Malik Mir Sultan Khan (1905 – April 25, 1966) was the strongest chess master of his time from Asia. A manservant from British India, he traveled with Colonel Nawab Sir Umar Hayat Khan (“Sir Umar”), his master, to Britain, where he took the chess world by storm. In an international chess career of less than five years (1929–33), he won the British Championship three times in four tries (1929, 1932, 1933), and had tournament and match results that placed him among the top ten players in the world. Sir Umar then brought him back to his homeland, where he gave up chess and returned to his humble life. David Hooper and Kenneth Whyld call him “perhaps the greatest natural player of modern times”. Although he was one of the world’s top players in the early 1930s, FIDE, the World Chess Federation, never awarded him any title (Grandmaster or International Master).
Sultan Khan was born in United Punjab, British India, where he learned Indian chess from his father at the age of nine. Under therules of that game at the time, the laws of pawn promotion and stalemate were different, and a pawn could not move two squares on the first move. By the time he was 21 he was considered the strongest player in the Punjab. At that time, Sir Umar took him into his household with the idea of teaching him the European version of the game and introducing him to European master chess. In 1928, he won the all-India championship, scoring eight wins, one draw, and no losses.
In the spring of 1929, Sir Umar took him to London, where a training tournament was organized for his benefit. Due to his inexperience and lack of theoretical knowledge, he did poorly, tying for last place with H. G. Conde, behind William Winter and Frederick Yates. After the tournament, Winter and Yates trained with him to help prepare him for theBritish Chess Championship to be held that summer. To everyone’s surprise, he won. Soon afterward, he went back to India with Sir Umar.
Returning to Europe in May 1930, Sultan Khan began an international chess career that included the defeats of many of the world’s leading players. His best results were second to Savielly Tartakower at Liège 1930; third at Hastings 1930-31 (scoring five wins, two draws, and two losses) behind future World Champion Max Euwe and former World Champion José Raúl Capablanca; fourth at Hastings 1931-32; fourth at Bern 1932 (ten wins, two draws, three losses); and a tie for third with Isaac Kashdan at London 1932, behind World Champion Alexander Alekhine and Salo Flohr. Sultan Khan again won the British Championship in 1932 and 1933. In matches he defeated Tartakower in 1931 (four wins, five draws, and three losses) and narrowly lost to Flohr in 1932 (one win, three draws, and two losses).
Sultan Khan thrice played first board for England at Chess Olympiads. At Hamburg 1930, there was still no rule that teams must put their best player on the top board, and some teams, unconvinced of his strength, matched their second or even third-best player against him. He scored nine wins, four draws, and four losses (64.7%). At Prague 1931, he faced a much stronger field. He had an outstanding result, scoring eight wins, seven draws, and two losses (67.6%). This included wins against Flohr and Akiba Rubinstein, and draws with Alekhine, Kashdan, Ernst Grünfeld, Gideon Ståhlberg, and Efim Bogolyubov. At Folkestone 1933, he had his worst result, an even score, winning four games, drawing six, and losing four. Once again, his opponents included the world’s best players, such as Alekhine, Flohr, Kashdan, Tartakower, Grünfeld, Ståhlberg, and Lajos Steiner.
Reuben Fine wrote of him:
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 American team was invited to the home of Sultan Khan’s master in London. 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.” Although he was a Mohammedan, the maharajah had been granted special permission to drink intoxicating beverages, and he made liberal use of this dispensation. 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.
In December 1933, Sir Umar took him back to India. In 1935, he won a match against V. K. Khadilkar, yielding just one draw in ten games. The chess world never heard of him again
In his brief but meteoric career, Sultan Khan rose to the top of the chess world, playing on even terms with the world’s best players. By Arpad Elo’s calculation, his playing strength during his five-year peak was equivalent to an Elo rating of 2530. Another assessment system, Chessmetrics, ranked him as high as sixth in the world in May 1933, behind only Alekhine, Kashdan, Flohr, Capablanca, and Euwe.
In 1950, when FIDE first awarded the titles of International Grandmaster and International Master, Sultan Khan had not played for 15 years. Although FIDE awarded titles to some long-retired players who had distinguished careers earlier in their lives, such as Rubinstein and Carlos Torre, it never awarded any title to Sultan Khan.
Hooper and Whyld write of him:
When Sultan Khan first travelled to Europe his English was so rudimentary that he needed an interpreter. Unable to read or write, he never studied any books on the game, and he was put into the hands of trainers who were also his rivals in play. He never mastered openings which, by nature empirical, cannot be learned by the application of common sense alone. Under these adverse circumstances, and having known international chess for a mere seven years, only half of which was spent in Europe, Sultan Khan nevertheless had few peers in the middlegame, was among the world’s best two or three endgame players, and one of the world’s best ten players. This achievement brought admiration from Capablanca who called him a genius, an accolade he rarely bestowed.
