The Superbet Chess Classic starts: A Chess History of Bucharest

by Eduard Frey
5/5/2023 – This weekend the Grand Chess Tour starts with the Superbet Chess Classic in Bucharest. Eduard Frey takes a look at the great chess history of the Romanian capital. | Photo: Panoramic view of the city centre of Bucharest - University Square with the University of Bucharest building on the right, the National Theatre on the left and the Palace of Parliament on the far right in the background. | Photo: Wikipedia

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Bucharest is back on the map

A chess tournament history of the city: From Tolush and Kortschnoi to Aronian, Mamedyarov and Vachier-Lagrave

The capital of Romania, today best known for its annual Superbet Chess Classic, has a rich chess tradition. Especially the two world elite tournaments of 1953 and 1954 have remained in the collective chess memory. Much later, in 2019, Bucharest became part of the Grand Chess Tour (GCT) for the first time, when the Superbet Foundation came into being with a Rapid and Blitz event. From 2021 Bucharest has organised an annual super tournament in classical chess. Our author looks back - and ahead.

The legendary Ludek Pachman won the first major international chess tournament in Bucharest in 1949 (in which Karel Opocensky, Jaroslav Sajtar, Oleg Neikirch, Pal Benkö, Janos Balogh, Tibor Florian, Ion Balanel and Octavio Troianescu also played). In 1951, the Bulgarian Zdravko Milev won the second edition of that tournament, which, however, was not as strong as the first.

The five Soviet players in Bucharest 1953: Boleslavsky, Smyslov, Petrosian, the winner Tolush and the 16-year-old Spassky, who was Tolush's pupil at the time. | Photo: Pinterest

Bucharest 1953

The 1953 București (Romanian for Bucharest) International Invitational can be regarded as the strongest chess event ever held in Romania in the 20th century, and is often cited along with the 1954 tournament.

IM Alexander Tolush was the winner of the strong (3rd) edition of 1953 with 14.0/19 points (ten wins, eight draws, one loss against Smyslov), ahead of GM Petrosian who remained unbeaten with 13.0/19. GM Smyslov finished third with 12.5 points. The untitled Spassky played his first international tournament and shared 4-6 place with GM Boleslavsky and GM Laszlo Szabo.

7. IM Barcza, 8./9. IM O'Kelly de Galway, Stefan Szabo. IM Stoltz, IM Golombek, IM Sajtar, IM Troianescu, Filip, Sliwa and Ciocaltea also took part. (20 players).

Alexander Tolush in action (in a game with Fridrik Olafsson at Hastings 1953-54). | Photo:

Alexander Tolush was awarded the GM title for his victory in Bucharest. This tournament triumph was by far the highlight of Tolush's career, an imaginative attacking player with rather erratic results. He was a well-known coach and chess journalist.

Tolush and Spassky began working together in 1952, and Tolush accompanied his pupil Spassky to his first international tournament in Bucharest, where they both played. Tolush was Spassky's coach for eight years, from 1952 to 1960. Alexander Tolush, born in 1910, died in 1969, just a few months before Boris Spassky became World Champion that year.

Boris Spassky was awarded the IM title for his fine joint fourth place, Filip and Sliwa were also awarded the IM title. Here is how the young Spassky, who was born in 1937, won in style against Smyslov:

Bucharest 1954

Chessgames gives the following review:

The players in attendance included four Soviet masters, Semyon Furman, Ratmir Kholmov, Viktor Kortschnoi, and Rashid Nezhmetdinov, Swedish Grandmaster Gideon Stahlberg, two Czechoslovakian International Masters, Miroslav Filip and Ludek Pachman, Belgian International Master Alberic O'Kelly de Galway, Italian International Master Enrico Paoli, Polish International Master Bogdan Sliwa, International Master Robert Wade, born in New Zealand, later settling in England, three Hungarian players, Gyula Kluger, Bela Sandor, and Stefan Szabo, and four players representing the Romania: International Master Octavio Troianescu, plus Ion Balanel, Victor Ciocaltea, and Paul Voiculescu.

The four Soviet masters were practically unknown outside their own country at this time, but were allowed to compete internationally for the first time due to Nikita Khrushchev's policy of "Destalinization". ...

It soon became clear that Kortschnoi and Nezhmetdinov would fight neck and neck for the top honors. After the penultimate round, Kortschnoi and Nezhmetdinov were deadlocked at 12½ points each. Nezhmetdinov then lost to Furman, and Kortschnoi drew O'Kelly to win the tournament outright, making his entrance into international chess entirely memorable.

