Dec 17, 2010, 8:50 AM |

One of the most interesting and important personalities in chess history was Mir Sultan Khan (1905-66). He was brought from India to England in 1929 by his master a maharaja sultan khan, after winning the 1928 Indian Championship. He stayed in England for four years, and then was taken back to India in 1933 by his master, never to be seen by the world of chess again.

During his short stay, Sultan Khan won the British Chess Championship, defeated World Champion Alekhine and former World Champion Capablanca (see game below), and played first board for England during the World Chess Olympiads at Prague 1931 and at Folkestone 1933. At the same time, another servant brought by the same maharaja, a Miss Fatima, won the British Woman's Chess Championship.

Sultan Khan never finished lower than fourth in any chess tournament in which he ever played. Although he always lost to William Winter (who usually finished last, in spite of defeating Sultan Khan) there is no doubt that Sultan Khan was one of the strongest chess players in the world at that time. According to the modern rating system, Sultan Khan was about 2550 in strength and was easily a grandmaster. This also means that Sultan Khan was the first ever Asian grandmaster of chess.

"A striking figure whose black hair was usually turbanned, he sat at the board impassively, showing no emotion in positions good or bad," ran one account. "Unable to read or write, he never studied any books on the game yet became one of the ten best players in the world."

There is some dispute as to whether Sultan Khan was a slave or was merely a servant. Reuben Fine related that when he was a guest for dinner at the maharaja's home in England, Sultan Khan was a waiter who brought the dishes to the table.

"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 often said that Sultan Khan was a beginner at chess and that he learned the rules only shortly before being brought from India, but that he was a master at the Indian version of chess. However, this story does not mean much, because the Indian version of chess is almost exactly the same as Western chess, the main difference being that in Indian chess, a pawn can only move one square on the first move, not two, and, when reaching the "queening" square, the pawn becomes the piece of the file on which it promotes. In other words, if the white pawn reaches c8 or f8, it becomes a bishop.

In the 1950s, there was an article in British Chess Magazine which said that Sultan Khan had been found to be an opera singer in Durban, South Africa. However, this probably was merely somebody who looked like him. According to the book by R. N. Coles, Sultan Khan lived out his life on his family plot in Pakistan, surrounded by his children and great grand children, etc. and died in 1966.

Coles relates that in the early 1960s, someone (I forget the name) located Sultan Khan at his home near Lahore, Pakistan and visited him there. He found Sultan Khan sitting under a tree smoking hookah. The visitor related that Sultan Khan offered to play him a game of blindfold chess, but that the visitor "wisely declined".

Note that while it is always said that Sultan Khan came from India, he actually came from that part of India which is now Pakistan.

A friend from Pakistan informs me that anyone who smokes hookah does not live very long. It is a very pungent version of tobacco, or so I am told.

Does anybody know or can anybody find out the exact address of that plot of land where Sultan Khan and his family lived? i think an