February 28, 2011
The Ramanujan of Chess
by Hartosh Singh Bal
The perils of writing about Ramanujan, as I did in my last 3QD column, is that there will always be those who insist that a better educated Ramanujan would have been a worse mathematician. One response is to say that by the same token a worse educated Euler would have been a better mathematician, an argument that to my knowledge has never been made, another is to relate a remarkable story that parallels the tale of Ramanujan. A story that is reasonably well known within the world of chess but has somehow escaped the attention of the world outside.
In the telling of the story much of what I quote is borrowed from several sources, the most important being a compilation by Edward Winter. The material available is insufficient to piece together a life but it is enough to outline the story. In 1929, a man from Sargodha in Punjab arrived in England, part of the entourage of a Nawab. He had learnt chess in the Indian way, the modern form played in the West had some significant modifications, and he finished last in the first tournament he played. He learnt from the experience and within months went on to win the British Chess Championship, repeating the feat in 1932 and 1933. He also played top board for Britain in three chess Olympiads registering impressive performances against some of the top players in the world. His one game against the Cuban world champion Jose Raul Capablanca was a victorious masterpiece, and is counted among the great games of all times. And then in 1933 he disappeared, headed back to what is today Pakistan with his patron, never to play competitive international chess again.
The talented chess player and writer Reuben Fine, a contemporary, has written of him:
The story of the Indian Sultan Khan turned out to be a most unusual one. The “Sultan” was not the term of status that we supposed it to be; it was merely a first name. In fact, Sultan Khan was actually a kind of serf on the estate of a maharajah when his chess genius was discovered. He spoke English poorly, and kept score in Hindustani. It was said that he could not even read the European notations.
After the tournament [the 1933 Folkestone Olympiad] the American team was invited to the home of Sultan Khan’s master in London. When we were ushered in we were greeted by the maharajah with the remark, “It is an honor for you to be here; ordinarily I converse only with my greyhounds.” Although he was a Mohammedan, the maharajah had been granted special permission to drink intoxicating beverages, and he made liberal use of this dispensation. He presented us with a four-page printed biography telling of his life and exploits; so far as we could see his greatest achievement was to have been born a maharajah. In the meantime Sultan Khan, who was our real entrée to his presence, was treated as a servant by the maharajah (which in fact he was according to Indian law), and we found ourselves in the peculiar position of being waited on at table by a chess grand master.
The maharajah in question was Malik Umar Hayat Tiwana, father of Malik Khizr Hayat, the Unionist chief minister of Punjab for the five eventful years leading up to Partition. But the years that matter in this story are the ones the father spent in London from 1929 to 1933. One of the largest landlords in Punjab, he was, in addition to his greyhounds, passionate about ``motoring, polo, pig-sticking, riding, shooting, athletics, hawking, coursing’’, the last with enough interest for him to become President of the British Falconers' Club.
The story of Sultan Khan being a serf seems unlikely, in all likelihood he was part of a network of patronage that may have included musicians, wrestlers and talented chess players. This is at best a surmise because it is difficult to reconstruct any information about Sultan Khan before his arrival in England. What seems to be commonly agreed is that he knew almost no English, he had no knowledge of the theory of modern chess that had developed in the West or the games between top chess players that had been recorded for at least fifty years before his arrival.
He was trained in the Indian system, which differs in two important ways from modern chess. It does not allow the pawn to be moved two steps in the first move, nor does it permit the interchange of the king and rook that goes by the name of castling. Both these differences strongly impact the opening moves and so it is safe to say he was unaware of much of the modern theoretical developments in the opening.
It is for this reason that the Oxford Companion to Chess states, ``When Sultan Khan first travelled to Europe his English was so rudimentary that he needed an interpreter. Unable to read or write, he never studied any books on the game, and he was put into the hands of trainers who were also his rivals in play. He never mastered openings which, by nature empirical, cannot be learned by the application of common sense alone. Under these adverse circumstances, and having known international chess for a mere seven years, only half of which was spent in Europe, Sultan Khan nevertheless had few peers in the middlegame, was among the world's best two or three endgame players, and one of the world's best ten players. This achievement brought admiration from Capablanca who called him a genius, an accolade he rarely bestowed.’’
The parallels between Ramanujan and Sultan Khan’s stories are striking. Both were geniuses largely untutored in the vast theoretical development of their respective fields in the West who nonetheless managed a proficiency that enabled a journey to England. Once in England they brought an insight to their work that ranked them amidst the very best in their profession. In Ramanujan’s case his career was cut short by an untimely death, in Sultan Khan’s case much the same impact was achieved by his return to Sargodha.
But to make something of these parallels it is necessary to compare and contrast chess and mathematics. Some of the differences are obvious, computers today outperform humans at chess, they have barely made a dent in trying to do mathematics. This points to one substantive difference, chess is a huge but finite endeavor where both humans and computers narrow down a large number of possibilities at any stage by the prior knowledge and experience they bring to each game. In this context today it is possible to speak of a player’s intuition but it is no longer possible to talk of an inexplicable insight that leads to a move that no one could have foreseen.
The parallels are equally obvious, merit in either field is not a subjective measure, good chess players and mathematicians prove themselves. There are even some similarities in the process of arriving at mathematical truths and a chess game. The opening is the equivalent of the theoretical study that goes into tackling a problem but it is the middlegame and endgame where players must bring their talent to bear. There are good chess players with a limited opening repertoire, just as there are mathematicians whose knowledge of theory is not extensive but no one who plays the middlegame badly can ever be considered a great chess player.
Both Ramanujan and Sultan Khan were badly served by their lack of theoretical knowledge, deprived as they were of the education that their peers in the West received. But in either case exceptional talent ensured each left a mark. It is no wonder that the one book on Sultan Khan, a compilation of his best games, resorts to the oldest possible stereotype, casting Sultan Khan as an `Indian mystic’.
This is reminiscent of the kind of labels that are still affixed to Ramanujan. But in the case of Sultan Khan they are even less defensible because the step by step process of playing chess is far more amenable to analysis than the leap of imagination that leads to mathematical insight.
What marked Sultan Khan’s chess was his positional mastery, his games exemplify the very rationality that has often been seen as the hallmark of Western thought. Sultan Khan’s knowledge of the Western opening repertoire improved his game. In his case it is rather clear that if he had been better educated in chess theory, if he did not have to face the handicap of dealing with the fifty extra years of preparation that each opponent of his in the west brought to the board in every game, he would have not been just one of the best players of his times, he would have been one of the best players of all times. This suggests a similar conclusion should apply in Ramanujan’s case.
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