From a carpenter to India's first Olympiad medal winner - Remembering the legacy of Rafiq Khan (1946-2019)
He was the son of a carpenter and had no formal education. He himself became a carpenter to ensure that his daily needs are satisfied. Something about the game of chess attracted him and began playing it actively. Thank God, that he chose chess, because this impoverished, illiterate carpenter from Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, went on to become one of the finest chess players that India has ever seen. This is the story of Mohamed Rafiq Khan, former national champion of India and the first Olympiad chess medalist for our country. Rafiq Khan passed away at the age of 73 years on 19th of July 2019. With this article we would like to go back in the memory lane and explore the legacy left behind by this great personality. We not only bring you Rafiq Khan's life story and best game analysis but also messages and anecdotes from his friends, colleagues and contemporaries. A heartfelt eulogy.
The Reincarnation of Sultan Khan
The above medal is India's first medal at a Chess Olympiad. And do you know the man who won it? It was Mohamed Rafiq Khan, playing for the third board of the Indian team at the Malta Olympiad in 1980.
Rafiq Khan's father was a carpenter by profession and the family living in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh suffered from poverty and lack of resources. Born on 12th July 1946, Rafiq had no real formal education. He never went to a school. In order to make his ends meet, he started working with his father as his assistant. After putting in hours of carpentry work, he would often get tired and go to his favourite tea stall for a cup of tea. That's where he would see people playing chess with each other. He was intrigued by the game and decided to learn it. In spite of his hectic schedule, he made a promise to himself that he would play an hour of chess each day before going to bed. It was in this way that Rafiq Khan made his modest beginnings in the royal game. Mind you, what Rafique learnt was the desi form of chess, also called Indian chess, where the pawn would move only one square at a time (not two on the first move like in international chess), a pawn could not be promoted to any piece on the last rank and so on!
Rafiq's career in international chess (non desi form of chess that we use today) started when he first took part in the Madhya Pradesh chess championship held during April 1975. He surprised all by winning the championship ahead of Syed Nawab Ali (who represented India in the Varna Olympiad), Rajesh Bahadur, Radhe Shyam Gupta, all National ‘A’ players. He then went on to qualify for National ‘A’ by securing second place behind Raja Ravisekhar at the 13th National ‘B’ held at Patna during June 1975. He shot into prominence by his stupendous performance in the 14th National ‘B’ held in Calcutta during June 1976. There he scored 11 wins and 9 of them were back to back! Once he sat on the first board, he remained there until the end conceding only four draws and winning the championship with massive 13 points! This record is still intact and no one has dominated an event like National B, like Rafiq Khan did in 1976.
Says GM Pravin Thipsay, "Rafiq Khan's result at the 1976 National B Championships stunned the chess fraternity at that time. We were all amused to know about him through the stories we heard from the Mumbai players who returned dumbfounded after the "B". I then learn that he had been a "desi" player (rules of desi chess are different from international chess. For eg. the pawn moves only one square forward instead of two) for a few years before and had learned the rules of International chess hardly six months before the "B". Even during the said "B", Rafiq was reluctant to move pawns two squares and invariably began the game with strange pieces and pawns configuration resulting from starting moves ......e6, d6, g6, Bg7, Ne7, 0-0 followed by ......b6,Bb7,Nd7 etc. Despite this, he not only defended his position well in every game but even went on to exploit the overextended and weakened position of his adversaries to gain material."
India's top player at that point in 1976 was Manuel Aaron. Aaron had already won the national title for a record five times until then. What did he think of Rafiq Khan's 13.0/15 achievement? "In 1976, Rafiq Khan surprisingly won the National “B” Championship in Calcutta and Indian chess looked at him in awe as he finished ahead of almost all the best chess players of India. His rivals were proficient and experienced in modern chess theory which was denied to Rafiq because of his lack of English knowledge, yet he won. I was already aware of his good reputation when I first met him at the 1976 National “A” in Calcutta. But he was a big disappointment to me as he had a few gaps in his understanding of the middle-game, especially the handling of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ bishops. Naturally, he didn’t do well in the “A” at Calcutta. But by the time the next National “A” came in Cochin, he was a transformed player, his middle-game had improved dramatically and he took the title on tie-break from V.Ravikumar who became an IM two years later. Clearly, Rafiq was of IM calibre."
