The Mysterious Genius and his Strange Openings

The Mysterious Genius and his Strange Openings‎

GM Gserper
56 | Tactics

How many of you, dear readers, can identify the man shown in this picture?  This man never had a title of IM or GM and yet he managed to beat many top players of his time including Capablanca! Can you name another player who would be able to reach the World's top 10 after just four years of playing in International tournaments? I am talking about Mir Sultan Khan, who was probably the biggest chess genius the World has ever seen. We don't know much about him.  The most popular version is that Sultan Khan was a servant of a rich British Colonel, who noticed an enormous talent in his servant and brought him to Europe to make him the World Chess Champion. This is what American GM Reuben Fine wrote about Sultan Khan:

"The story of the Indian Sultan Khan turned out to be a most unusual one. The "Sultan" was not the term of status that we supposed it to be; it was merely a first name. In fact, Sultan Khan was actually a kind of serf on the estate of a maharajah when his chess genius was discovered. He spoke English poorly, and kept score in Hindustani. It was said that he could not even read the European notations. After the tournament [the 1933 Folkestone Olympiad] the American team was invited to the home of Sultan Khan's master in London. ...  He presented us with a four-page printed biography telling of his life and exploits; so far as we could see his greatest achievement was to have been born a maharajah. In the meantime Sultan Khan, who was our real entrée to his presence, was treated as a servant by the maharajah (which in fact he was according to Indian law), and we found ourselves in the peculiar position of being waited on at table by a chess grand master."

Since this is a column devoted to openings, I'd like to talk about the way Sultan Khan opened his games.  Can you imagine how difficult it is to learn openings without being able to read any chess book or replay games played by strong chessplayers?  Sultan Khan was illiterate and during his tournament games he was even assisted by a woman who recorded the moves he played.  This complete opening ignorance led to some oddities.  Look at the next two diagrams and judge for yourself.  It looks like there are mistakes in both diagrams.  The first diagram features the Advance Variation of the French Defense and the second diagram shows the Sicilian Defense, but in both cases White played two moves in a row.  Let me assure you that everything was perfectly legal in these games. So, try to find the moves that lead to these positions.  The solution can be found at the very end of the article.


It is opening disasters like these two, that helped Sultan Khan to develop his own unique style of playing openings.  First and foremost he tried to keep the position relatively closed to avoid sharp opening duels where the theoretical knowledge (or lack of it) could be decisive. This idea naturally brought him to a Stonewall type of a position. (I wrote about this opening some time ago here: )
One of his favorite ways to achieve this kind of a pawn structure was to play 1. d4 d5 2. Nf3 Nf6 3. e3 and then Ne5 and f4. With this primitive and innocent looking set up he managed to win many games even against the best players of his time. Look at some of his games:
He even found the way to reach a similar set up with Black (Ne4, followed by f5). The opening of the next game should be familiar to you (it was played in the last and desisive game of the recent Anand-Topalov match). See how one of the World's best GMs barely escapes with a draw with White:
With no opening knowledge or any training Sultan Khan was able to enter the World chess elite.  According to Chessmetrics web site, Sultan Khan was number six in the World behind Alekhine, Kashdan, Flohr, Capablanca, and Euwe, but ahead of Nimzowitsch and Rubinstein.  His peak rating was 2699! 
We can only guess what chess heights Sultan Khan could have reached with his chess primitivism. Unfortunately at the age of 28 he was brought back to India by his master and never played another International tournament again...
Solution to the puzzle:
The position shown in the first diagram was reached after 1. e4 c6 2. d4 d5 3. e5 e6? 4. Bd3 c5 5 c3
The position shown in the second diagram was reached after 1. e4 c6 2 c4 c5? 3. Nf3
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