Saturday, March 24, 2007

The Path of Khan

"At the height of the British Empire, the chess loving Indian servant, Sultan Khan, arrived in the imperial capital as part of the feudal retinue of Sir Umar, his high caste master. While Sir Umar deliberated in the rarefied atmosphere of London conferences, with British panjandra, on the future of the Raj, his retainer started to take on the British élite at chess. Sweeping all before him, the Indian genius entered the international arena where, playing top board for the British Empire team, he defeated grandmasters, such as Rubinstein. Tartakower also succumbed to the Indian sage, and then came Sultan Khan's greatest triumph - a win against Capablanca. Then, as suddenly and mysteriously as he had arrived, Sultan Khan departed for India and was never heard from again - though rumours did emerge from Kashmir in 1951 that an Indian village chessplayer, when shown the games from the world title match of that year, had opined: 'these are two very weak players!'"

-R.N. Coles (The Best Games of Mir Sultan Khan (An Indian Mystic Challenges the West)

Anand's ascent reminded me of the strange and Ramanujanesque story of Mir Sultan Khan, for no reason really, except that he too was from the Subcontinent. Technically, I believe, Sultan Khan was India's first chess grandmaster (sorry, Vishy), though he died in Pakistan, and he was certainly the first Asian grandmaster.

Sultan Khan was a servant to Umer Hayat Khan, a minor raja from somewhere in Punjab. He is said to be illiterate (though there is some controversy regarding this), but his unique talent in chess was noticed by the raja, who brought him to England.

Sultan Khan won the British chess championship in 1929, 1932 and 1933, and also represented England at the Chess Olympiads all over Europe. His most famous game is the one in which he defeated Capablanca, perhaps the greatest chess player of this century.

But unlike Capablanca, whose only duty as 'ambassador-at-large' for Cuba was to play chess, Sultan Khan had a day job. It was in the service of Hayat Khan, thereby making the maharaja the only man in history to have the British chess champion serve him chicken biryani. Well, not the only. In the words of the American chess grandmaster Reuben Fine:

"When we were ushered in we were greeted by the maharajah with the remark, 'It is an honor for you to be here; ordinarily I converse only with my greyhounds.' Sultan Khan, our real entree to his presence, was treated as a servant and we found ourselves in the peculiar position of being waited on at table by a grandmaster."

It is not known what Sultan's feelings were about the situation. In fact, the most troubling aspect of telling his story is that his own perspective is entirely missing.

He was ranked world #6 in 1933, his game was improving daily, and even greater things seemed to be in store for him, when King Khan decided to move back to India, and took his server with him. The grandmaster disappeared from the world of chess.

The British had predictably romanticized Sultan in the meantime, and reporters kept searching for him decades after his disappearance. The British Chess Magazine reported in the 1950s that he now made a living as an opera singer in Durban, and was believed. Hell, a guy who could win the British chess title while waiting tables for a maharaja could certainly be an opera singer in South Africa.

The truth was in some ways more interesting. Sometime in the early 1960s, the chess writer R.N. Coles painstakingly traced Sultan Khan to his village in the Sargodha district of Punjab(Pakistan), where he found him sitting under a banyan tree smoking a hookah. Sultan challenged Coles to a game of blindfold chess, which the writer 'wisely declined'.

Sultan Khan is believed to have died in 1966, at the age of 61.

Sultan's most famous game, against Capablanca, described by Chessgames as The Wrath of Khan, is online. I was interested enough by Sultan to go through the game, and if you like chess, you won't regret it. It is clear that his victory against Capablanca was no fluke. Capablanca seems to dominate initially, but Sultan, by forcing a clever exchange of his queen with Capablanca's two rooks around the 20th move, kills off all his momentum. After that it is Sultan all the way, and Capablanca's solo queen keeps trying quite helplessly to break into Sultan's defences. Capablanca is so distracted by this that he lets Sultan create a passed pawn, and that proves to be his undoing.

Disclaimer: This is just my interpretation of the game between Sultan Khan and Capablanca. I am a very indifferent, and needless to say, amateur chess player, so I may be entirely wrong.

1. wikipedia
2. The Edinburgh University Chess Club Website
3. Chessgames

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Topalov topples

Viswanathan Anand finally lives up to his first name.

After clinching the Morelia-Linares tournament, Anand is set to move to the world number one spot in the FIDE chess ratings, beginning April. Topalov is moving to number two, after coming out seventh out of the eight players at the tournament (tying with Peter Leko).

Anand was the FIDE world chess champion(distinct from the ratings) in 2000, but didn't play Kasparov, thanks to Kasparov still being in the last throes of his ten-year itch. Anand's situation was akin to that of the king in chess: everyone knew the vizier was the real boss.

But seven years later, it is the real thing. He is boss and everybody knows it. Great news for him, and world chess could use a new face after last year's sordid hungama by Topalov over Kramnik's restroom habits.

The Indian media doesn't seem to have latched on to the story yet. They might when he officially takes the spot next month. After the cricket world cup hype that blew up in their faces, they may be glad for any distraction. Or maybe this will be buried under endless cricket-related faux-introspection that we are inevitably due for.

Thursday, March 15, 2007


If Manoj Kumar made a movie about Prithviraj Chauhan starring Sunny Deol, it would be like 300.

Except they probably would not depict Muhammad Ghori as an eight foot giant of ambiguous sexuality.

There's a lot of discussion on the web about the politics of the movie. No one seems to be surprised by how breathtakingly inane the screenplay is. I mean, we do call comics 'graphic novels' now, don't we. And Frank Miller is supposed to be some kind of graphic novel god.

Yes I know, its just an action movie and not supposed to be taken seriously. Someone should have told the director that.

PS: Sneaking suspicion: Am I getting too old for this kind of stuff?

Sunday, March 11, 2007

One need not be a chamber to be haunted

He was an old, half-crazed peasant who begged for a living during the day and played funny tricks on his benefactors at night. Draping a white sheet on a ladder he would walk about with it, to the terror of the villagers. Sometimes he covered his face with soot and, peeping through windows, called out the occupants in a nasal voice. During the day he was a picture of humble obsequiousness. At night he transformed himself into a malicious imp- so clever that though many suspected him, no one ever caught him. When he lay dying he confessed everything and with his death the village was rid of its ghosts.


Class conflict with a supernatural twist. Clark Kent and Superman in rural Bengal: the possibilities are endless. I wish Saratchandra had pursued this story, but he lets it drop.

How did he pick him victims? Was his sadism random or did he have a method? Did he only torment those who tormented him, or did he pick up cudgels for others. I wonder if he planned his deathbed admission all his life, his only moment of glory and sweet revenge. If he had accidentally died without telling the village he was the ghost, he might actually have come back as a ghost to let them know.

*from Aruna Chakravarty's translation

Thursday, March 01, 2007