Benko Birthday – and ten years of ChessBase News

by Frederic Friedel
7/15/2019 – He was a world-class grandmaster, twice World Champion candidate, friend of Bobby Fischer (who enabled Fischer's participation in the 1972 WCh match), inventor of the eponymous Benko Gambit and the 1.g3 Benko Opening (which he used to beat Fischer and Tal). But he is probably best known as an author and composer of endgame studies and chess problems. He is also a loyal friend who has provided us with countless articles over the last ten years. We offer our heartfelt wishes for his 91st birthday today. Like to join in?

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91 years young

Before I embark down memory lane, I have two positions to show you. The first is a problem that I encountered over forty years ago, one that enchanted the young chess lover — and has continued to do so ever since. I sincerely hope you have never seen this problem before. If that is the case you should just look at the position and try to imagine what the solution might be. I guarantee you will not be able to guess.

After initial contemplation you can move the pieces on the board, and try to mate in eight moves. A chess engine will play countermoves against you, and will stop (obviously) when you have mated the black king. You can take take back moves and try alternatives. It's a lot of fun, almost like having a chessboard and pieces — and a grandmaster or chess problemist sitting on the other side, analysing with you.


Powerplay 26: Checkmate Challenge — essential knowledge

Checkmate. That's the aim of the game. There are numerous ways to checkmate the enemy king, but there are common patterns that recur over and over again, and having these at our mental fingertips is essential for when we want to finish the game.


The second is one of the most elegant problems we have seen.

I wrote about this problem a week ago, urging our readers to compete with Fischer, by solving it on the diagram board — with an embedded stopwatch running. I also mentioned that the problem had a minor dual — after one defensive move by Black White had two different ways to continue and mate in three. Our readers were asked to look for a slight modification of the position, one that did not destroy its simple beauty or the character of the solution. There was a nice prize for the best suggestion. 

This problem was composed by the master, Pal Benko, when he was just fifteen, and he sent it to us in 2011, when he was 82 years old, as one of a set of Easter problems. He told us that he had shown it to his friend Bobby Fischer during the Lugano Olimpiad 1968, and bet him he would not be able to solve the problem in less than half an hour. Bobby lost the bet.


In the meantime we have received a number of entries, and I will publish a follow-up article in a week or so. In it I will also tell the story of a young super-talent who was so delighted by the problem that he became determined to start composing problems and endgame studies himself. And Pal, almost eighty years his senior, is advising him in this endeavour.

Happy Birthday!

For his 91st birthday I would like to share with you the first article (as far as I can tell) that Pal wrote for us, almost exactly ten years ago. I introduced the article with the following short bio, with the picture I used at the time:

Pal Benko, who in Hungarian is written Benkö Pál, was born on July [15], 1928 in Amiens, France. He was raised in Hungary and soon showed an affinity to chess. At 20 he was Hungarian champion, and was playing for the national teams. In 1957 after the World Student Team Championship in Reykjavik (where he scored 7½/12 on board one) he defected to the United States, where he started to play in national events. He was first or tied for first in eight US championships from 1961 to 1975.

In 1959 and 1962 Benko played in the Candidates Tournament for the World Championship, which consisted had eight of the world's top players. He was intrumental in Bobby Fischer's ascent to the World Championship title: in 1969 Benko had won the US Championship and thus qualified for zonals, he was amongst the top three finishers that advanced to the Interzonals. Fischer had not played in the US Championship and was therefore out of the cycle. Benko agreed to give up his spot in the Interzonal in order to give Fischer another shot at the World Championship. Fischer went on to win the title in 1972.

Pal Benko is an openings expert who has variations named after him. Everyone knows the Benko Gambit (1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 c5 3.d5 b5), which he popularised, and played with great success from the mid-1960s. And there is the Benko Opening (1.g3), which he introduced at the 1962 Candidates Tournament and used to defeat Bobby Fischer and Mikhail Tal.

In addition to his success as a player, Benko is a noted authority on the chess endgame and a composer of endgame studies and chess problems. For decades, he has had a column on endgames in Chess Life magazine. His studies and problems have appeared in countless newspapers and magazines.