Rajesh Bahadur, who was Rafiq's good friend and also a statemate said, "Rafique Khan became National Champion by winning 17th National ‘A’ held at Cochin during Feb’1978. Though he was in outstanding form throughout this tournament, his encounter with Ravisekhar was the most intriguing. The striking feature of this game was that playing with Black pieces, he dragged Ravisekhar’s King from the security of first rank and brought it right up to the last rank to deliver mate, reminiscent of Ed Lasker - Sir George Thomas encounter."
In spite of winning the national title and being one of the strongest chess players in the country, Rafiq Khan's pangs with financial instability continued. Chess was not going to make his ends meet. At that time there was hardly any money in the sport. Although he was working in the Bhopal Municipal Corporation, the salary wasn't sufficient for him to focus adequately on his chess career. During this time, an English magazine 'Onlooker' did a detailed story on Khan's achievements and the negligence of government towards him. This story reached the then Industry Minister George Fernandes. Seeing his plight Fernandes wrote a letter to Rafique. Here's what he said:
Employment in BHEL gave Rafiq Khan's chess career a much needed boost. He focused on his game and the next breakthrough in his career came during the Malta Olympiad, 1980. Rafiq's individual silver medal on board three was a big boost not just for him personally but for the entire Indian chess fraternity. Suddenly everyone began to believe that even Indians could not just compete, but even win against the best in the world. Says Thipsay, "An individual medal at the Olympiad going to a Non-European was something no one could even dream of and yet Rafiq achieved it!" Manuel Aaron, who was Rafiq's team mate at the event, said, "After a gap of many years, the Indian Government sponsored the Indian Men’s team to the Malta Olympiad in 1980. Till then only the Indian Women’s team which comprised solely, or mainly, of the Khadilkar sisters were sponsored. The Government had denied support to the Men’s team till Malta, 1980, as they claimed it was ‘weak’ or sub-standard. Rafiq scored 10/13 to take the silver medal for the second best performance on board three to rubbish the long-held belief of the Government that Indian men are not strong enough for International chess. It was amazing that a Bhopal carpenter won a medal at the Olympiad! Single-handedly, Rafiq had raised the popularity of chess in Madhya Pradesh."
Rafiq Khan continued playing chess after 1980 as well. He was the best performer in the Indian team at the Lucerne Olympiad in 1982. He subsequently won the prestigious Piloo Modi tournament thrice in 1984, 1986 and 1992. His other victories include a tournament in Sehore, P.N. Mehta Memorial tournament in 1990 in Nashik, KU Achla Mudgal tournament in 1994 in Agra. Rafiq Khan loved chess and continued playing it until his last breath. According to Kapil Saxena, Secretary of MPSCA, Rafiq was playing chess on 18th July, until midnight, at Bhopal Chess Club. To the big surprise of everybody, he died of a heart attack the next day at 2:30 pm. He is survived by his wife, two sons and four daughters.
Rafique Khan the chess player
After analyzing many of Rafiq Khan's games over the last few days I have come to the conclusion that Rafiq Khan liked to play positional chess. He liked to fianchetto his king's bishop with white after opening with 1.d4. It was not like Rafiq tried to stay away from complications. When the position demanded them, he would go for it whole heartedly. His black repertoire was much more aggressive than his white openings. With white he liked to keep a steady opening edge. When it came to endgames he was simply brilliant. Check out his endgame against a young Dibyendu Barua, where Rafiq manages to magically convert a drawish looking rook endgame into a winning one.
The Endgame maestro
When I was going through many of Rafiq Khan's games, this one caught my attention. Mainly because the endgame looked drawish and yet Rafiq managed to convert it and secondly his opponent was the very talented youngster and the future GM of India Dibyendu Barua.
The Malta Olympiad, 1980
The defining tournament of Rafiq Khan's chess career. Rafiq scored 10.0/13 with nine wins, two draws and two losses. We have chosen three of his games here. The first one is against IM Steen Feder of Denmark. This game shows how White can keep control in the fianchetto variation of the King's Indian and use his extra space to put Black under pressure.
Against his Lebanese opponent Tony Abouchaaya, Rafiq was the better player. This game shows us how two minor pieces are more powerful than the rook and pawns when we are still in the middlegame and also how a queen and knight can combine together to launch a deadly attack against an opponent's king.
