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


musical said...

Very very informative post, sbkt.
Kinda' sad that such a genius player faded into oblivion-our neglect of sports dates weay back in history.

Ah! that disclaimer.....may i ask why.....

You seem to be in a mood celebrate chess today :). Go ahead, you celebrate chess and i celebrate Anand :).

sbkt said...

"Very very informative post, sbkt.
Kinda' sad that such a genius player faded into oblivion-our neglect of sports dates weay back in history."
It applies not only to sports, but to just about everything. That's why I mentioned Ramanujan.

"Ah! that disclaimer.....may i ask why....."
Oh, I didn't want to give the impression I am some kind of chess wizard. I love chess, but am not v good at it. I have lost around 90% of the games I've played. Though I mostly have my brother to blame for the skewed statistics:he's a much better player than me. You have no idea what losing a game a day to your younger brother for five years of your life can do to your self-esteem ;).

acwo said...

I like your blog very much
keep it up!

sbkt said...

Thanks, acwo!

Anonymous said...

very well-researched and informative post...keep it up

musical said...


sbkt, your "300" post featured in the newstab of Ultrabrown :).

sbkt said...

"sbkt, your "300" post featured in the newstab of Ultrabrown :)."

Yep, I noticed :) . I was checking through their newstab, and suddenly I thought: 'wait, this sentence sounds familiar!'.

Nemo said...

Hi.. nice blog. Loved this piece. How in the world did you find out about this man?

sbkt said...

"Hi.. nice blog. Loved this piece. How in the world did you find out about this man?"

Thanks Nemo!
I read about him in a book somewhere ages ago, I don't remember exactly where.