Rauf Mamedov won the blitz competition on Tuesday, a full point ahead of the field. Evgeny Tomashevsky of Russia took silver.

Looking at the pre-tournament rankings of the field of 16 chess competitors in the World Sports Mind Games in Huai’an, China, it might have seemed that two of them, Sergei Movsesian of Armenia and Rauf Mamedov of Azerbaijan were badly outclassed. The other 14 players were rated 2700 or higher, while Movsesian is 2653 and Mamedov is 2650. 

But those were the standard, or classical, ratings of each player and the Games, a quadrennial competition held the same year as the Summer Olympics, includes three disciplines: rapid, blitz and basque chess. In the world blitz rankings, Mamedov is 2810, which was the second-highest ranking in the field.

Tuesday, Mamedov exceeded his pre-tournament ranking, but just barely, by capturing gold in the blitz championship. Evgeny Tomashevsky of Russia took the silver, while Pentala Harikrishna of India, the second-lowest ranked blitz player, took third on tie-breaks. 

The blitz tournament covered three days and was a double-round robin, for 30 rounds total. Early on, it was Harikrishna and Ding Liren of China who took the lead. 

Ding really hit the ground running, winning his first four games, including victories over Ruslan Ponomariov of Ukraine and Harikrishna. However, he was brought back down to earth by a couple of tough losses to Wang Hao of China and Gabriel Sargissian of Armenia in Rounds 6 and 7.

At this point, a little luck came into play. After those two losses, Ding was losing a third game in a row, this time against David Navara of the Czech Republic, but managed to swindle out a victory to get going in the right direction again. Things started to go wrong for Navara in the following position:

Ding, who was Black, was down two pawns and did not have nearly enough compensation. He was likely going to win the pawn on e5, but that would mean giving up the bishop pair and White would still have two connected passed pawns on the queenside. Indeed, after the strongest move, 21. Qd1!, Black would not even win the e5 pawn because 21. … Bxf3 could be met by 22. Rxd7!

So Black looked entirely lost to me, but some precision was required and Navara started to falter with 21. Rxd7, which gave Ding two bishops on an open board. Navara remained better for awhile, but his next error was much more costly.

As in the previous position, White could retain a large advantage with the same move — 26. Qd1! Instead, Navara played 26. Qa4??, and was lucky that Ding overlooked the winning reply 26. … Rc1+ 27. Kh2 Bxe5+!, when the bishop is immune of queen to h4, mate.

Ding played 26. … Ra8, which was not bad either. It won back one pawn while keeping the bishop pair, which proved to be too much for Navara to handle. He lost control of the game and resigned on move 40.

Harikrishna’s victories were not as one-sided as most of Ding’s, but, when there was little time on the clock, he consistently seemed to be more tactically aware than his opponents. Several of his games were decided by one-movers. This is quite typical for a positional player like Harikrishna. He often seeks strategic struggles in blitz games, and when playing positions like those, it is easy to play “by hand” and not pay as much attention to tactics. Take the following position, for example, which was against Wang Yue of China:

Harikrishna, who was White is a little better, but Wang certainly did not have to go down so quickly with 19. … Bxc4?? This move makes some sense, as the idea was that Black would be able to plant a knight on e5 after the recapture on c4. But the idea failed to a simple tactic — 20. Bxc4 Nxe5 21. Bxf7+!, when White won material because of the pin of the knight against the queen on c7. Wang played 21. … Qf7, but after 22. Rf7 Nf7, he had inadequate compensation for his material deficit and resigned on move 33.

Wang Yue was not the only person who walked into a tactical refutation from Harikrishna — Leinier Dominguez Perez of Cuba did as well.

In the above position, Dominguez, who was Black, was fine. If he had continued 27. … Bxd5! 28. exd5 Qxa7 29. Bxa7 Rxb3, his excellent structure and central control would have compensated for White’s extra pawn and bishop pair.

Instead, Dominguez played 27. … Qxa7?? without including Bxd5 first, but after 28. Bxa7 Rxb3 29. Nxe7+!, a strong in-between move, White had won a piece. The rest of the game wan not very competitive and Dominguez even allowed himself to be checkmated a few moves later (with a White rook taking the pawn on h5). 

At the end of Day 1, Ding and Harikrishna were leading with 7.5/10. They kept up the pace on Day 2, only separating in Round 20, when Harikrishna drew against Shakhriyar Mamaedyarov of Azerbaijan, the gold medalis in the rapid event, while Ding won a nice game against Laurent Fressinet of France. 

This position definitely looks better for Ding, who was Black, but if Fressinet had continued 16. Bc3! Rd3 17. Nb3!, he should have been fine. But, this is more or less impossible for a human to find in a blitz game.

Fressinet erred with the very human move 16. Rfd1, but after 16. … Rd3! 17. Nb3 Rfd8!, the tactics favored Black. White could not take the knight on c5 becaause of the attack on the rook on d1, so Fressinet tried 18. Rxd3. But  after the simple 18. … Nxd3, Black’s knight was a huge nuisance for White. Ding cruised to victory, giving him the lead once again with 14.5/20. Harikrishna was a close second with 14, and then there was a big dropoff to Mamedov, who had crept to third with 12.5.

Day 3 belonged to Mamedov.

Both Harikrishna and Ding had significant dropoffs on the third day, scoring 4/10 and 3/10, respectively. At the same time, Mamedov went on a sprint, scoring 7/10. As is always the case in blitz, he needed a bit of luck at times, but the breaks all fell his way to complement his strong play.

One of the most critical games was in Round 25, when Mamedov beat Harikrishna, who missed a simple win in the following position:

Harikrishna, who was Black, is much better here, and after Mamedov played 44. Be3?, Harikrishna could have played 44. … Qxe3, when Mamedov would probably have had nothing better than to resign. Instead, in the time scramble, he missed his chance and chose 44. … dxe3?, after which Mamedov took rook on e2 with his queen and went on to win. There is no doubt that this moment was critical in determining who won the gold.

Wednesday and Thursday is the basque event, which is one of my favorite chess variants, and should be exciting to watch.


Samuel Shankland is a United States grandmaster ranked No. 7 in the country. He is a professional player and recipient of the Samford Fellowship in 2013, the most prestigious award in the United States for young chess players. He is at @GMShanky on Twitter and is also on Facebook.