IM Franz Hoelzl of Austria is a strong player. But Rafiq launched an imaginative attack against his opponent's king. Quite noteworthy in this game is how the rook lifts itself from the back rank to checkmate black's king.
Not shying away from complications
It's easy to assume that Rafiq Khan didn't like complications. As a person who thrived on logic, he liked to keep things under control. But when the situation demanded or when wanted to win at all costs, he would unleash his aggressive side as seen in this game against Hari Om Sharma. It is not flawless when subjected to the modern engines, but it shows how Rafiq Khan understood what was required to be done in the position.
Rafiq was a regular at the Piloo Mody Open organised in Lucknow by N.K.Wal (1948-2010). He had won it in 1984 (joint first), 1986 and 1992 (jointly). In 1987, Chess Mate had offered two Brilliancy Prizes of Rs 100 each in the Piloo Mody Open. Surprisingly, both prizes were awarded to Rafiq, not for dashing tactical play, but for beautiful positional play! Both games are given below annotated by IM Manuel Aaron:
After Rafique Khan passed away, we at ChessBase India contacted some of the people close to him in order to know more about Rafiq the chess player and also a person. Here are some messages sent to us.
Pravin Thipsay, third GM of India:
I met Mohamed Rafiq Khan for the first time in 1978 though I had heard a lot about him. Due to my university exam schedule I didn't play any National 'B' until 1981, so I wasn't able to personally watch Rafiq until he had become National Champion. But the then National Players from Mumbai always shared the important events and information with the other Mumbai players immediately on return. In one of the National 'B' Championships in the late 70s, an unknown Player Mohamed Rafiq Khan belonging to an undeveloped state of MP (in terms of Chess strength) emerged as the surprise winner and that too with an outstanding unparalleled score of 13.0/15! This absolutely stunned the Indian chess fraternity at that time. We were all amused to know about him through the stories we heard from the Mumbai players who returned dumbfounded after the "B". I then learn that he had been a "desi" player for a few years before and had learned the rules of International chess hardly six months before the "B". Even during the said "B", Rafiq was reluctant to move pawns two squares and invariably began the game with a strange pieces and pawns configuration resulting from starting moves ..,e6, d6, g6, Bg7, Ne7, 0-0 followed by ...b6, Bb7, Nd7 etc. Despite this, he not only defended his position well in every game but even went on to exploit the overextended and weakened position of the adversary to gain material. The Indian Chess fraternity was mentally shattered after this surprise result. "Doesn't the strategy we have learnt over the years make any sense at all?" was the major question before the fraternity! Rafiq's first National 'A' was however, quite dismal for him. His 'strategy' and tactics, which gave him a record score if 13/15 didn't work against stalwarts like Ravisekhar, Parameswaran, Aaron, Nasir Ali, Mohamed Hassan, Vaidya. Rafiq failed to make it to the Indian team in his debut National 'A' and the Indian chess fraternity gave a sigh of relief. "Our knowledge isn't a waste after all!" was the reaction. But despite this, with his polite cultured behaviour, Rafiq had made a place in the hearts of the chess players. The National 'A' result of 1976 might have led to introspection by him because the next National Championships saw an entirely different Rafiq. He had learnt the basic openings reasonably well and wasn't getting into bad Positions. This factor, coupled with his tactical accuracy gave him the National title in the second attempt (1978).
I met Rafiq for the first time under the above circumstances. Though I hadn't Played open Nationals, by virtue of my other results, I had become one of the highest rated players in the country. Due to Rafiq being national champion and my being a highly rated player, we were selected to represent India in closed International Grandmaster Tournament in Tehran in September 1978. During this tournament, we became close friends and my respect for him grew further. Though Rafiq didn't have any knowledge about the chess strategy, his (natural) understanding of the strategy was fantastic. He had a great judgment and sense of survival. He exactly knew when passive defence would work and when it wouldn't. This always resulted in him taking decisions quickly. Rafiq also had a fantastic depth and feel for practical endings and rarely made endgame mistakes, strategic or tactical. He understood the nature of chess naturally. In 1980 Malta Olympiad, he scored 10/13 on the third Board. An individual medal in Olympiad going to a Non-European was something no one could even dream of. And yet, Rafiq had achieved it!
