Sunday, 28 June 2020

Sultan Khan: The Indian Servant Who Became Chess Champion of the British Empire.

BOOK REVIEW by Carl Portman

June 28th 2020

Sultan Khan:

The Indian Servant Who Became Chess Champion of the British Empire



1st edition (softcover, 384 pages) 

Author: Daniel King


I am aware that there has been some publicity involving comments from the granddaughter of Mir Sultan Khan about some of the information in the book. I am not qualified to comment, nor is it in the scope of this book review to do so. The reader can access the post made by Dr Atiyab Sultan who is the granddaughter of Sultan Khan, here and form their own views.

This is simply my account as a chess player and writer after reading the book.




What is this book about?


Sultan Khan was ‘An Indian servant who became chess champion of the British Empire’ as it says in the title. If in any event he was not a servant, he certainly seemed to have a master whilst he was abroad. Someone who told him where to be, when to play, where to appear and what to do etc. This is GM Daniel King’s account of an astonishing journey from the Punjab to the capital of the British Empire and much further afield for one unassuming Indian ‘servant’ to Colonel Nawab Sir Umar Hayat Khan who was rich and influential. Among other milestones, Sir Umar served on the Western Front in 1914-1915, and was attached to the 18th King George's Own Lancers and later the 19th King George V's Own Lancers, becoming their Colonel in 1930. Khan was also an honorary aide-de-camp to both King George V and King Edward VIII. He was fiercely loyal to the British Empire.


Sultan Khan (one of ten brothers) played chess at the age of nine and entered Sir Umar’s household in 1926 (after knocking on his door looking for work) where Sir Umar later realised that he could ‘utilise’ Sultan Khan’s chess skills to shop window the ‘martial races who he represents’ as he put it himself.


They travelled to London in 1929 where Sultan Khan shook the foundations of the chess world and became British Champion on three occasions, in 1929, 1932 and 1933. At one point he was one of the top ten players in the world, although he was never awarded an IM or Grandmaster title by FIDE retrospectively, as several other players have been. For reasons that the reader of the book will learn, Sultan Khan returned to his homeland afterwards where he gave up chess and melted into obscurity. Thoughts of Morphy and Fischer come to mind in this respect.


This is clearly a story about the rise and fall of a phenomenon, but it also illustrates that there is a price to pay for success. Khan left his homeland to live in a strange (and cold) country and had to deal with all of the cultural challenges that such a move presents. He was often ill, with bad colds and even malarial episodes but this did not prevent him from competing and it seems he never used illness as an excuse. The pressure on the man to perform, and the expectation upon his slim shoulders from the well-heeled Sir Umar and his associates must surely have influenced his approach to his games. It must have been terribly stifling.   


The book presents much more in terms of characters, games and history. For example, I was left with a deep impression about his games against Capablanca and Alekhine. Also, what really was his relationship (if any) with ‘Miss Fatima’ and what was he doing playing chess with a former con-man and prisoner in the United States?  There are some quotes to savour, such as Capablanca talking about his game with Winter in Hastings 1930/31 saying ‘I never had such a shock in my life as when I saw that fat black queen standing there by itself. As it was offered me, I could of course do nothing but take it’.



There are five ‘parts’ to the book, each with sub-sections.


Part 1 – India

Part 2 – England

Part 3 – Europe

Part 4 – Fall and Rise

Part 5 – The Endgame


After this there is an epilogue, acknowledgements, endnotes, bibliography and an index of names. I would like to have seen an index of chess openings included as it is useful to see at a glance how many times certain openings were played back in those days.


What does the official Blurb say?

‘For the first time, here is the full story of how Khan, a Muslim outsider, was received in Europe, of his successes in the chess world and his return to obscurity after his departure for India in 1933’.


Does the book achieve its aim?

For me, yes. It illustrates Sultan Khan’s success in the British chess world and beyond with supporting games, reports and tables.  


Concluding notes

I learned a great deal about Sultan Khan but especially about his style of chess. The man beat Capablanca after all. I never actually knew that.


I have no idea how author Daniel King would want the reader to feel after reading this book but personally I feel sadness for Sultan Khan. Was he just a puppet to Sir Umar? Were his talents abused and manipulated or was he genuinely loved and did he actually feel loved?


When I finished the last page, I wished for one thing – that the man would suddenly appear before my eyes so that I could ask him how the world was through his eyes. I can find no interviews with him although he surely gave some. Was he lonely in Europe? Was chess the only real happiness he had in life? How did he feel when he was playing chess? Did he feel like a ‘servant’ to Sir Umar? What did he think of Britain? Who was his favourite player? How did he think he got so good at chess? How would he like to be remembered?


