In an ugly turn of events, Azerbaijan, previously real contenders for a gold medal at the Olympiad, have chosen to leave out Vugar Gashimov, one of their star players. This follows a bitter conflict with the team management and a nationalistic campaign against the 2719-rated player.
In Gashimov’s place Azerbaijan have chosen the promising youngster, Eltaj Safarli (2607), thereby reducing the team from 3rd to 7th favourites. The only other notable 2700+ absentees from the upcoming Olympiad are World Champion Vishy Anand and Alexander Morozevich (the latter’s disappearance from the second Russian team is more of a disappointment than a surprise).
What makes the Gashimov announcement shocking is not so much the decision, but its justification. This is from a press conference with Azad Ragimov, the Azerbaijan Minister of Youth and Sport:
In one of his tournaments Vugar Gashimov played for a Garry Kasparov team. How do you react to that?
Besides the fact that Kasparov and I were in one group, my reaction’s negative. His actions of late have worried us. His behaviour isn’t appropriate for a citizen of Azerbaijan. It’s not his first such excess. He also conducted himself improperly in relation to the team trainer Zurab Azmaiparashvili. It was improper on his part to be a member of the Kasparov team. He didn’t even bother to come and account for his actions.
The incredible complaint about Kasparov refers to Gashimov playing in the “Kasparov-Marcote” team that won the recent Spanish Team Championship (see this Chessvibes report). Kasparov, born in the Azerbaijan city of Baku to an Armenian mother, is apparently considered persona non grata in Azerbaijan. Which makes it a little puzzling (to this observer, at least) that Zurab Azmaiparashvili, a good friend of Kasparov’s, is the Azerbaijan team captain.
He was also team captain last year when Azerbaijan beat Russia to gold in the European Team Championship in Serbia, thanks to a dramatic last round victory by none other than Vugar Gashimov (as reported at Chessbase). Things started to go wrong in January this year at the World Team Championship in Turkey. Azerbaijan collapsed to finish medal-less, with Gashimov losing a series of games. In a Crestbook interview (part of which I translated here) he later explained that he’d been forced to play while ill, and when asked how he gets on with the team trainer responded:
If by “trainer” you mean Zurab Azmaiparashvili, then I don’t. I can definitely tell you that in Serbia and in Turkey I saw two different people.
Asked for a comment on recent events by azerisport.com, Azmaiparashvili responded:
It’s true I did have problems with Gashimov. But I don’t want to talk about it. The team is like a family in which there are occasional disagreements. I’m against bringing it all out into the open for public discussion. Unfortunately, Gashimov won’t be going to the Olympiad with us. In his place will be Eltaj Safarli.
Gashimov finally took the opportunity to respond in an interview published today on the disput.az forum. I’ve translated it in full below:
Vugar, of late certain media outlets have been publishing some not very pleasant things about you. You’re criticised for improper conduct, scheming…
Yes, I heard about that and, to tell the truth, it was a very unpleasant surprise. The thing is they criticise me for “non-team-like” behaviour, as if I was involved in some schemes, while in fact I’ve always been in favour of the team’s fate being decided by the team itself, and not third parties… I’ve always been, first and foremost, a sportsman and put the game first, not behind-the-scenes “games”.
There are rumours that you were invited many times to the Ministry, the Chess Federation… But you refused to meet with them.
Whoever says that clearly doesn’t have reliable information. As banal as it sounds, the reality was exactly the opposite. I’ve tried to get a meeting with the head of the federation in order to make him aware of my problems and plans. I’ve also continually tried to relate my plans to the Ministry. I never avoided meetings, and instead often proposed them, hoping they’d listen and help me. But, as you can see, for now everything’s working out exactly the opposite – while I was away from the country instead of helping they’ve really launched a witch-hunt against me.
