Throwback Thursday: Ivanchuk stuns at M-Tel Masters 2008

by Carlos Alberto Colodro
4/17/2020 – The fourth edition of the M-Tel Masters Tournament in Sofia saw Vassily Ivanchuk getting sole first place with a stunning 8 out of 10 score. The Ukrainian genius finished 1½ points ahead of Veselin Topalov, who had won all three previous editions. Ivanchuk kicked off the tournament with five straight wins and, after scoring one more victory in the second half, ended the event with a 2977 Tournament Performance Rating. | Photos: Europe Echecs

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Six wins and four draws

Starting in 2005, Sofia hosted a six-player double round-robin tournament sponsored by Bulgarian mobile network operator M-Tel. In the end, five editions were held and they all featured strong line-ups — three of them were Category XX events, while the last one in 2010 reached Category XXI status.

Veselin Topalov, Chavdar NikolovFrom 2005 to 2007, local hero Veselin Topalov won the event outright, getting 6½ points in the first two editions and edging the field in a closely contested third edition with a 5½ score. The super-tournament was not held in 2010, when Sofia hosted the World Championship match between Anand and Topalov right around the same dates the event used to take place — the M-Tel Masters was organized in May and the match started on April 24th. The 2009 edition turned out to be the last one.

In 2008, every participant except Topalov made his debut at the tournament. Three players from the top ten headed the line-up — Topalov, Levon Aronian and Teimour Radjabov (numbers 4, 6 and 8 in the world respectively). They were joined by world number 11 Vassily Ivanchuk and two relative outsiders, Bu Xiangzhi and Ivan Cheparinov. 

The rate of play was 90 minutes for 40 moves + one hour to the end of the game. This tournament was the one that championed what are now known as the 'Sofia rules', which forbid players from offering draws directly and require the chief arbiter to decide whether a position is actually drawn. The then innovative system worked out well in 2008, as 16 out of 30 games ended decisively, with not a single round seeing all three games drawn. 

The venue was the Central Military Club, a three-storey building which features a coffeehouse, an art gallery, a number of refined halls varying in size and an imposing concert hall with 450 seats. Another innovation presented in Bulgaria was the use of an "aquarium" as the playing hall. It was a sound-proof glass enclosure which allowed the spectators to move very close to the players and even talk, without the players being disturbed.

The idea of the players enclosed behind glass walls was later used at the Bilbao Masters Final, which, precisely starting in 2008, attempted to gather the winners of the previous year's Grand Slam events — at different times, the Tata Steel Masters, the M-Tel Masters, Linares, the Pearl Spring Tournament and the Bazna Kings Tournament were part of the circuit. 

[Cartoon by Chavdar Nikolov]

M-Tel Masters 2008

The glass-enclosed playing venue | Photo: Europe Echecs

Rounds 1-5: The streak

Ivanchuk won the tournament with an undefeated +6 score, and five of his wins came in the first five rounds, when he beat all the remaining participants of the event. As it is usually the case when this happens, besides his very strong form, a bit of luck was involved in the process.

In round one, Radjabov was an exchange up with White, but his desire to win at all costs pushed him to willingly give up his material edge only to lose the full point later on. Then, in round three, Ivanchuk got a winning position after merely eight moves, as Bu Xiangzhi badly blundered out of an unorthodox opening. (You can replay all the games from the tournament at the end of the article).

It was not all luck though. Ivanchuk played the French Defence against Topalov in round two. The Bulgarian got a slightly better position, but his aggressive continuation on move 33 gave away his edge:


True to his style, Topalov played 33.e6 when 33.Ra1 was the best alternative, keeping the initiative and looking to eventually capture on d5 and advance the passed pawn. After the text, Ivanchuk was the one getting a quick passer with 33...d4. Topalov continued with the imprecise 34.Be8 and his attempts to create something on the kingside fell short. Resignation came on move 43.

Vassily Ivanchuk

Ivanchuk taking a walk at the Bulgarian capital | Photo: Europe Echecs

Two days later, Topalov's second at the time, Ivan Cheparinov, put forth a King's Indian Defence and went all out for an attack that ended up backfiring:


Seeing Cheparinov's attacks crash and burn was a common sight that year. Here, he needed to keep his queen flexible with 32...Qe8, but went for 32...Qb6+ instead. After 33.Kh1 Nhxg2 34.Nf5, it turned out Black's monarch was more vulnerable than his counterpart. The scoresheets were signed with a 1-0 six moves later.