Then came a sad phase in his life. where he fell ill unexpectedly and had to be admitted to the KEM hospital (Mumbai) for several weeks for Treatment of Tuberculosis and other respiratory as well as cardiac Problems. Though he fully recovered from the ailments, he was shaken and had lost his confidence to a great extent. The family responsibilities were also growing and he wasn't able to focus fully on his career. Though he was a member of Indian Team in 1982 (Lucerne Olympiad) and 1983 (New Delhi Asian Team Championship), he wasn't able to repeat his performance of the Malta Olympiad (1980). In 80s, he prematurely retired as a chess player and was eventually forgotten in the flow of time. On a personal level, we were very good friends. In 1991, during the Asian Women's Championship (wherein Bhagyshree won the Asian title) and a top International rating Tournament in the country (which I won) Rafiq was a part of organising team and made his presence felt by playing the role of a very courteous and generous host. Rafiq was a very personal friend of both Bhagyshree and me. Unfortunately we never met after Chhattisgarh International Tournament for Chief Minister's Trophy (2002). Rafiq called me last year just to say Hello and when I told him that Bhagyshree was playing in the International Grandmaster Open Chess Championship, he went to the tournament hall just to meet her. His demise is a severe personal loss to us. Had his health been good, Rafiq could and would have certainly achieved more at the International level. Our salutes to one of the greatest geniuses from the Indian Chess family.
Manuel Aaron, 9-time national champion and 1st IM of India
A poor carpenter from Bhopal, barely educated, Rafiq Khan is a story of a man who briefly became famous because of his prowess in chess. He came into the limelight by winning the Madhya Pradesh State Chess Championship in 1975. In 1976 he surprisingly won the National “B” Championship in Calcutta and Indian chess looked at him in awe as he finished ahead of almost all the best chess players of India. His rivals were proficient and experienced in modern chess theory which was denied to Rafiq because of his lack of English knowledge, yet he won. I was already aware of his good reputation when I first met him at the 1976 National “A” in Calcutta. But he was a big disappointment to me as he had a few gaps in his understanding of the middle-game, especially the handling of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ bishops. Naturally, he didn’t do well in the “A” at Calcutta.
But by the time the next National “A” came in Cochin, he was a transformed player, his middle-game had improved dramatically and he took the title on tie-break from V.Ravikumar who became an IM two years later. Clearly, Rafiq was of IM calibre. Unfortunately for him the AICF and the young MP State Chess Association (MPSCA) at that time lacked the vision and wisdom to help and provide Rafiq with opportunities to become an IM. It may be recalled that when I won the National Championship in 1959, the then AICF Secretary S.K.Narasimhan (1918-1982) worked hard and tirelessly to provide me with opportunities to become India’s first IM. In all likelihood, the MPSCA, with men like D.C.Verma, got him the job with BHEL, Bhopal, which allowed him to live life with dignity. Before Rafiq there were two illustrious Muslim chess players who performed brilliantly in chess despite their lack of English knowledge and chess theory: Sultan Khan (1905-1966) and Mohamed Hassan (1931-1994). Actually people in Bhopal fondly referred to Rafiq as “the second Sultan Khan”. Rafiq qualified and played in all the National “A” Championships from 1976 to 1984. His best was the 1977 Championship in Cochin which he won. His famous victims in Cochin were IMs Manuel Aaron, Ravi Sekhar, WIM Rohini Khadilkar, Ananda Kumar Ghosh, Mohan Babur, et al. After a gap of many years, the Indian Government sponsored the Indian Men’s team to the Malta Olympiad in 1980. Till then only the Indian Women’s team which comprised solely, or mainly, of the Khadilkar sisters were sponsored. The Government had denied support to the Men’s team till Malta, 1980, as they claimed it was ‘weak’ or sub-standard. In the early years of the All India Chess Federation, it was fashionable to speak lowly of our standards when compared with International standards. In 1956, when V.K.Raman Menon (famous for Ramji’s Corner in Times of India) who was secretary of the AICF at that time, tried to raise funds to send India’s first ever team to the Moscow Olympiad (the four players paid for their own airtickets), there were many who disparaged his efforts saying that if our team went to Moscow it will only bring dishonour to India. Our team vindicated Ramji’s efforts by finishing decently with Ramdas Gupta of Kanpur scoring 10.5/17, of which 7/9 (!) came in the final classification group. Rafiq did the same thing for India in Malta. He scored 10/13 to take the silver medal for the second best performance on Board Three to rubbish the long-held belief of the Government that Indian men are not strong enough for International chess. It was amazing that a Bhopal carpenter won a medal at the Olympiad! Single-handedly, Rafiq had raised the popularity of chess in Madhya Pradesh.