Viktor Kortschnoi at the Chess Olympiad Leipzig 1960. | Photo: Tournament book

The untitled Viktor Kortschnoi won the strong (4th) Bucharest tournament in 1954 (ten wins, six draws, one defeat) on his international debut with 13/17 points, half a point ahead of 2. Nezhmetdinov with 12.5 points, 3. IM Filip, Kholmov with 11 points, 5. Kluger (who had beaten Kortschnoi), 6./7. Furman, IM Pachman, 8. IM O'Kelly de Galway, 9. GM Stahlberg, also IM Wade, IM Paoli, IM Sliwa, IM Troianescu, Balanel or Ciocaltea (18 players).

All four Soviet Masters (Kortschnoi, Nezhmetdinov, Kholmov, Furman) as well as Kluger and Balanel were awarded the International Master title at the FIDE Congress in July 1954. Note: IM Pachman was awarded the GM title in the same year for winning the strong zonal in Marianske Lazne and Prague.

Rashid Nezhmetdinov (1912-1974) won the tournament's brilliancy prize with his stunning victory against Paoli in the fifth round:

Other international tournaments in the 20th century

The next editions, unregularly held, were of major status, mostly including one player from the Soviet Union (ie. Gipslis, Lutikov, Sveshnikov, and Vasiukov played too, but did not win), albeit far less strong than the world elite tournaments of 1953 & 1954. Prominent winners:

1961 (5th edition) Leonid Stein (ahead of 2. Bilek, including Gheorghiu, Ciocaltea or Soos, no player was a grandmaster then), 1962 Ratmir Kholmov, 1966 Viktor Kortschnoi (second entry/winner, unbeaten and 2.5 points ahead of 2. Gheorghiu, 3. Kavalek, 4./5. Matulovic, Soos), 1967 Florin Gheorghiu, 1968 Bruno Parma, 1971 (10th edition) Yuri Averbakh and the surprising IM Artur Hennings from East Germany, 1973 Mark Taimanov, 1974 Vitaly Tseshkovsky, 1975 Victor Ciocaltea (Rainer Knaak clear runner-up), 1976 Theodor Ghitescu, 1978 Lev Alburt, 1979 Mark Taimanov (second entry/win), 1980 Alexander Beliavsky (unbeaten and three full points ahead of 2. Suba, 3./4. Ghinda, Ionescu, 5./6. Chandler, Prandstetter), 1981 Sergey Dolmatov

Occasionally, in the 1980s and 1990s, there were other mostly national tournaments of lesser strength, such as in 1992, when Tunisia's Slim Bouaziz triumphed in a semi-international event. There were also several women's tournaments in Bucharest.

Of course, Bucharest has hosted many national championships. Record national champions are Corina Peptan and Florin Gheorghiu, Romania's first grandmaster. He was awarded the title in 1965.

Peptan has won the Romanian women's championship twelve times, in 1994, 1995, 1997, 2000, 2004, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2014, 2015, 2017 and 2019. Gheorghiu has won nine titles, in 1960, 1962, 1964, 1965, 1966, 1967, 1973, 1977 and 1987. Victor Ciocaltea (1932-1983) won the national title eight times, in 1952, 1959, 1961, 1969, 1970, 1971, 1975 and 1979.

Since 1984, a regular Victor Ciocaltea Memorial tournament has been organised, sometimes as a round robin, sometimes as a Swiss system.

Two editions of the Bazna Kings series, held in Bucharest

The Bazna Kings invitational series, which started in 2007 in Bazna and was later played in Medias, had two editions in Bucharest with a strong but very small field, both including Liviu-Dieter Nisipeanu:

2012 ("Kings Tournament"): Vasyl Ivanchuk wins after a speed play-off against Topalov, 3. Caruana and 4. Nisipeanu (Quadrangular).

2013 (now "Romgaz Kings Tournament"): Fabiano Caruana won, ahead of 2. Wang Hao, 3. Nisipeanu, 4. Radjabov and 5. Ponomariov (an odd number of five (!) players).

Bucharest 2019

Bucharest hosted the FIDE World Senior Chess Championships 2019, with the well-known Rafael Vaganian and Nona Gaprindashvili winning the 65+ titles, and Vadim Shishkin and Elvira Berend taking the 50+ titles respectively.

In that year a new rapid and blitz event was added to the Grand Chess Tour GCT, featuring Anand, Caruana, Karjakin, Aronian, Mamedyarov, So, Giri, Artemiev, Korobov and Le Quang Liem. The GCT Bucharest Superbet Rapid & Blitz 2019 was won by Levon Aronian after a play-off against Karjakin.

Levon Aronian, then playing for his home country Armenia, the winner of the Bucharest Superbet Rapid & Blitz 2019. | Photo: Lennart Ootes, official website

No event in 2020 due to the Corona pandemic. In 2021 a world elite tournament in classical chess has been established in Bucharest, which is now organised annually as part of the Grand Chess Tour. The Bucharest Superbet Chess Classic will become the twin tournament of the famous Sinquefield Cup in Saint Louis.