And here is the article which he contributed to our Christmas Puzzle section. I have of course replaced the jpg diagrams with our current live boards on which you can enter moves to analyse.

Here is a famous study by the great Alexey Alexeyevich Troitzky:

[Event "Magyar Sakkvilág"] [Site "?"] [Date "1931.??.??"] [Round "?"] [White "Troitzky, A.."] [Black "White to play and win"] [Result "1-0"] [SetUp "1"] [FEN "1R4bq/p1p3p1/2p3Pb/k1P3PR/2P4P/p1K5/P7/8 w - - 0 1"] [PlyCount "21"] [EventDate "1931.??.??"] {If it were Black to move then Black would lose immediately: 1...Ka4 2.Ra8 a5 3.Rb8+- (or 1...Ka6 2.Kb4+-; or 1...a6 2.Ra8+-). So White needs to get the initial position of the study with Black to move. But while losing the tempo the white king needs to be very careful: it may not move to a white square, except c2, because otherwise the black bishop on g8 can give check and the queen takes the rook on b8; the white king also must not move to the squares c1, d2 or e3, otherwise the black bishop on h6 can check and the queen takes the rook on h5.} 1. Kc2 $2 (1. Kd4 $1 {Benko} Ka6 2. Ke5 Ka5 3. Kf4 Ka4 ({ because} 3... Bxg5+ 4. Kxg5 Qxh5+ 5. Kxh5 Bxc4 6. Rb1 $1 Ka4 (6... Bxa2 7. Ra1 {wins}) 7. Ra1 Kb4 8. Kg5 Bg8 9. h5 Kc3 10. h6 gxh6+ 11. Kxh6 Kb2 12. Rd1 Kxa2 13. Rd8 Be6 14. Rb8 Ka1 15. Kg5 {and Black must move, therefore White wins. So there is a great difference if the black king stands on a4 or a5 in move five.} )) 1... Ka4 2. Kd1 Ka5 3. Ke1 Ka6 4. Kf2 Ka5 5. Kg3 Ka4 6. Kf4 Ka5 ({ Unfortunately} 6... Bxg5+ {assures Black a draw:} 7. Kxg5 Qxh5+ 8. Kxh5 Bxc4 9. Rb7 a5 10. Rxc7 Bxa2 11. Rxg7 Be6 12. Rf7 Bxf7 13. gxf7 a2 14. f8=Q a1=Q) 7. Ke5 Ka4 8. Kd4 Ka5 9. Kc3 Ka4 (9... a6 10. Ra8) 10. Ra8 a5 11. Rb8 1-0

First of all, as noted above, if it were Black to move he would lose immediately. So White moves his king in a way that allows it to return to the original square after an odd number of moves. The solution according to the author is 1.c2 a4 2.d1 a5 3.e1 a6 4.f2 a5 5.g3 a4 6.f4 a5 7.e5 a4 8.d4 a5 9.c3 a4 [9...a6 10.a8] 10.a8 a5 11.b8+–. At the time A. Havasi, a leading columnist of Magyar Sakkvilag, wrote:

The outstanding author presents an excellent idea which no one has succeeded in doing ever before. The king can make its wandering both ways around, but no one can call this a side solution, since both ways are the same.

In the above solution the move 6...♝xg5+ unfortunately assures Black a draw. However, this is not possible if the white king moves the other way around! 1.♔d4! ♚a6 2.♔e5 ♚a5 3.♔f4 and now 3...♝xg5+ does not succeed (see replay board above). So there is a great difference if the black king stands on a4 or a5 in move five.

After having spent so much time scrutinising the Troitzky study I decided to try and further develop the great idea. Here is the result.


Armed with the analysis given in the Troitzky given above, and with the engine implemented in the diagram, you should be able to solve the above position quite easily.