In this sense, King has done a marvellous job. He leaves the reader with questions, and plenty of them. The chess games are very educational. I particularly enjoyed being able to witness Sultan Khan’s chess style mature over time. It grew like a seedling from the frankly na├»ve to the more experienced and confident style.


I was really very surprised to learn about Sultan Khan’s attitude at the board. This quiet, unassuming and humble man rejected the notion of draws and he played the game to win. He turned down draw offers from top players such as Euwe and even when he went on to lose, I got the feeling that he never regretted his approach to the game. We should all applaud that.


Like all of us chess players, he was able to express himself at the board without any interference (from Sir Umar or anyone else) and he was very creative in his own way. Look at this position from the game R.P Mitchell -Sultan Khan (Surrey-Middlesex 1932) which I could not find in the ChessBase database.



Khan has just essayed 20…h3 and he went on to win the game. As stated in the book, this is hypermodern chess, advancing the pawns on the flanks. People just didn’t play this way in 1932. Look at those Black pawns – he is just having fun.


Why did he play such combative chess? Perhaps he took the attitude of Tipu Sultan, the fabled ruler of the kingdom of Mysore to the chessboard. His approach was never to surrender saying ‘The day of a lion is better than a thousand of a jackal.’


(Carl - I rather like Jackals actually – I think they are a very clever and resourceful and hugely underrated but that’s beside the point.)


His openings in the early days were suspect and predictable. The reader can clearly observe this for themselves. However, his endgame was a different matter altogether. Here, he really shone and even Alekhine remarked on it.  The man would fight on for hour after hour even with other games and adjournments still to play later that day!


He was never ‘truly British’ of course and some chess commentators couldn’t find it in themselves to talk him up even when he won the Championship but he was and is a legitimate holder of the title and as a Britain, I feel proud to know that his name is  etched into our chess history.


I have very mixed feelings about Sultan Khan being used as a pawn in a higher political game by Sir Umar but there we are. I feel that in some ways the whole affair was unseemly but would Sultan Khan have wanted it any other way? To what effect was he a willing participant? Was he ever coerced? I don’t know! Did chess just make him truly happy amongst all the noise and interference from the world around him? We don’t know.  


There are some very nice photographs sprinkled here and there which complement the text. I particularly like a photograph of Khan v Alekhine at the board with Maroczy and Menchik next to them at the Sunday Referee tournament of 1932. It was snapped just before the start of the first around and the players are all engaged in chat – yet I note that Alekhine’s pawn is already on a3. He couldn’t have moved yet. Maybe he was yet to adjust his pieces. I was also struck by a photograph I have never seen before of Capablanca and Euwe sitting chatting.   


GM Daniel King has brought Sultan Khan to life. By writing this book in his own way he has put the Indian’s memory front and centre into the spotlight. It worked for me. This is clearly a labour of love and respect for a man who shone briefly in the chess community before disappearing into the shadows.


Viswanathan Anand in his foreword to the book says that ‘Coming from a modest background he (Sultan Khan) took on the greatest in the world and proved he could match them’.


There’s the story, right there.


Even with the points made by Sultan Khan’s granddaughter, my own personal feelings after reading the book is that chess players of all levels interested in the man, his games or chess history in general would enjoy and benefit from reading it. Capablanca called Sultan Khan a genius – on that basis alone you should be playing through his games in this book and enjoying King’s annotations.


Mir Sultan Khan – 1903-1966



Who is the author?

English Grandmaster Daniel King is one of the most well-known and prolific chess commentators, authors, journalists and players of our time. 


Wednesday, 24 June 2020

Chess in Art: History of chess in paintings 1100-1900

Book Review

By Carl Portman


Chess in Art: History of chess in paintings 1100 – 1900


Chess is art, science and sport, or so they say. There have been debates around this assertion across the centuries. Marcel Duchamp famously said that “While all artists are not chess players, all chess players are artists”. 

There is a dearth of books about chess in art. Enter stage right the new book from Peter Herel Raabenstein, published by HereLove, with some 317 pages. The author is a conceptual artist born in Czech Republic.

I write this review as a chess player for chess players. The advertising strapline says

This unique book, a collection of paintings where chess is the main theme, is a brilliant example of connection between the Game of Kings, art and history. He was inspired by the symbolism of chess and evolution of art itself’.

This is a book that contains mostly pictures with little text. Each page carries one or more images of art with the name of the artist. There are several pages at the end of the book giving a basic profile of each artist. 

