Overlooked No More: Sultan Khan, Untrained Chess Player Who Became a Champion

This article is part of Overlooked, a series of obituaries about remarkable people whose deaths, beginning in 1851, went unreported in The Times.

In July 1929, 12 chess players gathered at Chatham House School, a venerable institution in Ramsgate, England, to contest the British championship. The field included several well-known masters, as well as one player who stood out from the rest because he was not from England, but from the jewel of the British Empire: India.

His name was Sultan Khan.

It is doubtful that the other competitors knew much about him, and they probably did not regard him as much of a threat. At the time, Europe was the center of the chess world, and though Khan had won the All-India Championship the year before, it was most likely against an inferior level of competition compared with what he would face in the upcoming tournament.

In addition, there were differences in the rules of chess played on the subcontinent. For example, pawns could not move two squares on their first turn, and there was no similar rule for castling. Instead, on one move during the game, the king could move like a knight. The need to adjust to how the game was played in Europe gave Khan ‌a significant handicap‌, particularly in the early phase of games‌.

Growing up in India under British rule, Khan also had little or no access to chess books, so he knew next to nothing about the theory of how to begin games — knowledge that his rivals possessed.

None of that stopped him. Khan won the championship convincingly, recording victories in more than half his games while losing only once. This marked the beginning of a whirlwind period of four years in which Khan competed against the world’s best players and more than held his own.

Despite his first name, Khan was not royalty. According to a 2020 article by Ather Sultan, his oldest son, and Atiyab Sultan, one of his granddaughters, written for the Pakistani news site Dawn, Khan was born in 1903 (some other sources say 1905) in Khushab, a town in the Punjab region of modern-day Pakistan. His family were landowners and pirs, or Sufi religious guides.

Khan learned to play chess from his father, Mian Nizam Din, when he was young, and he was the best player in Punjab by the time he was 21. A wealthy landowner, Sir Umar Hayat Khan Tiwana, hired him to develop a chess team, for which he received a monthly stipend and room and board. When Sir Umar went to live in London in 1929 so he could attend the Round Table Conferences for parliamentary reform in India, Khan went with him.

Sitting at a chess table, Khan cut a striking figure with his lean face, wide forehead and sharp eyes. He often wore a white turban. He was unperturbable, almost disconcertingly so. Regardless of the position on the board, his demeanor remained placid. He did not think that he had any special skill at chess but felt that “the player applying the greater concentration should win,” David Hooper and Kenneth Whyld wrote in their book “The Oxford Companion to Chess” (1984).

After his triumph at the British championship, Khan briefly returned to India, but he was back in England by May 1930 and began receiving invitations to compete in elite tournaments. He soon proved to be among the best players in the world.

He tied for fourth in a tournament in Scarborough, England, in June and July 1930 that included, in addition to the top English players, five of the strongest players from the European continent.

He then represented England as its top player in the third Chess Olympiad in Hamburg, Germany, a gathering of the top teams from the top chess countries in the world. Khan scored nine wins against four losses and four draws.

After Hamburg, Khan competed in Liège, Belgium, in an invitation-only tournament with some of Europe’s top players. This time, he took second, behind Savielly Tartakower of Poland. A few months later, Khan beat Tartakower in a 12-game match.

At an annual elite tournament in Hastings in late 1930 and early 1931, Khan finished third behind Max Euwe, who would become world champion in 1935, and José Raúl Capablanca, a former world champion who was still considered by many to be the world’s best player. During the competition, Khan caused a sensation by beating Capablanca, slowly outplaying him in a style reminiscent of Capablanca himself.

At the 1931 Chess Olympiad in Prague, Khan again led the English team and again had an outstanding result, with eight wins, seven draws and two losses. His victories included wins against Akiba Rubinstein and Salomon Flohr, two of the top 10 players in the world, and among his draws were games against Alexander Alekhine, the reigning world champion, and Efim Bogolyubov, who had twice played Alekhine for the title.

Khan failed to defend the British title in 1931, finishing in a tie for second, and ended the year by placing fourth at the 1931-32 Hastings tournament.

In 1932, he tied for third in a tournament in London that included Alekhine, Flohr and Tartakower. After narrowly losing a match to Flohr, Khan played in the Cambridge Premier League and beat most of Britain’s best players, including Conel Hugh O’Donel Alexander, the Irish cryptologist who would go on to work with Alan Turing during World War II to crack the German Enigma machine.

Khan wrapped up the year by placing fourth in a tournament in Bern, Switzerland, that included Alekhine, Euwe, Flohr and Bogoljubov; winning the British Championship for the second time; and tying for third at the 1932-33 Hastings tournament.

Khan’s last competitive year, 1933, was much slower. The only major events he participated in were the Olympiad in Folkestone, England, again as England’s top player, and the British championship, at which he won the title for the third time.

In December 1933, Sir Umar decided to return to India, and Khan returned with him, as it was too expensive to stay. Khan was evidently happy to leave England. He disliked the cold, rainy weather and had suffered bouts of malaria and continual colds and sore throats. Ghulam Fatima, a chess player who worked for Sir Umar in his household in London and who won the British women’s championship in 1933, told Hooper and Whyld for their book that Khan, on leaving England, “felt that he had been freed from prison.”

Back in India, Khan played one match in 1935, against V.K. Khadilkar, beating him soundly by winning nine games and drawing one.

And that was it. He stopped playing, at least in competitions.

In a short documentary that aired on British television in the late 1970s, Ather Sultan said that he had once asked his father why he had not tried to play for the world championship, and that his father said that, at the time, the challenger needed to put up a stake of 2,000 pounds (about $230,000 in today’s dollars), which he did not have.

According to the Dawn article, Khan then married and had five sons and six daughters. He spent the rest of his life cultivating his farmland before dying in Sargodha on April 25, 1966.

While his children and grandchildren learned to play chess, they mostly followed other careers. Ather Sultan said that his father had “told them they should do something more useful with their lives.”

There were no official rankings when Khan played, but according to Chess Metrics, a widely respected website that has compiled retroactive rankings going back more than 200 years, he was No. 6 or No. 7 in the world over the last two years of his chess-playing career. Hooper and Whyld surmised that Khan overcame his lack of knowledge about openings because he was among the best players in the world in the middle-game phase and ‌among the top two or three players in the endgame phase, along with Capablanca.

A biography, “Black & White: The Official Biography of Chess Champion Sultan Khan,” by Dr. Sultan and Ather Khan, will be published in June.

In the Dawn article, his son and granddaughter noted ruefully that many of the players Khan defeated were anointed grandmasters and international masters by the International Chess Federation when the federation began giving out those titles in 1950, even though most of them had passed their primes. But Khan was never similarly recognized.

Perhaps the best sobriquet he could have received, however, came from a revered contemporary. Capablanca, who is often considered one of the greatest natural talents of all time, described Khan in his writings with a word that he almost never used: “genius.”

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