Improvements in 75-year rhythms

It is interesting that in his original study Troitzky used Sam Loyd's idea after 75 years, and I could correct and improve it after another 75 years! Troitzky mentioned the Loyd problem from 1856, a mate in 14 moves, in his book, and said he derived the idea from Loyd. Unfortunately the problem was unsound (see replay board below).

[Event "New York Saturday Courier"] [Site "?"] [Date "1856.??.??"] [Round "?"] [White "Loyd, Sam"] [Black "Mate in 14 moves"] [Result "1-0"] [SetUp "1"] [FEN "8/8/5N2/8/3K1N1p/1p3knR/1Pp2prb/n1B2b1B w - - 0 1"] [PlyCount "27"] [EventDate "1856.??.??"] 1. Kc5 $1 ({Unsound:} 1. Ke5 Bg1 2. Ng8 Bh2 (2... Kg4 3. Nh6+ Kf3 4. Nf5 Bh2 5. Ne3 Bg1 $1 6. Nxf1 Kg4 7. Bxg2 Kg5 8. Ke6 Ne2 9. Nxe2+ Kg6 10. Nf4+ Kg7 11. Nh5+ Kf8 12. Rd3 Kg8 13. Rd8+ Kh7 14. Be4#) 3. Nh6 Bg1 4. Nf5 Bh2 5. Ne3 Bg1 6. Nxf1 Kg4 7. Bxg2 Kg5 8. Ke6 Bh2 (8... Ne2 9. Nxe2+ Kg6 10. Rxh4 Bh2 11. Bh6 Kh7 12. Bg5+ Kg8 13. Bf6 c1=Q 14. Rh8#) 9. Rxh2 Nf5 10. Be4 Nd4+ 11. Kf7 Nf5 12. Nh3+ Kg4 13. Nxf2+ Kh5 14. Bf3#) 1... Bg1 2. Kb6 Bh2 3. Ka7 Bg1 4. Ka8 Bh2 5. Kb8 Bg1 6. Kc7 Bh2 7. Kd8 Bg1 8. Ke7 Bh2 9. Kf8 Bg1 10. Kg7 Bh2 11. Kh6 Bg1 12. Kg5 Bh2 13. Kxh4 Bg1 14. Rxg3# 1-0

If you want to send your wishes to Pal Benko for his 91st birthday you can do so in our feedback section below. We will forward them to Pal. Please add your name and town of residence. It would also be nice if you add a couple of lines of appreciation about what he has done for chess.

Ten years of ChessBase articles by and about Pal Benko

Pal Benkö and the Fischer challenge
7/8/2019 – This is one of the most elegant chess problems we have ever seen. It was composed by the master, Pal Benko when he was just fifteen. Five pieces, four on their original squares, and the task is to force mate in three moves. That is quite difficult: Bobby Fischer failed to find the solution in half an hour. Can you do better – and can you find a correction for the minor dual that was found in the problem? You can win a nice prize if you do.

April 1st entertainment — the solution
4/26/2019 – As in the previous year we decided to abandon our decades-long tradition of tricking our readers with false stories on April 1st. For those who are disappointed by this decision we brought you a really fun (and fully genuine) task proposed by Pal Benko for this auspicious day. Initially there was an error in the task, but after we corrected that we received valid solutions. The best came from Mihály Berkics from Hungary, who receives a special prize.

April 1st entertainment
4/1/2019 – Last year we decided to abandon our decades-long tradition of tricking our readers with fake stories on April 1st. Instead, we said, we are going to stick to straight and truthful news. For those who are disappointed by this decision we bring you a really fun (and fully genuine) task proposed by Pal Benko for this auspicious day, and also take a look back at an historic prank we perpetrated in the past — just to prove we have not lost our sense of humour.

Problem chess with Pal Benko
2/7/2019 – Our Christmas Day problem article really made the rounds. First eminent mathematician and problemist Noam Elkies sent rapid feedback, and then one of truly great problem composers (and GM, and World Championship candidate) sent us his comments. It is none other then Pal Benko who helped convert Frederic Friedel's amateur composition into an "Excelsior", and tried himself to construct a full Excelsior (where the pawn starts with a single step). It's a lesson in problem composition.