After 1984 he did not participate in National championships. However in 2005 after the political shake-up in Indian Chess when a new organisation tried to run a parallel AICF offering huge prize money in their tournaments, Rafiq was tempted to return to chess, especially as some of the organisers of the new group commanded his respect. When he Emailed me through his student D.V.Singh, that he was going to play in a non-AICF tournament I tried to persuade him to avoid it but he did not heed me. Rafiq however, was not successful in those tournaments as a 20-year lay off from tournament chess cannot be kind to anybody’s chess power. Rafiq Khan should have easily become an IM, but it was not to be. A really great player, he was in the wrong place at the right time.
Rajesh Bahadur, former National A player
Rafiq Khan was meek and mild to talk to, never indulged in any mischief, nor did he made any complaint about uncomfortable situation if ever he faced one. Normally Rajendra Bagdi and I shared room with him whenever we participated in tournaments together. Always at ease, valued friendship very high and extended full support for analysis of adjourned games till we arrived at the final solution.
They proclaim “Like Poets Chess players are born”, there can be no better example of this maxim than Rafique. Though he was ignorant of various basic principles which govern chess, he had the knack of finding the smallest available opportunity to seize the initiative and exploit the position. In the beginning of his career he was regularly getting into worse positions out of the openings but once he reached the middle game he showed his class. The depth of his planning with clarity of strategic ideas and sensible judgment sometimes kept me amazed. It is easy to say that it all came naturally to him but without profound training and formal education as to how he demonstrated his skills is an enigma. It was a common occurrence for him to wriggle out of the worse position to defeat his opponents.
In the beginning, he was not at ease with White pieces on account of his limited opening and theoretical awareness, instead he liked his opponent to come after him so that he could take away the game once his opponent faltered at some point. I remember as he struggled with white pieces he opened with 1.d3 against R.B. Sapre (former National champion) in one of rounds in National ‘B‘ Patna 1975. In turn Sapre was so surprised that he thought for about 50 minutes before deciding upon his first move response and ultimately lost the game. However, as the time went by, in the company of elite chess players, given the exposure he learnt how to play decent opening and not to risk his chances in the early phase of the game. A carpenter by trade, he came from a very poor family and was not fortunate to get formal education. Nevertheless, he had high chess acumen and grasped easily whatever came his way particularly things related to chess. However, when he became National champion, he got a job in BHEL Bhopal and his pecuniary condition improved with time.
Up to 1976 we had been using English descriptive notation which is a bit difficult than the Algebraic notation currently in use. Although he struggled writing English letters and numbers for obvious reasons, he recorded the moves with utmost accuracy, I for one had never found an incorrect recorded move in his score-sheet and that indicates towards a vigilant mind, one of the very important attributes of a chess player. He was very proud to show me a game that he won with Black against T.N. Parmeswaran in a National A Championship during early eighties.
Vidit Gujrathi, India no.3
I was playing in an inter school level tournament in Kolkata when I was just 8-9 years old. Perhaps it was the Telegraph, but I don't remember it accurately. But what I do remember is that I lost one of my games and started crying uncontrollably. My mother was naturally worried. At that point Rafiq Khan spoke to my mom and said, "Don't worry about him crying. He has a fighter's attitude just like Bobby Fischer, and he is crying because this game means so much to him." Words from a great player like Rafiq Khan naturally boosted my mother and gave her the courage to continue my chess journey! My second meet with Rafiq Khan was over the chess board when I was around 10 years old. I remember that a big crowd had gathered around our board and I had managed to beat him. He was very graceful in his defeat. The last episode happened just a few months ago when I was in Pune at the ChampCoach training event with Vishy Anand. One of the students in the camp came towards me and gave me a pen with the words, "My coach Rafiq Khan has sent this pen for you." What a thoughtful person. Even at this age he remembered me and made sure that I got the pen. Although the time I spent with him was very little, Rafiq Khan had made a deep impression on me not just as a chess player, but as a fine human being.