Ivanchuk's fifth-round win over Aronian was a highly unbalanced battle in which the Armenian first gave up a piece for the attack and then saw his opponent giving up his queen for two rooks. In a clearly lost position, the tricky Aronian tried to set up a trap:


White played 43.Qg7+, expecting that after 43...Kxg7 44.f6 Black would play 44...Kxf6 when a draw by stalemate would be agreed after 45.g5+. Ivanchuk did not fall for it and played 44...Kf8 instead, winning.

Levon Aronian, Vassily Ivanchuk

Aronian v Ivanchuk | Photo: Europe Echecs

So at half-time Ivanchuk was leading on 5 out of 5, with Topalov 1½ points behind. The Bulgarian also had a great start (except for his loss to the leader, of course), as he won three games and only signed a draw with Radjabov. Do check out his attacking wins over Aronian (round one) and Bu Xiangzhi (round five).

Games mentioned in this section


Rounds 6-8: Never write Topalov off

An aggressive player like Topalov is used to having some ups and downs during tournaments. In fact, the Bulgarian's two previous wins at the M-Tel Masters were achieved after dramatic comebacks. In 2008, it seemed like the trend would continue, as from rounds six to eight the player from Ruse scored two more wins and drew the leader, thus closing the gap to a half point with two rounds to go.

Topalov took advantage of Aronian's bad form in round six and got the better of his compatriot Cheparinov in a tactical skirmish two days later:


White kept his king in the centre throughout, well aware of the fact that he had a stronger initiative. The immediate 31.Rxg7 is completely winning here, but Topalov's 31.Rf7 is also effective and makes a good impression. Cheparinov resigned after 31...Qc8 32.Rxg7.


Meanwhile, Ivanchuk drew three games in a row, despite finding himself in deep time trouble against Topalov in round seven. In other news, after half-time Boris Spassky arrived in Sofia as a special guest. As stated in ChessBase's sixth round report, "The legendary grandmaster went straight into the commentary studio and started to entertain the public with his colorful memories, excellent chess and witty remarks".

Boris Spassky, Vassily Ivanchuk

Spassky and Ivanchuk analysing | Photo: Europe Echecs

Rounds 9-10: Ivanchuk the goalkeeper

During the rest day, some of the participants and special guests played a friendly football match. The main attraction of the match was the surprisingly strong goalkeeper of the "Chess United" squad — none other than Vassily Ivanchuk!

The Ukrainian signed his fourth straight draw in round nine, against Aronian, and saw Topalov unexpectedly losing against Bu Xiangzhi. The Chinese grandmaster had lost five of his first eight games and defeated a player that came from winning three of his last four encounters. In an interview with Robert Fontaine from Europe Echecs, Ivanchuk found an interesting way to explain the developments after the rest day:

It's very strange. During the football match I was the goalkeeper, and now for my games I feel myself like a goalkeeper in each game. I defend in each game only. It is very strange — some mystic explanation, of course.

Vassily Ivanchuk, Veselin Topalov

A surprisingly strong goalkeeper! | Photo: Official site

Thus, going into the last day of action Ivanchuk had a one-point lead over Topalov and had to face Cheparinov with the black pieces. A 2:0 score for the Bulgarians would see the defending champion catching the leader in the standings. Topalov had White against Radjabov, and the Azerbaijani played a forcing line that included a spectacular queen sacrifice — of course, he had it all worked out and the draw was signed on move 34.

Ivanchuk only needed a half point, but he calmly refuted Cheparinov's attacking attempts and ended up winning the game with a good-looking sequence of moves:


White is threatening mate, but Black's attack is quicker. Resignation came after 32...Nc3+ 33.Ka1 Nb5+, with a lethal discovered check.

Ivan Cheparinov, Vassily Ivanchuk

Cheparinov resigns the game | Photo: Europe Echecs

Ivanchuk's 2977 performance rating was compared to other major tournament victories. A year and a half later, when Carlsen got his astounding victory in Nanjing, also with 8 out of 10, chess statistician Jeff Sonas published an article examining these exceptional performances. Of course, this piece was written before Fabiano Caruana's astronomical 8½ out of 10 score at the 2014 Sinquefield Cup.

Final standings

M-Tel Masters 2008

All games



Carlos Colodro is a Hispanic Philologist from Bolivia. He works as a freelance translator and writer since 2012. A lot of his work is done in chess-related texts, as the game is one of his biggest interests, along with literature and music.


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