Pal Benko celebrates his 90th birthday
7/15/2018 – Today, July 15th, Pal Benko turns 90. As the progenitor of the Benko Gambit, chess theory will always remember him, but he also had an interesting life. He was a ladies man, spent a year and a half in a Soviet prison camp, fled from Hungary to the US, played in two Candidates tournaments, and is a renowned composer of endgame studies and problems. Frank Zellner offers more details.

Pal Benko – eleven twins
7/7/2018 – In problem chess "twins" are two or more problems, normally composed by a single author, that are slight variations of each other. This is usually brought about by moveing pieces slightly or subtly, or adding, removing or exchanging a piece. Sometimes the position is moved to another location on the board. The solutions should be different. Now our dear and faithful friend Pal Benkö has sent us a record-setting eleven twins. Have fun solving these unique problems.

Problems of the past month – did you see the solutions?
5/6/2017 – We have published a number of problems in the past months, initially without the solutions. After some days or weeks we added the solutions on the original page, but of course many readers might have missed this. And some may have missed the problems themselves. So today we bring you a special report with the problems of Pal Benko and Miguel Illescas, with their solutions.

Pal Benko: April Swindles – unusual chess problems
4/1/2017 – Eighty-eight – that is what the first two problems in the April 1st collection symbolize. That is the age of the composer, the indefatigable Pal Benko, who sent us five very unusual positions for this auspicious day. Do not expect to fire up the positions on your computer and press Ctrl-Alt-Del for engine assistance. Today you will have to think – you know, mobilize all that grey matter. And a fair bit of humour. We wish you fun and unusual enjoyment.

Benko's Christmas problems solutions
1/25/2018 – Every year Pal Benko, grandmaster, former World Championship candidate, and one of the best problem composers in the world, sends our readers very special seasonal greetings. They come in the form of chess problems in which the pieces represent figures — this time a Christmas tree and candles. This year it was seven problems, one shaped like a tree and six like candles. Here the solutions — and some new and amusing problems to tickle your mind.

Pal Benko's Christmas problems
12/25/2017 – Every year Pal Benko, grandmaster, former World Championship candidate, and one of the best problem composers in the world, sends our readers very special seasonal greetings. They come in the form of chess problems in which the pieces represent figures – this time a Christmas tree and candles. It is the start of our Christmas puzzle week, which we bring you for the eighteenth year in succession. Prepare for puzzles that cannot be easily solved with a computer, tasks which require you to think all by yourself. And a nostalgic look to the past.

Pal Benko's Valentine Day problems
2/14/2017 – Since the days of Geoffrey Chaucer in the 14th century Valentine's Day, February 14, has been associated with romantic love, with the presentation of flowers, confectionery and (often anonymous) greeting cards called "valentines". Our indefatigable friend, problem composer Pal Benko, sent us something different: twin problems in valentine shapes. Take a look, but be warned: they are trickier than you would expect – and definitely more romantic.

1/23/2017 – Trump, Kramnik, Botvinnik, Junge, Benko
"Don’t you think I could also be a GM if put in one or two year on chess?" Donald Trump wanted to know, when he met Pal Benko back in 1994. "You need to be born again," Benko replied. "I have never known anyone who started with chess after the age of 20 and became a grandmaster." It happened at the World Championship Candidates match, held in the Trump Plaza. In his article Pal Benko tells us some interesting things about the Botvinnik Variation.

12/25/2016 – Christmas puzzles with Pal Benko
Another year passes, and we end it with our traditional Christmas puzzles – this year for the seventeenth time. Over the holidays we try to give you something unusual: puzzles that cannot be easily solved with a computer, tasks which require you to think all by yourself. And once again, as happened frequently in the past, we received three wonderfully entertaining problems from the great composer Pal Benko, who wished us and our readers a Happy Christmas.

6/16/2016 – Can computers compose artistic problems? (2)
Earlier this week we brought you part one of Pal Benko's critique of machine composed chess problems. In part two this world famous problem composer shows us further examples and how they can be improved. He also gives us an example of composing together with a computer, "the first time in my life I did not create a chess problem fully in my own mind," and tells us why he has decided to drop out of problem competitions.