Dibyendu Barua, 2nd GM of India
The thing I remember about Rafiq Khan is that he was a natural player and was admired by all in 70's & 80's. He was very good in endgame.
Raja Ravisekhar, National champion of India in 1976
I am sorry to hear that Mohammed Rafique Khan has passed away - He scored the silver medal (I think with a score of 10/13) on the 3rd board at the 1980 Olympiad 1980 at a time when the financial rewards were not great - He was the National champion in Ernakulam 1978 but then these details are already known to you. His opening knowledge was suspect as he initially used to open 1.d3 but his play in the middle game and endgame was excellent - Like the late Nasiruddin Ghalib and Nasir Ali he learnt international chess after being expert in Indian chess.
Sannidhya Agrawal, student of Rafiq Khan
I met him as a kid in 2002 when I was just 13 to get trained under him. He was not only my coach but a father figure to me. He always treated me like his third son. He used to accompany me for the several tournaments as well. All these years even when I left chess in 2006, I was constantly in touch with him and his family and used to visit at least twice a year. The way I have witnessed his persona, no one ever has. He had an amazing sense of humor with lot of intelligence in it. Although he was not much educated but I haven’t seen much people with the kind of liberal, secular and progressive mindset that he possessed. As a player we all know he was one of the best talents India ever had. He was even called as Mir Sultan khan’s reincarnation by his colleagues. From being National ‘A’ champion to winning India’s first ever silver medal in the Malta Olympiad, winning open championships, he had numerous achievements under his belt. During his times, once he encountered GM O'Kelly in a tournament with white pieces. O'Kelly with black pieces played his own variation ie. O'Kelly variation in sicilian defence (Those who don’t know there is a variation in Sicilian defense with by his name), Mr. Khan crushed O'Kelly in his own variation after a one sided game. Mr. Khan and O'Kelly faced each other once again in a tournament after sometime, when Mr. Rafique Khan defeated him again. This was the kind of talent he had. Mostly he used to analyze his games in his head without any board. Even during his times when the games used to get adjourn, he never used board to analyze his game, as he in humor used to say that board are for those who cannot see. During that time with no computers available, his friends used to sit with him just to get a novelty in their respective lines. Even in later years with deteriorated eyesight, there was hardly a day when he never visited Bhopal Chess club. While attending his funeral a few days ago. I was wondering that it is so unfortunate for us as a chess fraternity to get to know about such legends after their demise. It would have been so much better if we teach about our chess history and its heroes as well to the young talent during their training.
This photo was taken at Trichy National A in 1979. The caption and description of players is done by GM Pravin Thipsay: Sitting (L to R): Nasir Ali (former National Champion and a great master of chess technique and positional play), T N Parameswaran (one of the most talented Indian players of all times. He won who won the Trichi National A in 1979), Viraf Avari (the future world amateur champion at the time of photograph), KBL Srivastava, (a belligerent genius from Delhi with immense over-confidence), Raja Ravisekhar (former twice National Champion), Manuel Aaron (9 times national champion), Ramchandra B Sapre (first National Champion of India, Elluru, 1955-56), S.N. Dutta. Standing (L-R): Md Rafiq Khan, Shyamal Dutta (Barua's cousin in law), S.N. Ravishankar, S.V. Natarajan (several times member of Indian team and a genius in king side attack who turned into an unsuccessful politician and a social reformist later), Vijay Adhikari, Mohan T Babur, N. Neelakantan, The great Mohd. Hassan and Nasiruddin Ghalib.
A short biography of Rafiq Khan's life
By Sannidhya Agrawal
Date of birth - 12th July 1946
Father’s Name - Abdul Rashid Khan (passed away in 1993)
Mother’s name - Khurshid Beghum (passed away when Rafiq Khan was 16 years old)
Sibling - 1 younger sister
Marriage - He got married at the age of 17
Education - Studied at Madrasa, no formal education
Views - He was extremely secular and liberal in his views.
