Amir Khan

By Libby Coleman

American chess giant Reuben Fine was excited to meet the man he considered “the great chess master,” Mir Sultan Khan, on his 1933 visit to London. But there was a hitch: Khan was not the evening’s host, the “maharajah” was. According to Fine, Khan was merely a waiter.

The young man from India was a servant, brought to England because of his chess talent. He faced off with the era’s best between 1928 and 1933 — the years he played competitively — and often won. The transplant became the British champion not once, but three times. “Grandmaster” was not a commonly used term yet, says Dennis Monokroussos, blogger at the Chess Mind, but it might well have been used to describe Khan. “[He] was a remarkable player, but it took him two decades to become an overnight success,” Monokroussos says.

[It was] billed as East meeting West, and the East won, making Khan nothing short of a sensation.

Born in 1905, in what was then India and now Pakistan, Khan was the youngest of 10 children. His father was a religious Muslim and a great chess player. From him, Khan was schooled in the rules of chess at a young age. By 21, he was famous in India’s chess circles, and his legendary ability attracted the attention of a wealthy fan, Umar Hayat Khan, the man who would bring Khan to Europe and pay for his chess lessons there. “It was very rare to bring someone of a lower caste to England, even just to be there,” says Vinay Lal, a professor of history and Asian American studies at UCLA.

In India, Khan had been one of the best; in England, he revealed a knack for refusing to draw if he had a shot at winning. Before long, he won the British Chess Championship, crushing Europeans who had started training in childhood. While Khan didn’t have as much formal training, he was among the best at endgames.

The press loved playing up his underdog image. The Glasgow Heraldcalled him “the Indian genius” and wrote of its surprise when Khan lost two games in a row. After all, one journalist wrote, he “stands in a class by himself.” In 1931, Khan beat Dutch chess whiz Max Euwe and José Raúl Capablanca of Cuba, a former world champion. The latter matchup was billed as East meeting West, and the East won, making Khan nothing short of a sensation. At the time, chess was largely a European game: Some Americans were strong, but outside Western Europe and Russia, talent was rare. Both Capablanca and Khan were considered unlikely contenders.

While Khan left behind no known writing to indicate what he thought of London, one contemporary account stated that he probably led an outsider’s life in the Big Smoke. Fellow chess player Harry Golombek claimed that Khan searched for food similar to his family’s home cooking, with the two of them ending up together at a Jewish boardinghouse, where the “cooking was indeed infinitely better” than what they had found elsewhere, Golombek said.

For fans, sadly, Khan’s reign as a chess champ was short-lived. He followed his patron back to India in 1933, and that’s where the trail seems to fizzle. No reputable documents chronicled what happened next, and while some subsequent reports cropped up, their veracity was questionable. One such report suggested that Khan was working as a concert singer in Durban, South Africa. Another rumor spread that Khan had renounced the chessboard when he lost four times in a row to an elderly man. In any case, nothing concrete surfaced as to Khan’s exact whereabouts following his return to India.

Perhaps Khan’s greatest legacy is how others remember him. “Our top chess players should not feel neglected, and the fate of Sultan Khan — premature retirement — should not fall to their lot,” a 1950s Times of India article stated. Khan became the symbol of allowing for social mobility and freedom when it came to true talent, and modern-day India maintains a robust program for chess. Khan died of tuberculosis in Pakistan, in 1966; decades later, in 1988, Viswanathan Anand became India’s first official grandmaster. Perhaps, though, that record more fittingly belongs to Khan, who overcame class divides to achieve fleeting stardom in the world of chess.