6/14/2016 – Can computers compose artistic problems? (1)
Some time ago Dr Azlan Iqbal presented a program, Chesthetica, that was composing chess problems. We published ten examples of three-movers by the machine. Now a leading expert in the subject, Pal Benko, who is one of the finest problem composers in the world, tells us what he thinks about the quality of the computer compositions – and also what are the criteria that make a chess problem valuable.

4/1/2016 – Pal Benko's April entertainment
Our loyal friend, Hungarian GM and problemist Pal Benkö, who at the age of 87 is still composing wonderfully imaginative problems and studies, has sent us four very unusual (and tricky!) puzzles to solve on this auspicious day. We present them to you without solutions, so you have a few days to try and find the hidden subtleties and traps. One thing is certain: Benko never ceases to delight.

12/30/2015 – ChessBase Christmas Puzzles 2015 (6)
This year was the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. Musing over the Napoleonic invasion of Russia, three years before, Pal Benko found a well-known chess problem that reflects the retreat of the French forces and the attacks by Cossack Hussards. It was composed by Alexander Petrov in 1824, but is somewhat flawed. Our problemist friend could not resist improving on it.

7/18/2015 – Pal Benko's birthday problems
On July 14 Hungarian problem componist GM Pal Benkö turned 87. His wife Gisela is 78, his daughter Palma 45, son David 44 and his grandson Adam 12. Why are we telling you this so specifically? Because Pal is celebrating with some wonderful number problems: positions shaped like digits, to share with his family and with problem lovers all over the world. Now with solutions!

7/12/2015 – Pal Benko: Variations on a Kubbel study (2)
Our good and faithful friend, GM Pal Benko, recently explained to us why one of the most famous studies of all time, composed in 1922 by Leonid Kubbel, was not completely flawless – and indeed worthy of improvement. He showed us how the process works, and in today's second part you can watch one of the greatest composers of our generation polishing flawed studies.

6/23/2015 – Valuation: variations on a famous Kubbel study
One of the greatest chess composers in history was Leonid Ivanovich Kubbel, born in 1891 in St. Petersburg, Russia. One of the greatest contempory composers is GM Pal Benkö, born in 1928. One of the most famous studies of all time is a 1922 composition by Kubbel. It is, however, not completely flawless, and so Benkö set out to polish it. He gives us a unique insight into the process.

12/31/2014 – Happy New Year 2015 from Pal Benko
Our friend, famous chess composer GM Pal Benko, got into the New Year spirit by sending us seven little problems to solve. They are all miniatures, requiring mate in three moves. And together they spell out HNY-2015. The positions look deceptively easy, but some have very clever solutions that are not easy to find. All are cook free. With Pal we wish our readers a Happy New Year 2015!

4/4/2014 – Benko: Fun problems to celebrate April 1st
Our friend and world famous chess composer GM Pal Benko got into the spirit of the day and sent us three problems to solve. They look deceptively easy, but you must consider the day of publication and not be fooled by the guile of the composer. We will leave you to work things out for a few days, and then give you the answers which may come as a surprise to some.

3/29/2014 – Pal Benko on Richard Réti’s endgames (2)
125 years ago a boy was born in the Austro-Hungarian part of what is today Slovakia. Richard Reti was a mathematician and world class chess master. Reti was also an endgame specialist who composed some of the most original endgame studies ever devised. Some were flawed, and now, almost a century later, his compatriot GM Pal Benko provides revisions to these studies.

3/26/2014 – Pal Benko on Richard Réti’s endgames (1)
At the turn of the last century an Austro-Hungarian mathematician shook up the chess world with revolutionary new ideas ("hypermodernism"), and with some of the most original endgame studies ever devised. To celebrate his upcoming 125th birthday another great chessplayer and endgame specialist, GM Pal Benko, has sent us some examples of Reti's works.

