The Ramanujan of Chess: An unsung hero of Pakistan
Report by Muhammad Hanif Gul: Among them, Mir Sultan Khan, popularly known as ‘Ramanujan of Chess’, is a rare talent who overcame herculean odds to become the top player of the world, introducing the Indian variety of Chess at a global level and leaving an indelible mark on the horizon of a game previously dominated by European and Soviet masters
The defining characteristics of the spellbinding game of Chess are profound intellect, sharp focus and multilayered strategic thinking that has traditionally kept the game in the exclusive elite domain where only legendary masters could tread through the infinite intricacies of the moves. Throughout history, we have witnessed the rise of numerous legendary players. Among them, Mir Sultan Khan, popularly known as ‘Ramanujan of Chess’, is a rare talent who overcame herculean odds to become the top player of the world, introducing the Indian variety of Chess at a global level and leaving an indelible mark on the horizon of a game previously dominated by European and Soviet masters.
Born in 1905 in the small village of Mittha Tawana, Punjab, British India, Sultan Khan’s journey began at a young age when his father introduced him to chess. His natural talent alongside the hours he put into honing this gift meant that he made quick progress. With his rare skills in Chess, he was soon hailed as the top player in Punjab. It was at this point that Sir Umar Hayat Khan Tiwana came into Khan’s life and changed its trajectory forever. A chess enthusiast himself, he immediately saw the spark in Khan’s eyes and
realized the potential the boy had. He became his mentor, acting as the passage to a world of new knowledge and skills for Sultan. His time with Mr Tiwana proved fruitful as in 1928, Sultan Khan extraordinary skills were recognized when he won the All-India Chess Championship. It was this huge victory that propelled him from a national stage to an international one and allowed him to further explore his talents. In 1929, Sultan Khan participated in the British Chess Championship as an underdog and took the world of chess by storm when he emerged as a winner.
He went on to secure two more British Championship titles in 1932 and 1933, solidifying his position as one of the world top players. Word about the prowess of Sultan Khan spread like wildfire and many high- ranking players went up against him. Sultan faced former world champion and grand master Jose Raul Capablanca at the Hastings Chess Tournament in a match that was often later described as “The Wrath of Khan”.
Capablanca, a Cuban chess prodigy known for his strategic brilliance and incredible
endgame, fell victim to Khan phenomenal positional play and suffered defeat. This victory over the former world champion highlighted Sultan Khan ability to compete at the highest level and demonstrated his unique playing style, characterized by unconventional moves and a deep understanding of the game complexities. In the following year, Khan secured yet another astonishing victory against Max Euwe, a Dutch
grandmaster, (who became world champion in 1935) when he outplayed him with a score of four wins, five draws, and three losses and further cemented his place as one of the finest players of his time.
Even beyond these famous victories against notably extraordinary players, Sultan Khan consistently performed well at a high level in international tournaments. He dominated prestigious events such as the Hastings Chess Congress, Liège Tournament, Bern Tournament, and London Tournament with his tremendous skills leaving onlookers in awe. His ability to continuously rank among the top players in these competitions demonstrated his versatility and competitiveness. One of Sultan Khan distinguishing
strengths was his mastery of the endgame. His ability to exploit opponents weaknesses, navigate complex positions and find decisive moves at critical junctures of the game set him apart from his contemporaries. His proficiency in the endgame remains a testament to his strategic brilliance and his enduring legacy in the world of chess. Despite his relatively short career, Sultan Khan accomplishments are proof of his rare expertise in the game of chess. Speculating about his potential Elo rating based on his performances against strong opponents, he was ranked at the score of 2530 (2500 to 2700 for grandmaster), which qualified him as the grand master of chess. Just to illustrate the prowess of mighty Sultan Khan, one of the top grandmasters of all time, Capablanca achieved the Elo rating of 2725, which was the highest ever before the modern era.
The question of Sultan Khan national identity has remained a subject of debate and discussion between India and Pakistan. Both countries have a legitimate claim to Sultan Khan, given his birth in British India and the subsequent division of the subcontinent in 1947. India highlights his early years in Punjab and considers him a product of the Indian chess system, while Pakistan views him as a national hero and a symbol of their country potential in the world of chess.
In the extended civilizational context, the debate over Sultan Khan national identity reflects the entwined histories of India and Pakistan, the complexities of partition, and the shared cultural heritage of the subcontinent. While the question of his nationality may continue to be a subject of debate, what remains unquestionable is Sultan Khan talent, his lasting legacy, his indelible impact on the game, and his ability to inspire players from both India and Pakistan, thus making him part of a shared heritage. Anand, the Indian grandmaster and 15th world champion paid rich tribute to Sultan Khan and described him as the first Asian to break into the upper echelons of international chess.
The expression Ramanujan of alludes to the striking similarities between Sultan’s extraordinary prowess in chess and the incomparable mathematical genius of Srinivasa Ramanujan, an Indian mathematician who made groundbreaking contributions to the field of mathematics through his intuitive insights and discoveries. Mir Sultan had no formal training and had limited exposure to the theoretical knowledge of chess, yet he showcased an exceptional understanding of the game, adopted unconventional approaches, and displayed the ability to find unique solutions to complex positions.
Both Sultan Khan and Ramanujan emerged from humble backgrounds and lacked formal education in their respective disciplines. Yet, their natural abilities, hard work, and sheer brilliance allowed them to challenge the established norms and influence their respective fields in a profound manner.
Mir Sultan Khan passed away on April 25, 1966, in Sargodha. His outstanding achievements, distinctive playing style, and enduring legacy cemented his status as one of the most accomplished players of his era and a source of inspiration for chess enthusiasts around the world. It is time for Pakistan to embrace and celebrate the legacy of Mir Sultan Khan, a true icon of the game and an unsung hero of Pakistan.-Muhammad Hanif Gul, 118th NMC, Railways Commercial Transportation Group (RCTG)