Mhd. Rafiq Khan was born in Bhopal in a poor Muslim family. His father was a poor carpenter who used to earn for his family by doing wood work. Due to the financial and economic crisis of his family, he was deprived of education in his propitious days of childhood. At a raw age, Rafiq began to do carpentry with his father and became his father's assistant. He had a passion and zeal for all kinds of sports but he did not have the time to play hockey or football. From morning to evening, he and his father used to work really hard and went to bed worn out and fatigued on a daily basis. By the age of 16, he started earning some money from the work of carpentry. In between of all the toil, whenever he used to get exhausted, he had tea at a nearby shop and used to notice some people playing chess and carrom there. He found the game of chess quite intriguing and he started playing and discovering chess. Every day, he used to play chess regularly before sleeping and bound himself to a rule that under all circumstances, he has to play chess at least an hour before sleeping.
Gradually, he developed an understanding for chess moves and got quite a good grasp of the game but all this time, he used to play desi chess (a different form of chess with a few different rules like pawns can move only 1 square even when they are at their starting rank etc.) Rafiq Khan started playing chess on the Patiya (a kind of Nawabi tradition where people play chess and carom on pavements of the streets along with tea.) This pattern continued for a total of 12 years. By then, he had become a staunch player of chess. Later inspired by the success of Bobby Fischer, in 1974, Rafiq Khan participated in his first state tournament, which took place in Jabalpur, and became the champion. On winning that competition, he hoped that he would be identifiable to people, but he still remained anonymous. After becoming the state winner, Rafiq Khan became a participant of the national competition. In 1975, he played his first National 'B' Chess Competition held in Patna and secured tenth position. Next year in 1976 he won National ‘B’, held in Calcutta. In 1978, Rafiq Khan went on to become the National ‘A’ champion in Ernakulam, but even then he did not receive much recognition in his own state. Even after reaching the epitome of success, he could not get the fame which others got through the smallest of achievements. Rafiq Khan used to say that it doesn’t matter what economic crisis, problems or miseries you have in your life, if courage, perseverance, regular practice is present, then success can be acquired.
Rafiq Khan was on the verge of discontinuing his practice of chess because of extreme poverty, when Shahnawaz Khan, a chess admirer, noticed him. With the efforts of Mr. Shahnawaz Khan, he was appointed as a carpenter in the Municipal Corporation of Bhopal. He humorously used to narrate the incident of his appointment in the municipal corporation. When he went to Mr. Buch, the then administrator for the job, his first question was, “Till which grade have you studied?” To which he replied, “Sir, I am an illiterate.” At first, Mr. Buch held his head in his hands, but within five minutes, Mr. Khan got the job. While doing carpentry in the municipal corporation, Rafiq Khan became completely determined towards chess. He also played several national and international tournaments in the time being. He continued chess for 9 years with complete immersion and dedication. In this short period, he got the opportunity to play overseas for around four to five times. Firstly, in 1978, he played the Grandmaster Chess Tournament in Malaysia. He participated in his second international competition organized in Iran in the same year. Mr. Khan also participated in the Silver King event held in Dhaka in 1979. He also went to Malta and Switzerland to participate in Chess Olympiads in 1980 and 1982 respectively. His winning the board silver medal in Malta Olympiad created history for Indian chess. He was the first ever Indian chess player to achieve this honour. Rafiq Khan's national record has not even been broken within the country.
In the national 'B' Chess championship 1976, he had set a record of scoring 13 out of 15 points; which is the all-time high till date. Also he made a record of winning 9 back to back rounds in the same event. Rafiq’s huge success was neither acknowledged much by the newspapers nor by the government. When he was at the peak of his career, the Janata Party came to the power. During this time, an English magazine 'Onlooker' did a detailed story on Mr. Khan's achievements and the negligence of government towards him. This story reached the then Industry Minister George Fernandes. George recommended Rafiq Khan for a job in Bharat Heavy Electricals ltd. and he soon got a job in BHEL but his illiteracy became an obstacle for him. He was given the job of Operator Grade. Rafiq Khan probably would have gone farther in chess but unfortunately he could not do it.
In 1984, he suffered from severe sinus disease. After a year of suffering from this disease, he was diagnosed with anemia and he fell really sick. Despite many attempts, his life was saved but chess was lost. Due to health issues, he nearly left playing competitive chess. Although he stayed away from competitions but he was never isolated from the game of chess. He was constantly engrossed in chess, visited City chess club daily till the last day of his life. He also trained a couple of young players who went on to play at national and international levels.
