When Sultan Khan won the British Chess Championship in 1929, it was hailed as an extraordinary achievement for a man of colour. He repeated the feat in 1932 and 1933 and, during an international career spanning only five years, he defeated the predominantly ‘white’ masters of the game including Rubinstein, Flohr, Capablanca and Tartakower.
Sultan’s achievements were so extraordinary that he was called a ‘genius’, the ‘greatest natural player of modern times’, a ‘legend’, ‘Asia’s first grandmaster’, and was on the prize list in every important tournament in which he took part. Over the years, Sultan’s story has been largely forgotten and reduced to unverified apocrypha.
Sultan Khan, our father and grandfather, was born in 1903 in Mitha Tiwana, Khushab, present-day Pakistan, to a Muslim Awan family of pirs and landlords. His father, Mian Nizam Din, taught him and his brothers how to play chess when they were very young. By his late teens, Sultan had started going to the city of Sargodha every day to play against landlords and chess aficionados there. As a gentleman of leisure and a younger son, he had few responsibilities at home. By the age of 21, he was considered the strongest player in Punjab.
In Sargodha, his proficiency as a chess player was noticed and remarked upon till it reached the ears of Sir Umar Tiwana, who owned the neighbouring estate of Kalra. Sir Umar Tiwana, whose property and political power had increased through British patronage, was keen to establish himself as a patron of the arts and sports. So impressed was he with Sultan’s skill that he made an offer to Sultan: in return for a stipend and board and lodging, Sultan Khan would establish a chess team at Sir Umar’s estate.
Sultan moved to Kalra for this purpose and competed in the All India Chess Championship in 1928. Sultan won the championship with a brilliant performance, dropping only half a point in nine games.
In a country obsessed with cricket, not many sports buffs know about a countryman who achieved exceptional laurels in the game of chess. His son and granddaughter recount his exploits
In the spring of 1929, Sir Umar Tiwana and Sultan proceeded to London, where Sultan became a member of the Imperial Chess Club. It must be noted that, at that time, chess was an expensive and exclusive game to play, with chess clubs and tournaments requiring a hefty fee for membership and participation.
Sultan’s first international achievement was winning the British Chess Championship at Ramsgate in 1929. At that time, the championship almost had the status of a global championship, given the range of the British Empire. Winning the championship established Sultan as a force to be reckoned with and soon he started receiving many invitations to matches across England and the continent. This was a remarkable feat also because, prior to visiting England, Sultan had primarily played the South Asian form of chess, and European rules differed considerably. However, he was quick to learn, and distinguished himself against his opponents. He went back to the Subcontinent in November 1929, before returning to Europe in May 1930.
In 1930, Sultan played, among others, in the Scarborough Tournament, the Hamburg Olympiad and the Liege Tournament. One of his most elegant victories this year was over Soultanbieff in Liege. The year 1930-31 was also the time of perhaps his most memorable victories, including a win over Jose Raul Capablanca, the Cuban genius who was considered to be unbeatable, at Hastings.
Capablanca was the world chess champion from 1921 to 1927 and widely considered to be one of the greatest chess players of all time. So strong was Sultan’s prowess in the game that it is still seen as a masterpiece of chess strategy and tactics. In the same year, Sultan defeated Savielly Tartakower, the European giant, again considered to be invincible. This contest was a 12-game match which Sultan won 6.5 to 5.5.
Also in 1931, he participated in the Prague International Team Tournament, where he defeated the Czech player Salo Flohr and the Polish Akiba Rubinstein, considered among the foremost players of the time, and drew against Alexander Alekhine, the reigning world champion.
The years 1932 and 1933 brought further laurels to Sultan, as he won the British Chess Championship in both years. He also distinguished himself in various other tournaments in these years, including the Cambridge Tournament (1932), the Berne Tournament (1932) and the Folkestone Olympiad (1933).
In terms of playing strategy, Sultan was considered highly proficient in the middle game and a master of the end-game. At the chess table, he was described as inscrutable, and never betrayed the slightest degree of emotion over his game. His playing style was also dubbed the ‘Wrath of Khan’ for, despite his impassionate exterior, his chess game was bold and masterful. This is most emphatically seen in his victory over Capablanca, which has gained the status of a classic in the chess world.
In 1933, with the end of the Round Table conferences which Sir Tiwana had been attending, he and Sultan returned to the Subcontinent. Sir Tiwana ceased his European voyages and Sultan did not have the resources to fund the travels and match fees himself. So he spent the remainder of his life cultivating his ancestral farmlands in what is now Tehsil Bhalwal and the nearby city of Sargodha.
He married a lady from the Gujjar clan, and together they had five sons and six daughters. Sultan passed away in Sargodha in 1966 and is buried on his estate in Bhalwal. His children, and most of his grandchildren, play chess informally but are mostly employed as doctors, civil servants and engineers in Pakistan and abroad.
Apart from domestic and international travel to play in chess tournaments, Sultan spent the entirety of his life in what constitute the Sargodha and Khushab districts in Pakistan today. Formally speaking, he was a British subject from 1903-1947 and then a proud Pakistani citizen till his demise in 1966. As such, he is a Pakistani asset and deserves an honourable mention in the sporting history of the country.
Unfortunately, while many of the players he defeated (including Rubinstein), were posthumously given the title of Grandmaster (a practice that began in 1950), Sultan himself was, rather unfairly, never awarded the title.
Ather Sultan, a retired Inspector General of Police from the Police Service of Pakistan, is Sultan Khan’s eldest son.
Atiyab Sultan, Sultan Khan’s granddaughter, holds a doctorate from the University of Cambridge and is an officer of the Pakistan Administrative Service. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Published in Dawn, EOS, May 17th, 2020