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11 December 2023

Chess Championship Reminds the World of a Tragically Lost Azerbaijani Star

The Gashimov Chess Tournament has concluded in Gabala, Azerbaijan. But beyond the games themselves, the event reminds the world of one of the sport’s great young players whose life was cut short in 2014.

Chess Championship Reminds the World of a Tragically Lost Azerbaijani Star

Image: Vugar Gashimov Memorial 2023

Over the past week, ten of the planet’s most prominent chess players converged on the small Azerbaijani resort-city of Gabala, normally better known for its skiing and mountain hikes. The occasion was the 2023 Vugar Gashimov Memorial Tournament, which ran from 7-11 December. 

Along with local grandmasters Teymur Rajabov, Shahriyar Mammadyarov, Rauf Mammadov, Nijat Abbasov, and prodigy Aydin Suleymanli, competitors included five high-ranking international stars.

The tournament sees ten players play both blitz and rapid games against one another. It commemorates Vugar Hashimov, known internationally as Vugar Gashimov, due to Russian transliteration. Once one of Azerbaijan’s brightest hopes in the chess world, Hashimov reached number 6 on the FIDE international chess rankings in November 2009. However, he was diagnosed with a brain tumour and died in Frankfurt during surgery in January 2014.

Hashimov was considered an especially creative player noted for using the Benoni Defence to great effect which had been popular in the 1960s but had been considered relatively ineffective in recent decades till Vugar gave it new life. 

Image: Elnur/Shutterstock

The first memorial tournament in Vugar’s memory was held as a six-person round-robin in Shamkir, Azerbaijan, just months after his death. It was won by world #1 Magnus Carlsen, who described Vugar as “one of the most talented and original players I've met” as well as being “always friendly with everyone and always smiling.” 

After his death, a Gashimov Foundation was created along with the Vugar Gashimov Chess Academy, the Foundation being one of the tournament’s sponsors along with Azerbaijani software & ICT company Caspel. The 2023 tournament kicked off with the first round draw held at Qabala’s Heydar Aliyev Congress Center, a fountain-fronted 2012 conference centre that looks rather like a grand Victorian station. However, most of the games were played at the Gabala Garden Hotel (formerly Hotel Qafqaz Sport), one of Qabala’s many luxurious getaway resorts, while fans worldwide could watch the moves in real-time on GasimovChess.com.

20-year-old Indian star Arjun Erigaisi, along with Aydin Suleymanli and Nijat Abasov, led the pack after the first round of rapid games that concluded on 9 December. But by the end of the last day, each grandmaster having played all others twice at rapid and twice more in blitz, India’s Vidit Gujrathi had bounced back to pip Arjun, winning by just half a point. Third was Romania’s Richard Rapport, recovering from a fairly poor first round with Aydin Suleymanli beaten back into fourth place.

Very tight scoring highlighted the very balanced, competitive field, but aside from finding a winner, the key focus remained the memory of Vugar Hashimov, the talent cut short far too early. As former world champion Garry Kasparov said after Vugar’s death, it was remarkable that he had ever been able to reach [and maintain] his status at the pinnacle of the game despite the health problems he faced from a very early age.