Apart from Sannidhya, I would also like to thank Akshat Khamparia for actively contributing a lot of content to this article. Pravin Thipsay and Manuel Aaron provided a lot insights which gave us a detailed picture of Rafiq Khan the chess player.
Messages from other readers of ChessBase India:
I played in National 'B' 1976 and also qualified for 'A'. I played two games with him then, both drawn. A thorough Gentleman. He got along well with everybody. He was the first to smile - smile would come naturally to him - soon after the eye contact. I could speak 'broken Hindi', those days. So, we did have a bit of casual conversation. One incident stands out in my memory. It happened probably during National 'B', Delhi 1980. One of his team mate's games, going to the end game, had just concluded. He was showing a difficult winning line in the ending which his team mate had missed. I had finished my game and happened to stand by watching his analysis. After showing the win to his team mate, he turned to me and remarked 'Teek Hai?' The remark speaks volumes of the man as I was no match for his chess ability.
- Ravi Shankar
I met him few times and he was a gentleman and humble also.I faced him once on board and was able to defeat him but that was not his prime time .Win or loss he always was smiling.
- Saket Kumar
Very saddened at the passing away of my chess colleague. I met him over and off the board in those 1970-80s. In the first ever All India Civil Services Chess Championship, Bhopal, he was the guest of honor for the inaugural function and I was a part of the Madras Team. Though he was not selected for the Asian leg of the India's first Asian GM tournament, and considering his National Championship title, he was selected along with GM Thipsay for the Tehran event in the same year. His bagging the Malta 1980 Silver Medal is an indelible Indian chess record ever to remember. My heartfelt condolences to his family members and friends. May his soul rest in peace and quiet.
- V. Kameswaran, India's first International Arbiter
He was a great player and human being. Saw him playing in National B. He was not well versed with English. Even he had problem in writing moves like PK4. He became B champion when he played for the first time in National B,don't remember the year. Natural player, no book knowledge.
- Vinod Sharma
He was an original God gifted chess player. He never studied any chess book but he had defeated all the top players of India. We have lost a great chess player. May his soul rest in peace.
- Manoj Verma
शतरंज के भूतपूर्व राष्ट्रीय चैंपियन माल्टा ओलंपियाड के रजत पदक विजेता एवं विक्रम अवार्ड से सम्मानित उस्ताद रफीक खान का हार्ट अटैक से निधन का समाचार मिलते ही प्रदेश एवं छत्तीसगढ़ की शतरंज प्रेमियों में शोक की लहर फैल गई । उनका पूरा जीवन शतरंज के प्रति समर्पित रहा । अपने स्वाभाविक एवं नैसर्गिक खेल से उन्होंने शतरंज जगत में सम्माननीय मुकाम हासिल किया । मघ्यप्रदेश शतरंज संघ उनको सादर नमन करते हुए उनकी आत्मा की शांति के लिए श्रद्धांजलि अर्पित करता है !
- Kapil Saxena, Secretary of Madhya Pradesh Chess Association
He was not educated, so he couldn't read and write. Awful in the opening, his forte was middle game. Once he was playing in Malaysia/Singapore. The then FIDE President, Campomanes, watched the board Rafiq Khan playing. The position was horrible for Rafiq. When Compomanes reached his room in the lodge he inquired about the result of this particular board. On learning Rafiq had drawn the game, he said, " I knew it."
- Sundarajan Srinivasagam
There are players who play and then there are players who love the game ... I remember the time when I was a small kid and all I could aim as a Bhopali chess player was to defeat 'Ustad' - thats what they used to call him here. A true inspiration, a true chess lover and an amazing mentor ! He will always be remembered as one of the finest of chess players India ever got and will always be remembered as Ustad ! May his soul Rest in Peace!
- Anshul Saxena
ChessBase India is planning to hold an online tournament in the memory of the great Rafiq Khan. The prize fund would be Rs.51,000 and all the entry fee proceeds will go to Rafiq Khan's family. Would you be interested to take part in the event? If yes, please let us know in the comments section below and we will bring forth all the details to you in a few days.