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How India forgot its first chess legend


Sultan Khan conquered the British, long before India won independence from colonial rule.

Long before the ideas about synthetic intelligence, Stockfish (unfastened and open supply chess engine) and AlphaZero (chess programme by way of Google no human can beat) got here into existence; long before the concept that of ‘infinity in chess’ was presented; and long before chess Grandmaster Viswanathan Anand gave the impression at the horizon, there was Sultan Khan.

He was the first folk hero of Indian chess — a pioneer in a way — who conquered the British, long before India found liberation from its colonisers. He played the rustic ‘Chaturanga’, the desi chess, as an alternative of the world version of the sport we play as of late — and sadly, few in India know the rest about him.

The exploits of Sultan Khan, born to a circle of relatives from a modest background in British India in 1905, have infrequently been advised, overlook being celebrated in a rustic that likes to stay on its past. The British, however, were acutely aware of his cerebral prowess and saved a meticulous track of his feats. Today we in the subcontinent in any case find out about Khan’s lifestyles with the discharge of a biography in regards to the largely-forgotten legend by way of British chess historian and Grandmaster Daniel King in London final week.

“I always knew about Sultan Khan,” King tells Mirror over the telephone. “He was a British champion and I'm English. I even knew a few of Khan’s opponents individually. They were alive till recently. So, I began researching, and the extra I regarded into his lifestyles, the extra fascinating it became. There is a sturdy political part in the tale, too.” Khan was born in Punjab. Playing chess — Indian chess, that is — was a circle of relatives custom. The local landlord, Sir Umar Hayat Khan, stumbled upon his ability and took him under his wing. In 1928, he organised the All India Championship, which Khan won convincingly. This drew the eye of Sir John Simon, who was head of the notorious Simon Commission which, in 1928 was despatched to India to check and file again on how the Indian Constitution was functioning. An beginner chess player himself, Simon had Umar Hayat Khan and Sultan Khan despatched to London.

“I was interested in the tale, because it was very mysterious. Khan got here [to London] in 1929 and returned to India on the finish of 1933, and I sought after to discover why,” says King. “Why did he suddenly disappear when he was nonetheless the British champion? I think it was this thriller in the tale that attracted me.”

Adjusting to the local weather of London was not simple for Khan. But adjusting to the brand new chess regulations felt even more daunting. The Indian regulations had only one preliminary move, as an alternative of two strikes, for the pawn, which means, there was no en-passant; there was no castling. The king would have one-time knight powers, and there was no queening of the pawns both — the pawns can be promoted to the piece of the actual square on reaching the opposite finish.

“This is actually an peculiar factor. He grew up playing a special recreation. So he had to adapt; [though] Umar Hayat Khan, who introduced in experts, gave him some training… When he got here to England, he played by way of the Western regulations. And you'll be able to see that occasionally that held him again. Sometimes it labored to his benefit as smartly because I think it perplexed a few of his opponents. His taste was very, very extraordinary,” King says, refraining from calling it an ‘Oriental Mystery.’ “There aren't any negative undercurrents right here,” he clarifies.

Sultan Khan performs 24 ‘simul video games’ on the Empire Chess Club, London, in 1931 (GETTY IMAGES)


Once he were given the grasp of the brand new chess regulations and the London lifestyles, Khan was an unstoppable power. Having arrived in April 1929, he won the British Championship that yr in August. And won it again in 1932 and 1933. In between, he even participated in world tournaments and other competitions. One of his major exploits was a victory over the mythical Cuban chess player Jose Raul Capablanca, who was a former international champion, in Hastings, in 1930. “From what I learn in the newspapers [of the time], Khan was an excessively modest man, regardless of having wonderful ability,” King says. “He was additionally an excessively type man and a highly regarded person in London on the time. The British chess neighborhood actually appreciated him. He had good friends. He was additionally made to really feel very welcome in the British workforce.”


One of the highpoints of the biography is a foreword by way of Anand. “Sultan Khan was a pioneer. He must serve as an inspiration for chess avid gamers from in every single place India, the subcontinent, and any individual struggling as an outsider against the percentages. Coming from a modest background, he took at the largest on this planet and proved that he may fit them,” writes the five-time international champion. King says he discovered a whole lot of attention-grabbing details about why Sultan Khan had to return to India. He would continuously fall sick and he additionally reduced in size malaria. After the final Round Table conference in 1932, Khan’s mentor, Umar Hayat Khan, concept it was time for him to depart. “And if Sir Umar decided he was going to head house, in fact, his entire family had to move house with him. So, I think it was a compelled move in truth,” King notes, the usage of chess parlance.

Once he left London, Khan took on a couple of most sensible Indian avid gamers and overwhelmed them, before the Freedom Movement took precedence over every other side of the rustic on the time.


We mustn’t overlook that Khan was born in a rustic — British India — that now not exists as of late. He returned to Punjab, which was nonetheless very much a part of British India. But after 1947, a portion of it became part of Pakistan. There is, unfortunately, no information of him playing chess from that point. King steadfastly tries to avoid answering the controversial question of whether Khan in truth belonged to India or Pakistan. “It is a sensitive topic,” he says. But he is glad he discovered the mysteries of the man who got here, saw and conquered the British.


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