One more question. They say that you refused to play for our club, but meanwhile played for Kasparov’s club… you’re accused of being too closely tied to Armenians…
Sorry, but that’s just delusional. No doubt it’ll surprise you, but to begin with our federation didn’t invite me to the President’s Cup in May, I also didn’t receive an invitation to play for the Baku club “SOCAR” [a newly-formed chess team with Mamedyarov, Radjabov, Mamedov and Safarli from Azerbaijan, and the “mercenaries” Grischuk, Shirov, Vachier-Lagrave and Kasimdzhanov], and then they didn’t invite me to the Olympiad, excluding me from the team… and moreover, coming up with absurd accusations about Armenians.
I’d like to go into a little more depth on this topic. Firstly, I played for the team of the “Kasparov-Marcote” International School, which was founded back in 1991 with the participation of Marcote and Kasparov. The first of those has long-since passed away, while Kasparov hasn’t been involved with the club for many years. As for the name, it’s been retained from the early 90s, when the club didn’t yet exist and there was only the chess school, on the basis of which the club was founded. By the way the club today belongs 100% to a Spanish businessman and it was the Spaniards (Francisco Vallejo Pons is the team captain and the no. 2 on the Spanish team) who invited me to play for the club. Even in his worst nightmares no player could have imagined such a distortion of the facts…
Moreover, I think it’s wrong to bring the topic onto such a level… after all, in that way we strike a blow to our own reputation, giving our enemies one more reason to accuse us of intolerance. And although I’ve never played in a team with Armenian grandmasters, never mind playing for an Armenian club, some of our chess players have played for the same club as Armenian players. For example, Radjabov played for the same club as Akopian. If you’re going to think in such categories then I’d be afraid even to imagine what sort of obstructions Teimur would come up against in my place…
If that’s really the situation, then why has the Minister of Sport criticised you so harshly?
Azad Ragimov is a very honourable man and does a lot for the development of sport in Azerbaijan and I was very disappointed to read all of this in his name, so I’m sure that he was simply misinformed. The most interesting thing is that the people who are really contriving these schemes all remain in the shadows. It’s all very disappointing…
Would you want to play for the Azerbaijan team or do you no longer have such a desire?
The answer’s unambiguous – of course I would. There’s nothing closer to me than Azerbaijan, and whatever they say behind my back, whatever they ascribe to me, it won’t change my relationship to my homeland. I promised the President that I’d do everything possible to glorify our country and achieve success in its name. How can I break a promise given to a man to whom I owe so much?
At one time, when my win brought us victory in the European Championship everyone called me a great guy, but what’s changed since? I’m still the same, but the attitude to me on the part of certain people is now different.
Let that remain on the conscience of those who started this campaign against me. Now, as before, I remain above these intrigues and I’m not going to succumb to provocations.
Today I play, train and travel to sessions only at my own cost, without sponsors… And I really don’t have any time for all of these outrages. I have to think about my own career.
Perhaps it’s not too late for the decision to be changed? In any case, it has to be hoped that the situation described above won’t have a lasting impact on Gashimov’s career. As recently as January this year he was ranked 2759 and no. 7 on the rating list. Only a mini rating collapse and misfortune at the final Grand Prix (conspiracy theorists might also point to Radjabov beating Mamedyarov on demand) prevented Gashimov from qualifying for next year’s Candidates Matches.
UPDATE: 23:45 CET, 9 September
A longer interview with Azmaiparashvili has now been published by Azerisport, though the section concerning Gashimov leaves the reader little the wiser as to what’s really going on:
I want to start by saying that Vugar is an excellent chess player. But at a certain moment I understood that it’s senseless to try to come to an understanding with him. Moreover, as far as I know, there are some things he needs to clear up with the chess federation.
Did you have problems with him?
At the World Championships, yes.
Meaning that while you’re team captain, Gashimov won’t be in the team?
I treat the team as a family. There can be some conflicts within it, some misunderstandings. But the members of the family always find a consensus and try to accommodate each other. I’m not closing the door to the team on anyone, but Gashimov won’t be at the Olympiad.