Simple openings

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An appreciation of Mir Sultan Khan - FIDE Honorary Chess Grandmaster

ChessAnalysisOpeningStrategyChess Personalities
Called a Genius by Capablanca. An intriguing player in Chess history who was able to win tournaments without too much opening theory

Hi all

Many of you may be unaware of a player called Mir Sultan Khan. He was very recently made an honorary Chess Grandmaster by FIDE. He had a brilliant but pretty short career. According to Wiki:

"In an international chess career of less than five years (1929–33), he won the British Championship three times in four tries (1929, 1932, 1933), and had tournament and match results that placed him among the top ten players in the world. Sir Umar then brought him back to his homeland, where he gave up chess and returned to cultivate his ancestral farmlands in the area which became Pakistan"

If you are aware of him, you might be aware of his classic win against Capablanca. Problems started for Capablanca after the move Nb5:

And Mir Sultan Khan was able to improve the advantages of his position until victory. This caused a sensation at the time.

Mir Sultan Khan had won the British chess championship 3 times and did very well in the Chess Olympiads. In this game in an Olympiad, he beat Akiba Rubinstein with one of his pet "system ideas" of an early Ne5 - which can get an interesting Stonewall attack structure:

Personally, I really value the classic players - classic world champions before the rise of increasing amounts of opening theory. And so I was intrigued how he could win games from relatively simple openings - including System openings and also exchange variations.

A big lesson - Choose your battles wisely

Battle wise

In the art of war by Sun Zu, it indicates:

If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself, but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.
—Sun Tzu

But how can this be used in Chess when one has come from a version of Chess where the rules are slightly different - pawns moving only one square at a time, casting not an option. How could someone come from Indian Chess to Western Chess - and be successfully winning tournaments given no real opening theory to back them up?

It seems to me that both Sultan Khan and Capablanca knew really how to make use of "safe transit" to parts of the game they were very strong at. Instead of indulging in sharp theoretical opening battles, it seems that actually the opening phase was more a "safe transit" to the middlegame where Sultan Khan could really show his strengths independent of the slightly different chess ruleset of Western Chess.

Capablanca talked about being very strong in the endgame, and also often seemed happy to simplify middlegames to get to endgames with small advantages and win there. It seems the notion of "safe transit" is very much linked to the art of war concept of choosing one's battle's carefully.

If you can't avoid certain battles, then at least try for safe transit

Safe transit

If one can safely get to the desired battles - then those will showcase our strengths. There is a life lesson here on focusing on one's strengths and kind of trying to delegate things we are less comfortable about. So we sometimes don't want to engage in particular "battles" but rather safely pass them by, or delegate them. We want to position ourselves relative to our strengths and weaknesses.

In Chess terms, we all have to play the opening phase. So it seems Sultan Khan was choosing openings which sometimes were systems - particularly the Colle system like the Rubinstein game above, or sometimes just exchange variations. Here is an example of a very accurate game according to Lichess engine analysis, where the exchange Slav was used:

Sultan Khan also made use of the exchange variation vs the French defence and Caro-Kann on occasion and just win on his middlegame and endgame strengths.

London system popularity echoes "Safe Transit" concept

Mir Sultan Khan had great success with the Colle system which can be seen as a more modest relative of the London system with the bishop left at home on c1. In modern times, we are evidencing the rise of the London systems. As example recently, Alireza recently played 1.Nc3 and transposed to the Jobava London system in this game:

But even highly opening theoretical players like Kasparov early in his career played sometimes very solid openings. Tigran Petrosian can be caught using the full London system setup in certain key games. Petrosian really didn't like losing it seems and really didn't mind if he didn't play very sharp theoretical openings as such.

My recent course at Udemy

I felt the need to find the key winning middlegame and endgame themes that Sultan Khan made use of. So I did a detailed analysis of every single win (about 112 wins) of Sultan Khans to try and see the common themes throughout his short but brilliant career. This is all now in a recent course I have created called "The Complete Guide to Winning Chess Using Simple Openings" which can be found here:

Enjoyed this post? Your likes and follows are immensely appreciated!

Cheers, K