Vugar Gashimov began playing chess when he was only 6 years old. He would eventually represent his country in four Chess Olympiads and become a grandmaster by the time he was 16.
Gashimov was born in Baku, Azerbaijan’s capital city (although the region was still part of the Soviet Union in 1986). Chess was incredibly popular at the time, due to the victory of Baku-native Garry Kasparov against Anatoly Karpov at the World Championship in 1985.
In the Gashimov family, chess was a way of life. Gashimov’s father, a retired army colonel who served at the Defense Ministry of Azerbaijan, taught Vugar to play the game. His older brother Sarkhan, a solid chess player in his own right, served as his manager.
Like many young boys, Gashimov enjoyed playing sports and watching movies, but he always knew he wanted to become a competitive chess player. After he defeated all of the other children in his age group, Gashimov’s family hired international master Anar Allakhverdiev and Russian grandmaster Vitaly Tseshkovsky to coach him.
Gashimov won a silver medal in the under-10-years-old division at the World Youth Championships in 1996, and became an international master just three years later. However, after winning the 1999 Kasparov Trophy at 14, Gashimov was diagnosed with epilepsy and forced to step away from the game. He underwent three surgeries on his brain before launching an amazing comeback.
By 2002, Gashimov had earned the title of grandmaster, the highest honor for world-class chess players.
A bold competitor and online blitz specialist, Gashimov was known for changing many players’ view of the Modern Benoni opening. He won the Athens 2005 Acropolis International and the 2005 Abu Dhabi International Chess tournament; he took top honors at the Cappelle la Grande tournament and tied for first in the FIDE Grand Prix tournament in 2008. Next, Gashimov won the 2010-11 Reggio Emilia tournament, Italy’s oldest and most renowned chess competition, on a tie-break from Spanish grandmaster Francisco Vallejo Pons.
Alongside Teymur Rajabov, Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, Rauf Mammadov and Gadir Guseinov, Gashimov helped the Azerbaijani team become a powerhouse competitor at international championships, including the Chess Olympiads of 2002, 2004, 2006 and 2008.
“Vugar was certainly the soul of Azerbaijani team. He was a very cheerful person. He lifted us even when we were losing. Besides, he shared his knowledge and really helped to develop. And he shared it with pleasure, and many times helped me personally in preparation for games; he did everything for the team,” Guseinov said.
In fact, it was Gashimov who lead the team to a gold medal victory in the 2009 European Team Chess Championship in Novi Sad. At that point in his career, he was listed at #6 in the FIDE World Rankings and declared the top chess player in his country.
Gashimov was excluded from the Chess Olympiad team in 2010 over a conflict with the national chess federation and Zurab Azmaiparashvili, the team’s former coach. Without his contribution, the Azerbaijani team finished in 12th place.
Gashimov was ranked #10 in the world in 2012 when health problems again prompted him to step away from the competitive circuit. Subsequent testing revealed a brain tumor.
Gashimov died on Jan. 10 while receiving cancer treatment in Germany. He was 27.
“[Gashimov] was a nice person, an excellent friend, and a good fellow in the team. You could always rely on him. He was always ready to help, and he helped,” Azerbaijani grandmaster Gadir Huseynov said. “He was a kindhearted, cheerful and positive person. It is a great loss for us. I cannot still believe it. It is very painful to perceive that one of my dearest friends has died.”