, 1985, and 1993. For more details, consult the following link: Bieler Interzonale - www.chessdiagonals.ch

The Open section

Youngsters Jan Timman and Hans Böhm at the Biel Open in 1969 | Photo: hansbohm.com

In 1967, Hans Suri of the Schachgesellschaft Biel organised the Swiss National Chess Championship in his town, and he had a vision: An international chess tournament. He asked the Swiss Chess Federation if they were interested and could help him, but they said, difficult, ... certainly not now, maybe later, some day... Suri insisted and started his own event.

To be fair to the Federation, and as festival father and founder Hans Suri himself pointed out, it must be remembered that in 1968 Switzerland organised the FIDE Chess Olympiad in Lugano, and the emphasis was on this official team event.

Exactly 55 years ago, from 20 to 27 July 1968, the first tournament of the series ("International Open of the Biel Chess Club") took place in the Hotel Dufour of Biel, the local club, with 34 participants, already from nine different countries. But one grandmaster was missing. Suri's next goal was clear: he had to catch a grandmaster!

Not an easy task in those days, at the end of 1968 there were only 101 players who had been awarded the highest title by FIDE (Anatoly Lein was the only player to become a GM in 1968, in 1969 there were no new GMs at all). Several grandmasters had died since 1950, many were inactive, the fifty to sixty active chess grandmasters played in invitational tournaments, official and friendly matches or team events.

Open festivals played in the Swiss system were still rare and somehow uncommon in the 1960s (although the US Open had already switched to the Swiss system, but the famous Lone Pine, London Lloyds Bank, Lugano or New York Open series started later in the 1970s and 1980s).

During the Lugano Olympiad, Hans Suri was looking for a grandmaster to come to Biel for a planned second edition in 1969. But the leading chess federations soon made it clear that they would not send anyone to such an obscure competition and advised Suri to offer an invitational tournament.

Suri was convinced by his initial idea and he knew that he had to establish an annual series step by step. It was a happy day when the first grandmaster agreed to come to Biel in the early seventies. He was announced as the man who had beaten Bobby! In fact, Dragoljub Janosevic had beaten Fischer at the Skopje Invitational in 1967 (round robin of 18 players), Janosevic was the first grandmaster to play at the Biel Open. He later got a place in the 1979 invitational.

Two important milestones were a larger playing hall and the acquisition of a sponsor. In 1975, the festival was held for the first time in the comfortable Congress Hall ("Palais des Congrès"). UBS, and later CS Credit Suisse until 1997, provided financial support for the Festival. Since 1999, it has mainly been the city of Biel/Bienne with public subsidies and the Accentus Foundation, i.e. the festival is once again looking for a main commercial sponsor!

The Interzonal of 1976 put Biel on the international chess map. Since 1977 an additional annual grandmaster tournament has been organised, except in 1978 and 2016 when the Open was the main event, and in 1985 and 1993 when further Interzonals were held during the festival.

List of all winners (Open, GMT, B-group and major side events) in detail: Winner in Biel - www.chessdiagonals.ch

Playing chess in Biel keeps you fit! Edwin Bhend, born in 1931, the very first winner at Biel Open from the year 1968, still competitively playing in official FIDE tournaments at age of 90, pictured at the European Senior Team Chess Championship 2021 in Prague. | Photo: Pavel Hubeny

Chess Triathlon

Since 2019, the format of the long-standing Grandmaster Tournament has switched to a so-called Grandmaster Triathlon, with a combined scoring system of 7 Classical, 7 Rapid and 14 Blitz games, i.e. a total of 28 chess games in 3 round-robin sets.

This year's line-up is promising again, with eight players from eight different countries: Yu Yangyi from China as the top seed, followed by Le Quang Liem from Vietnam, the 2013 Blitz World Champion who is also the defending champion of the Biel tournament in 2022, Arjun Erigaisi from India, Bogdan-Daniel Deac from Romania, Vincent Keymer from Germany, Bassem Amin from Egypt, David Navara from the Czech Republic who is also the senior in the field, and traditionally a player from France, this time Jules Moussard following in the footsteps of his compatriots Lautier, Bacrot and MVL.

Biel 2015 witnessed one of the most memorable chess games of all time! David Navara, playing again this year, faced Radoslaw Wojtaszek, who would later win a GMT Triathlon edition in Biel. Both players could have easily ended this brave and tortuous king's manoeuvre with a boring game for eternal draw - but they were searching for the truth! Enjoy David's King's March:

An entertaining and exciting 56th International Chess Festival in Biel/Bienne to all chess lovers!


Eduard Frey was born in spring 1967, is an economist (lic. et mag. rer, pol.) and works as a coach in human resources. He learned the game as a child from his father. Chess is a hobby without rating. He has been a frequent visitor to the Biel Chess Festival since 1976, as well as to Lucerne (1982 Olympiad, and the 1985, 1989, 1993, 1997 World Team Championships), and to the international tournaments in Zurich or the Lugano Open series. Frey spoke with many top players; he knew Viktor Korchnoi, Wolfgang Uhlmann and Mark Taimanov more closely.