The quadrennial event concluded with its most unusual format: Basque chess.

There was no sweep for Azerbaijan in the World Mind Sports Games, as the host country, China, finally won a gold in the men’s competition of the chess events.  

The third part of the Games was the Basque competition. Named after the region of Spain where it first debuted in 2011/2012, it involves competitors playing two games simultaneously against each other — one with each color. 

Ding Liren, China’s top-ranked player, was outstanding from start to finish in the Basque competition, deservedly winning gold.

I have never played in an official Basque tournament, but I have played it casually, and it tends to produce exciting and interesting chess. From the start, Ding seemed more focused on his games with Black, and his score with Black was an impressive 4/5, while he only scored 3/5 with White. My favorite win of his came at the expense of Leinier Dominguez Perez of Cuba in Round 3.

In the above position, Dominguez, who had White, had a small edge emerging from a standard Archanglesk opening. The most natural move to me looked like 12. c3, but I can’t object to Dominguez’s move either. After 12. Be3 Nxd5 though, I believe he erred with 13. exd5?!, shutting in the b3 bishop. I would have preferred 13. Bxc5!, snagging the bishop pair because 13. … dxc5 14. Bxd5 would win the pawn on e5. Instead, after 13. … exd5 Bxe3 14. fxe3 Ne7, I already prefered Black’s position.

Dominguez made things worse with 15. e4?!, giving Black the chance to break the kingside open with 15. … Ng6 16. Qd2 f5! From then on, Ding played simply and thematically.

The game continued 17. Ra7 fxe4 18. dxe4 Bg4 19. Qe3 Bxf3! 20. Rxf3 Rxf3 21. Qxf3 Qg5!, when White could not take the c7 pawn because of Rf8. White had to retreat with 22. Ra1, but was left with a horrendous bishop and resigned on Move 38.

There was a big tie for second through fifth, with each player at 6/10. David Navara of the Czech Republic took silver on tie-breaks and Ruslan Ponomariov of Ukraine the bronze.

Shakriyar Mamedyarov of Azerbaijan, who won the gold in rapid, was fifth on tie-breaks, but he actually could have caught Ding for the gold. He would have score 7 points, if not for a strange blunder against Navara in Round 5 in the following position:

Mamedyarov, who is Black, is up a full piece here, and is, of course, completely winning. Just for simplicity’s sake, I would recommend exchanging queens with 28. … Qxe7 29. Rxe7 Bc8, pitching the pawn on f7 to eliminate any dream of counterplay.

Instead, Mamedyarov played 28. … Qd7, which was not a bad move but definitely was a riskier one, because it allowed 29. … Qh4+ Kg7 30. Re7. Still, Black was absolutely winning after 30. … Qd8 because White could take the bishop on b7. But after 31. Qg5 disaster struck with 31. … Bc8?? (already Black had made his life more difficult, but he would have still been winning after 31. … Qb8!, defending the bishop and stopping Qe5+) 32. Rxf7+! and Mamedyarov resigned because he had to lose his queen.

This game had a huge implication in the fight for the medals. If it had ended as it seemd that it was going to earlier, Mamedyarov would have shared first place and Navara would not have gotten silver.

This kind of thing is reasonably common in Basque — if one board seems all but decided, it’s pretty natural to focus all of one’s energies on the other board. There were several other cases of surprising blunders that normally would not be seen, even in rapid chess.

The most glaring one came in the following position between Radoslaw Wojtaszek of Poland and Vassily Ivanchuk of Ukraine:

This is a totally normal position with chances for both sides. On the other board, Ivanchuk was Black and had a huge initiative and was calculating madly trying to work out a forced win. He was so focused there that he forgot about this board completely and simply lost on time, even though he has a perfectly reasonable position as White. Fortunately for him, he did manage to win the other game to split the match 1-1, but this must have been a tough pill to swallow.

Another strange moment came in a game between Rauf Mamedov of Azerbaijan, the gold medalist in blitz, and Li Chao b of China.

The position has been static for some time, with Mamedov, who was White, holding an edge because of his protected passed pawn and bishop pair. Black has made some progress though, gaining activity for his rooks and, in my opinion, he should be able to hold a draw. But, clearly mesmerized by what was happening on the other board, Mamedov played 40. b4??, and after the immediate reply 40. … Nxc4, he could already resign. He played on a few more moves, but the result was no longer in doubt.

So the World Sports Games are finished, and in my opinion it was a very successful and exciting event. I would love to see more high-profile rapid and blitz chess, and I am a big fan of Basque chess, so I hope other organizers follow their example and give formats like this a try.


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.