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. 


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