Thank you to @RandomTTours, @WorldEdBooks, and @NetGalley for the advanced readers copy of Game of the Gods by Paolo Maurensig and translated by Anne Milano Appel.
If you’re a lover of Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit (the novel of the same name by Walter Tevis) or chess, I have a novel for you!
Set in 1930s India under British rule comes the story of chess master Malik Mir Sultan Khan. Forgotten by the world but renowned for his chess acumen, Sultan Khan is a historical figure that Paolo Maurensig reimagines from the notebooks of a fictional reporter at the Washington Post. The author fills in Sultan Khan’s life’s details using “what if” scenarios and the scraps he finds from the chess player’s history.
As a reader, this story was engrossing from a plot perspective. Maurensig introduced us to the character, Sultan Khan, at the end of his life, and from there, the author starts off the chess champion’s story. Going from a young village boy with humble beginnings to becoming Asia’s most renowned chess champion of his time makes the character a formidable subject. Yet, when Maurensig delved into his plotline about a blind heiress and the potential that Sultan Khan was believed to have been the woman’s killer, I tuned out.
For me, the depiction of Sultan Khan in such a stereotypical role being framed for being capable of this type of action seemed steeped in his “Otherness” as an Indian. The passivity of Sultan Khan’s character also detracted from how I interacted with the book. While reading, I felt as if this character was passive about his existence and experiences as others were moving him around. I wanted to see him become more assertive when it came to deciding his fate. Thus, while this book had masterful writing, I would have liked to see a different outcome for Sultan Khan than Maurensig provided.
In real life, according to The Oxford Companion to Chess, Sultan Khan was a chess player that became one of the world’s top ten best chess players regardless of not being able to read or write and never learning any openings for himself since he could not study chess hooks without those skills. He was known as a “positional player” and worked best as a middle-player. Sultan Khan was deemed a “genius” by José Raúl Capablanca, a major chess prodigy of his time. Yet, as Maurensig wrote, the chess player suffered from malaria and frequent cold and throat infections during his Europe tour.
In 1933, Sultan Khan went back to India due to being summoned home by Sir Umar, his benefactor. At that time, Sultan Khan was given a small farmstead by Sir Umar near his birthplace in Punjab, where he spent the rest of his life. Sultan Khan’s children were quoted as saying that he wanted them to do something “more useful with their lives” than playing chess, like him. After playing his last chess game in 1935, Sultan Khan disappeared from the chess world and later died of tuberculosis.
For lovers of suspense novels and mysteries, Game of the Gods is a short read if taken as pure fiction, and the bent toward Orientalism is ignored. However, if you are looking just to pass the time, I would suggest watching “The Queen’s Gambit” on Netflix.