Superbet Chess Classic 2021

Seven players from the Elo top ten in June 2021: Fabiano Caruana, Levon Aronian, Anish Giri, Alexander Grischuk, Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, Wesley So, Teimour Radjabov and one from the Top Twenty, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, plus two Romanian players, Bogdan-Daniel Deac (who replaced Rapport who had to withdraw at the last moment) and Constantin Lupulescu. Absent: Carlsen and Nepomniachtchi, who were preparing for their World Championship title match later in the year.

Shakhriyar Mamedyarov won the first Superbet Romania Chess Classic in 2021 unbeaten and a full point ahead with 6/9, one point ahead of Levon Aronian, Wesley So and Alexander Grischuk, all on 5/9, followed by Giri and Radjabov on 4.5/9.

Shakhriyar Mamedyarov from Azerbaijan, the winner of the first Bucharest Superbet Chess Classic 2021. | Photo: Lennart Ootes, official website

Superbet Chess Classic 2022

Seven players from the May 2022 Elo Top Ten: Alireza Firouzja, Fabiano Caruana, Richard Rapport, Ian Nepomniachtchi, Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, Wesley So, Levon Aronian, and two from the Top Twenty: Leinier Dominguez, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, plus Bogdan-Daniel Deac. The tournament thus included all nine full tour players of the Grand Chess Tour (GCT) 2022, plus one local wildcard player, the promising Romanian grandmaster Bogdan-Daniel Deac. Absent: Carlsen and Ding Liren, the current No. 1 and No. 2 in the world in May 2022.

Vachier-Lagrave won the 2022 Superbet Chess Classic. After an intense final day, three players were tied for first place with 5.5/9. But it was MVL who, by winning his final round game, caught up with the two former co-leaders, Wesley So and Levon Aronian (who had beaten MVL in his classical game), and beat them both in a thrilling rapid play-off.

Maxime Vachier-Lagrave of France after an eventful final day which saw him win the Bucharest Superbet Chess Classic 2022. | Photo: Lennart Ootes, official website

Upcoming Superbet Chess Classic 2023

The announced line-up for the third Superbet Chess Classic Romania 2023 in Bucharest (also part of the GCT) is again excellent:

Six players from the Elo top ten in May 2023: The new World Chess Champion Ding Liren and Ian Nepomniachtchi just one week after their exciting, wild battle for the ultimate crown, Alireza Firouzja, Anish Giri, the winner of this year's Tata Steel in Wijk aan Zee in January 2023, Fabiano Caruana and Wesley So, then two players from the Top Twenty, Richard Rapport and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, plus Jan-Krzysztof Duda and wildcard Bogdan-Daniel Deac, all ten players with an official FIDE Elo rating of 2700 or higher as of May 2023.

The venue will be the Grand Hotel Bucharest. The tournament will take place from 5 May 2023 (opening ceremony) to 15 May 2023 (play-offs, if any, and closing ceremony).

The Superbet Chess Classic in Bucharest will open the 2023 GCT Grand Chess Tour season, while the already traditional Sinquefield Cup (this series started ten years ago with a quadrangular in 2013) will close the tour in Saint Louis, Missouri, USA.

In between these two super tournaments in classical chess there will be three rapid and blitz events in Warsaw, Zagreb and Saint Louis, which traditionally hosts two events.

This means that the Grand Chess Tour will again consist of five legs at four venues, Bucharest, Warsaw, Zagreb and Saint Louis, with dates at the beginning and end of May, July and November/December 2023.

The prize money for the entire tour is $1.4 million, with $350,000 going to the two classical chess legs, with $100,000 going to the winner of each (Bucharest Superbet & Sinquefield Cup) and $175,000 going to each of the three rapid and blitz chess legs. In addition, a bonus prize fund of $175,000 will be awarded to the top overall Tour finishers.

Magnus Carlsen will play as a wildcard in the Polish and Croatian stages in Warsaw and Zagreb respectively, joining the full Tour participants from 2023 and some other selected players such as Vishy Anand in Zagreb (last minute changes remain possible).

The Superbet Foundation, headed by Augusta-Valeria Dragic, co-founder with her husband Sacha Dragic of the Superbet Group, has become a major chess sponsor, as have Rex Sinquefield and his wife Jeanne Cairns Sinquefield, founders of the Saint Louis Chess Club in Saint Louis, Missouri, and sponsors of the annual Sinquefield Cup, several other classical chess round-robin tournaments, and the recently established Cairns Cup (an elite event for top female players in an international invitation tournament, the next edition to be held in June).


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.