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At Their Best: Mir Sultan Khan's Centralized King

At Their Best: Mir Sultan Khan's Centralized King

May 26, 2015, 10:50 AM 11

I'm a big fan of GM Mihail Marin's book "Learn from the Legends." Marin takes some of the greatest chess players and showcases them in their element. Chapters are dedicated to Rubinstein's famous rook endgame wins, Karpov's opposite-color bishop endgames, and Fischer's efficacy with White's light-square bishop. Of course, every top player is skilled in all elements of chess play, but it is fascinating and endlessly instructive to explore a player's particular strengths—the elements in which he shined.

Although I am excited about the coming Fischer movie, there is no chess player who I would like to see portrayed on screen more than Mir Sultan Khan. Even ignoring chess, Khan's story is a fascinating one which includes historical elements of imperial Britain, classism, and traditional Indian culture. Khan was the servant of a maharajah; he was also possibly the greatest player of Indian chess at the time.

As I understand it, the Indian game was no longer true Shatranj, but it retained certain slower characteristics of Shatranj such as the fact that pawns could only ever move one square at a time. Khan was supported in playing the international game by Colonel Nawab Sir Umar Hayat Khan who took him to Britain where he won three British championships and amassed fine wins against top players at tournaments such as Hastings. Khan eventually returned to India and left chess. He left behind a scant record of games: only 133 on chessgames.com.

Khan's play with the king fascinates me and is what I want to talk about today. I found a fairly high percentage of games in which Khan left his king in the center for some period of time, and sometimes he consciously centralized it. His most famous win evinces this. Khan acquires a big positional plus due to a vastly superior pawn structure, and he leaves his king in the center where it guards key squares and pawns while he pressures Black on all sides.

Khan vs Capablanca

Khan vs Mattison

Ostensibly, this next game looks similar in concept to the Capablanca game. Khan centralizes his king believing it covers key central squares. However, Khan might have been punished for centralizing his king. When Mattison misses his one opportunity to open lines, it is his king who proves unsafe.

Khan vs Voellmy

Finally, I believe this example is quite instructive. Early in the game, Khan targets the endgame, and it is clear that he understands the king's desired central location better than Black, but, in a symmetrical position, it is only a gross error that allows Khan's superior strategy to carry the day.

Alekhine vs Khan

I would like to speculate that part of Khan's centralized king penchant arose from his experience with Indian chess. The lack of the initial two-square pawn move would surely slow down the game and enable one's king to remain in the center longer. Unfortunately, this penchant had a downside. Many times Khan's king was left in the center by necessity. Sometimes he got away with it, but he never got away with it against Alekhine. Here is one of Alekhine's brutal attacking games with Khan the victim. It is fitting to finish here. After all, I wouldn't want my admiration for Khan's centralized king to encourage anyone to underestimate the importance of castling Smile

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