The book is divided into five eras across 800 centuries, thus: 






This is followed by the Index.

It’s tricky to review a book like this. It is art, and therefore subjective to the reader. If you like art and chess, then I am sure the reader will relish this. It is the biggest collection of chess in art images that I have ever seen in one place, and yet I can put it all on my coffee table. There is a lot of material to study and it was fun to see if the boards were set up correctly – something which often goes wrong, and infuriates real chess players, as it leaves a question as to whether the artist actually knew and played the game or not.

Unsurprisingly, as the centuries progress the artistic presentation changes and this will be a question of taste. I find some of the paintings to be magnificent such as Peder H.K. Zahrtmann’s work (only one person seems truly interested in the chess and they are not at the board!) but other works are not to not to my taste. As I said, it is subjective.  

The book demonstrates that the game of chess has been and still is played across the social spectrum, from Royalty to Ragamuffin, in castles and ale houses around the world. Chess is depicted as an intellectual pursuit, a thinking person’s game. These paintings declare openly that chess brings families together in drawing rooms and clubs (online chess, take note) and that women and children are every bit as interested in the game. Indeed, there are plenty of paintings of women playing both men and one another. 

In most of the paintings, the chessboard is the centre of attention but in others I had to look further to work out the chess connection. The answers are all there. There are Baroque and Classical works here, and it is fun to study the costumes and the settings. Then we can scrutinize the actual positions on the chessboard. How were such positions arrived at? Did they declare a broader message, perhaps even secret ones? There is a wonderful painting by Dominik Skutecky from 1898 which reminds me of Stephen Fry as General Melchett. I wonder if he has seen it – he plays chess after all.

I do have a couple of critical observations. I am not an art student, so I do benefit from an expert explaining aspects of a painting to me. It helps me to increase my appreciation of a work. You won’t get that here. I craved further information, but I appreciate that this is difficult to achieve. I wondered who the characters are, why did the artist add this or that aspect, what materials were used for the painting etc?

The author declares that it was not possible to obtain all of the images in the highest printing quality. He is reaching back hundreds of years after all. What is the objective of the book? Clearly to offer images of chess in art. In that sense, it has achieved the objective but there is more to this. It was a cultural journey. It reminded me of the old adage, ‘It’s not enough to look, you have to see’.

Chess players might baulk at the hefty price tag, but I do believe that it is one of a kind. Do I recommend it? Yes. I see it as an investment in any chess player’s collection that can be enjoyed time and again. Visit the website to learn more at

RRP €111

320 pages

ISBN 9788090577657






On The Origin of Good Moves - A skeptics guide to getting better at chess (Willy Hendriks)

Willy Hendriks

On the Origin of Good Moves – A skeptic’s Guide to getting better at chess



1st edition

What is the book about?

Essentially, the evolution of chess moves! It focuses on the way chess playing has developed, rather than on the players themselves. In it you will find some of the main characters to be Morphy, Chigorin, Lasker, Tarrasch, Zukertort, Steinitz and Anderssen, but there are plenty more to support this famous cast including Tal, Kasparov and Polgar along with games from the author. In essence it takes the reader through the evolution of chess playing, from old school to the modern school and much in between. The emphasis focuses on positional v tactical styles and raises ‘The Great Steinitz Hoax’ as an integral part of the book. What on earth was this ‘hoax’? Sorry, there are no spoilers from me I am afraid. The reader will examine styles of chess from Greco to Lasker. This is very much ‘new’ material taken from the good old days.



There are 429 pages, and some 36 chapters. At the beginning of each chapter are exercises, the answers to which the reader will find in the forthcoming text to that chapter. I should say that I particularly enjoyed this method of presentation as opposed to exercises being given at the end. It worked really well for me and I hope to see more of it in the future. There are many carefully placed diagrams and photographs in the book and these sit perfectly well in supporting the text, to my mind.


There are endnotes, an index of names and a selected bibliography.


Who is the author?

Willy Hendriks is an International master from Holland and a chess trainer of over 25 years. He also wrote ‘Move first, Think Later’ which won the ECF book of the year award. In some quarters his thinking can be a little controversial – but in my view that’s a very healthy thing.


What does the official Blurb say?

‘Hendriks undertakes a groundbreaking investigative journey into the history of chess. He explains what actually happened, creates fresh perspectives, finds new heroes, and reveals the real driving force behind improvement in chess evolution’.


Does the book achieve its aim?