- Probably Sultan Khan’s most famous game is his win as White against Capablanca at Hastings 1930–31:
1.Nf3 Nf6 2.d4 b6 3.c4 Bb7 4.Nc3 e6 5.a3 d5 6.cxd5 exd5 7.Bg5 Be7 8.e3 0-0 9.Bd3 Ne4 10.Bf4 Nd7 11.Qc2 f5 12.Nb5 Bd6 13.Nxd6 cxd6 14.h4 Rc8 15.Qb3 Qe7 16.Nd2 Ndf6 17.Nxe4 fxe4 18.Be2 Rc6 19.g4 Rfc8 20.g5 Ne8 21.Bg4 Rc1+ 22.Kd2 R8c2+ 23.Qxc2 Rxc2+ 24.Kxc2 Qc7+ 25.Kd2 Qc4 26.Be2 Qb3 27.Rab1 Kf7 28.Rhc1 Ke7 29.Rc3 Qa4 30.b4 Qd7 31.Rbc1 a6 32.Rg1 Qa4 33.Rgc1 Qd7 34.h5 Kd8 35.R1c2 Qh3 36.Kc1 Qh4 37.Kb2 Qh3 38.Rc1 Qh4 39.R3c2 Qh3 40.a4 Qh4 41.Ka3 Qh3 42.Bg3 Qf5 43.Bh4 g6 44.h6 Qd7 45.b5 a5 46.Bg3 Qf5 47.Bf4 Qh3 48.Kb2 Qg2 49.Kb1 Qh3 50.Ka1 Qg2 51.Kb2 Qh3 52.Rg1 Bc8 53.Rc6 Qh4 54.Rgc1 Bg4 55.Bf1 Qh5 56.Re1 Qh1 57.Rec1 Qh5 58.Kc3 Qh4 59.Bg3 Qxg5 60.Kd2 Qh5 61.Rxb6 Ke7 62.Rb7+ Ke6 63.b6 Nf6 64.Bb5 Qh3 65.Rb8 1–0
- Sultan Khan won this crushing victory as Black against the Russo-Belgian player Victor Soultanbeieff at Liège 1930:
1.d4 Nf6 2.Nf3 b6 3.c4 e6 4.g3 Bb7 5.Bg2 Bb4+ 6.Bd2 Bxd2+ 7.Nbxd2 0-0 8.0-0 c5 9.Qc2 Nc6 10.dxc5 bxc5 11.e4 Qc7 12.Rfe1 d6 13.Rac1 h6 14.a3 Nd7 15.Qc3 a5 16.Nh4 g5 17.Qe3 Qd8 18.Nhf3 Qe7 19.h3 Rab8 20.b3 Ba8 21.Nb1 Nde5 22.a4 Nxf3+ 23.Bxf3 Nd4 24.Bd1 f5 25.exf5 Rxf5 26.Rc3 Rbf8 27.Rf1 Rf3! 28.Bxf3 Rxf3 0–1
- In this game from Liège 1930, long-time American champion Frank Marshall (Black) tries to add to his long list of brilliancies, but Sultan Khan defends coolly. His biographer calls his play “a wonderful example of sang-froid under pressure”:
1.e4 e5 2.d4 exd4 3.Qxd4 Nc6 4.Qe3 Nf6 5.Nc3 Be7 Coles writes, “Sultan has unwittingly chosen one of the more hazardous openings against a master with a record of brilliancies in open games, and as will be seen Marshall is psychologically unable to resist a try for a brilliancy against this inexperienced opponent.” 6.Bd2 d5 7.exd5 Nxd5 8.Nxd5 Qxd5 9.Ne2 Bg4 10.Nf4 Qd7 11.f3 0-0-0 12.0-0-0 Avoiding the complications of 12.fxg4 Bh4+. Rhe8?! Marshall insists on a piece sacrifice rather than retreating the bishop. 13.fxg4 Bb4 14.Qf2! Not falling for 14.Qb3?? Qxd2+! 15.Rxd2 Re1+ and mate next. Bc5 15.Qf3! Allowing the queen to interpose on d1 if Black plays the queen sacrifice. Re3 16.Qd5! Not 16.Bxe3?? Bxe3+, winning. Now 16…Qxd5 17.Nxd5 Rxd5 18.Bc4! leaves White an exchange ahead. Qe7 17.Qf5+ Kb8 18.Nd3 Rdxd3“Tantamount to resignation.” 19.Bxd3 Nd4 20.Qxh7 a6 21.Bxe3 Qxe3+ 22.Kb1 Nc6 23.Qe4 Qh6 24.c3 Bd6 25.h4 Ne5 26.Bc2 Qe6 Black lost on time. 1–0