12/23/2013 – Pal Benko: Secrets of Study Composition (2)
One of the greatest study composers – as well as a former world championship candidate – is our friend Pal Benko, who never fails to send us a special Christmas gift. This year it was an article that offers unique insight into the process of chess composition. We brought you the first part a week ago. Today it is about breaking the pin and avoiding stalemate. And there is a remarkable study for you to solve.

12/17/2013 – Pal Benko: Secrets of Study Composition (1)
There is more to chess than tournament games. The area of chess studies and problems is equally creative and breathtakingly imaginative. One of its greatest composers is grandmaster (and world championship candidate 1959 + 1962) Pal Benko. The 85-year-old author of some of the most famous studies of all time has sent us an essay on the remarkable process of chess composition.

7/15/2013 – The Life Gambit à la Benko
Pal Benko (Hungarian: Benkö Pál) is, as 99% of our readers probably know, a legendary chess grandmaster, author, and composer of endgame studies and problems. He was born on July 15 1928, which made him 85 today. Diana Mihajlova met the fit and active octogenarian, who has been a "pal" of our company for a decade, in his home town of Budapest. Here is part one of her birthday report.

7/18/2013 – The Life Gambit à la Benko – Part two
On Monday Pal Benko, legendary grandmaster, author, and problem composer, turned 85. Diana Mihajlova, who recently met with the fit and active octogenarian in his home town of Budapest, sent us a birthday report in two parts. Today we learn of Benkos escape from Communist Hungary to the US, and his relationship with Bobby Fischer. And we get to solve two highly entertaining problems.

5/20/2011 – Greetings from Pál Benkö for 25 years of ChessBase
"Congratulations to ChessBase on your 25th anniversary! Your news page is the the first thing I look at every day when I go on the Internet. You do such wonderful work. Keep up your great service for the whole chess world." Heartening words from legendary great chess player, theorist, author and problem composer – who in addition sent six anniversary puzzles for our readers.

4/24/2011 – Easter puzzles by Benko – a World Champion challenge
Pál Benkö, 82 and still going strong, is a world class grandmaster, author and problem composer. He is also a faithful friend who periodically sends us puzzles for our newspage. This time, for Easter, he has selected four problems which stumped a World Champion. It is a challenge for you to do better, and win a special prize in the process. Enjoy.

12/30/2009 – Pal Benko improves on Troitzky
In 1856 the great Sam Loyd composed a chess problem, which 75 years later inspired Alexey Troitsky, one of the greatest composers of endgame studies, to create a puzzle with a similar theme. It proved to be flawed. 75 years after Troitzky another great composer, Pal Benko, took up his problem, improved on it and submitted it for our Christmas Puzzle page.

Editor-in-Chief emeritus of the ChessBase News page. Studied Philosophy and Linguistics at the University of Hamburg and Oxford, graduating with a thesis on speech act theory and moral language. He started a university career but switched to science journalism, producing documentaries for German TV. In 1986 he co-founded ChessBase.
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owieczka owieczka 7/18/2019 10:23
Pal, I hope you are doing well these days. I was a boy and friend of Robert Brieger's when we played speed chess in 1974 in Houston. My mother organized the tournament, won by Robert Hubner. It was the only session I got to play with you, but I still recall the flavor of some of the games. Later, we met a few times in New York in Jersey City where you lived at the time. I was a friend of Ron Henley's then, and we had some things in common. Great memories, Pal. I hope life back in Hungary is and has been treating you well. Best wishes - David Babcock
Harry Pillsbury Harry Pillsbury 7/16/2019 09:53
Happy Birthday to a great chessplayer who is a significant part of American Chess history!
gonda gonda 7/16/2019 02:19
very nice article.
Happy Birthday Mr. Benko :)
the druge the druge 7/15/2019 08:14
Happy birthday Pal - it is great that you are still going strong! Incidentally, I saw Burt Bacharach perform for 115 minutes last night in Birmingham, England; he was also born in 1928!
MJFitch MJFitch 7/15/2019 07:21
Happy Birthday Pal Benko!!!...Have a GREAT day!!!