In my view, absolutely, and then some. Over 100 years ago players had to develop their style, and their thinking without the use of computers. They would have had no recourse to software to help clarify their findings and ideas. They simply had to try them out in actual play. It is enjoyable to scrutinise the old romantic style of chess with the King’s Gambit and Evans Gambit etc. being replaced by more considered (closed and semi-closed) chess. There came a point when someone thought that gambiting a pawn and playing manly swashbuckling chess was not always the answer. A huge percentage of games began with 1.e4 and familiar lines would follow. Then along comes 1.d4 and 1.Nf3 and chess evolution took another step, but that’s another story.


I like the way that Hendriks tests the reader, and throws in comical and strange positions to enjoy. He introduces chess themes throughout the book so that people of any level have something to feed on and relate to. It is a chess book, but a history book also.


The author asserts that chess opening study was one of ‘the main motors of improvement’ and this is a key feature in the development of chess theory. I also liked the chapter on ‘revolution or evolution’ bringing into play Darwinian Evolution and its relationship to improvement in chess. Very interesting and very clever. The phrase ‘Natura non facit saltus’ (Nature does not make jumps) is used to support the hypothesis that chess development and change was an evolutionary process, not revolutionary. The reader can make up their own mind on this, but it is very difficult not to agree with Hendrik’s ideas.


What is my conclusion?

This is a serious book but also fun. It contains no little amount of humour to support the arguments and points. I have never read a book like this to explain the development of chess from the ‘old days’ and I can see just how much effort and time (and clearly, no little amount of love) has gone into it. Once I got past the frankly awful brown and mustard cover (sorry folks!) and into the meat and bones of the book I was totally hooked. It was my go-to read for several days.


The title confuses me somewhat. I did not feel that the book was just about the origin of – but the evolution of – chess and it was not just about good moves. It could be me and I may have missed a trick. Further, I don’t know why ‘A skeptics guide to getting better at chess’ is in the title. It doesn’t seem to fit with the book. Who are these skeptics? I am trying to say that I got much more from the book than the title and cover suggested but those two things do not detract from the work in any way.


Who will benefit from this book? The truth is, anyone. Even if you don’t play chess there is much to digest about the creative development of what is considered to be the most difficult game ever devised. Club players, stronger players and chess historians will surely devour it and everyone can benefit from a fresh perspective on chess history. In my experience, too many players have a criminally deficient knowledge of chess history and this would be a fantastic place to begin.


I like the chapter discussing how players from ‘back then’ would fare today. It’s a question I am often asked in my chess prison visits. The reader will have an opinion on this subject already but the author offers some detail to try to get to the bottom of it.


I want to finally mention the great Paul Morphy. The following prose about the length of time players took to play really amused me. “Morphy sat calmly while Paulsen consumed 11 hours to his 25 minutes of their second game, but at one stage went (…) to the restaurant to take a glass of sherry and a biscuit. His usually equable temper was so disturbed that he crunched his fist and said “Paulsen shall never win a game from me while he lives”. And he never did.


I am not alone in thinking ‘just how good was Morphy and what did he bring to the evolution of chess’? He played in his own style; we all know that but it was not so different a style from his contemporaries. It was about attack – and to the victor the spoils. I can imagine up there in the chess heavens a match between Morphy and Petrosian. Now what would the outcome of that be? Seriously?


Hendriks has a line in the book which leaves the deepest impression on me. It refers to Paul Morphy. He says “Morphy is generally considered to have been a leap forward, mainly with regard to the level of his play. But he didn’t leave behind any theory or vision”.


Think about that. Morphy was a blazing meteor at the time but what was his actual contribution to chess evolution? What did he change? These are the questions that Hendriks made me think about, and that’s a really important aspect of the book.


Had Morphy played for longer than his two golden years and against a different style of play – how would that have performed? Forget the open games which played into his hands, how would he fare against the Stonewall Dutch or the Reti? We will never know. Imagine Morphy against my fellow countryman Mickey Adams in an open game. Chess really has evolved so much that he would be astonished at what he faced against his gambiteering style of play. It’s a mouth-watering thought.


But should we be comparing Pele with Messi? Should we not just leave people to their own era and accept that chess evolved, and is ever evolving?


It is these kind of questions along with all of the other things I learned through reading this book that makes it to the esteemed ‘top shelf’ in my library. I am a fairly strong club player, and fellow players with the desire to learn will find huge value in owning this book.


I cannot even think of a book that I can compare it to, so take it for what it is. A stand-alone examination of the origin of moves – and therefore chess in general. Finally, we get a critical examination of some of the chess played by the early greats. I wish I had read this 30 years ago. If you were a skeptic before you read it, I cannot conceive how you might be when you turn the final page.


Congratulations to Willy Hendriks and New in Chess Publishing.



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