Pal Benko celebrates his 90th birthday

by Frank Zeller
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 ZELLER offers more details. | Photo: (left) F.N. Broers / Anefo [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons | (right) Diana Mihajlova

Attacking with the Benko Gambit Attacking with the Benko Gambit

Don't give 1.d4 players an easy ride — sacrifice a pawn with 3.b5 for a lasting initiative. GM Ramirez shows you clear ideas for play in every variation.



Today, the Hungarian-American Grandmaster Pal Benko celebrates his 90th birthday. At his peak, from the end of the 1950s to the middle of the 1970s, he was one of the world's best players. But the life of the seemingly ageless Benko who is blessed with a robust physique and still has shining black hair was shaped by early suffering: he grew up in Hungary and the Soviet occupiers put him into a concentration camp where he stayed for one and a half years.

Benko at 85In his monumental biography Pal Benko, My Life, Games and Compositions that appeared in 2003 he says: "Prison camp really makes you appreciate things that you might have been oblivious to before!"

After his term in prison, he decided to enjoy life and found many ways to do so: freedom, travelling to many countries, beautiful women, chess events, his studies, etc. Maybe his interest in all these things kept him young? Never ending joys of life as a recipe for a long, fulfilled life? Why not — it sounds great!

After Yuri Averbakh (who was born in 1922), Benko is the world's second-oldest grandmaster. Two things made Benko particularly famous: he pioneered the Benko Gambit, and he helped his friend and countryman Bobby Fischer to become World Champion by giving his place in the Interzonal tournament in Palma de Mallorca 1970 to Fischer.

Editor's note: Setting the record straight

Two small mysteries emerged while putting together this story, which are worth resolving. The first is the date Pal Benko was born in 1928. A surprising number of sources say July 14th including the US Chess Federation for which Benko wrote a monthly column in Chess Life Magazine for decades:

Incidentally, ChessBase published the same 'S' set of puzzles last Saturday

However, Benko wrote himself in July 2016 that this is not quite right, and in fact he was born on July 15th:

Sometimes my birthday is mixed up with July 14th, though I was actually born on July 15th.

We confirmed his actual date of birth by email with him yesterday.

The second mini-mystery is an important detail of chess history and involves the answer to this question:

Was Pal Benko paid to give up his place in the 1970 Interzonal so that Fischer could play? 

According to Edmonds and Eidinow in Bobby Fischer Goes to War, Benko received USD $2,000 compensation for his withdrawal:

As for Benko, he received a modest payoff from the U.S. Chess Federation of $2.000. Fischer's place in the world championship had been bought for him — and bought cheaply, given the potential rewards.

However, Yasser Seirawan, in his 2010 book Chess Duels disputes this:

Writers have claimed that Pal was paid money to step aside. This is simply not true. Pal stepped aside for the simplest of reasons: he thought Bobby had a genuine shot at becoming World Champion... He was willing to give up his place, but only for Bobby... If Pal had any hopes of remuneration there was but one: if Bobby advanced far in the cycle, perhaps he could be a coach or assistant.

In light of this, we contacted Benko to clarify the matter. His explanation makes it easy to see how the story became convoluted with the passage of time.

Benko says that he went to Palma de Mallorca in 1970 — despite having agreed to yield his spot in the Interzonal to Fischer — just in case Fischer should change his mind and decide not to play after all. His compatriots Samuel Reshevsky and William Addison were each paid $2,000 for their participation in the Interzonal (Fischer was paid more), and the USCF Executive Director Ed Edmondson offered Benko the same. Benko declined, but agreed to stay and serve as a second to Reshevsky and Addison. It was for this service that he was paid $2,000:

"That was my regular fee ($2,000) anyhow to be second of someone", he writes via email.

Benko further notes both that he told Fischer this explicitly at the time, and subsequently put his account in writing in the pages of Chess Life. Fischer never thanked him, reports Benko, but he was later asked to join Fischer's team for the Reykjavik match with Spassky. Unfortunately, he had already committed to play a tournament in Las Palmas (on the island of Gran Canaria), which he said he would only be willing to cancel if he would be serving in Reykjavik as Fischer's second. Fischer was noncommittal, and so Benko went to Las Palmas as planned.

Early Benko

Pal Benko was born on July 15th, 1928, in Amiens, in France. Benko's father was an engineer but in his mind, he was an artist who loved to travel — which explains why Benko was born in France. However, Benko spent the major part of this youth in Budapest, and, as he said himself, he had a good childhood. The young nosy boy liked sports and was active. He was ten when he learned to play chess.


The carefree time ended in 1940 when war and hunger came to Hungary and people had to queue for hours for bread. The allied forces bombed Budapest again and again. In 1944 the Germans invaded, and Benko, who had just turned 16, was forced into the army. But before coming to the front the rebellious Benko deserted. On the following long odyssey, the Soviets once again caught him but again he managed to escape.

Meanwhile, at the end of 1944, the Soviets had occupied Hungary and things got even worse. Benko's father and brother were abducted and had to do hard labour, his mother died, weakened by grief and deprivations. Suddenly Benko was all on his own and had to take care of his little sister. Chess helped him to get food and shelter! During the war, he had practised the game and thanks to his talent he had turned into quite a good player. He was strong enough to play in the Hungarian Championship of 1946. Food was offered as a prize, in a time of inflation the most valuable currency. Benko quickly got better and in 1948, when he was 20 years old, he played his first international tournament in Budapest. A while later he became Hungarian Champion.

His successes spread his name. His confidence grew, not least because he was also physically strong. In his biography he tells a typical story: while he was at the beach with a girlfriend, a quarrel with another boy escalated into a fight. At the end of the fight, Benko pressed his opponent into the water and his rival almost drowned. Days later Benko spotted the following headline in the news: "Chess master knocks out professional boxer on the beach."

A while later Benko qualifies for the Interzonal tournament. He has good chances for an international chess career but Benko feels less and less comfortable in communist Hungary. His free spirit is not suited for blind submissiveness. In March 1952 he tries to flee the Eastern bloc from West-Berlin in a spontaneous attempt — but fails!


Benko is arrested, interrogated, tortured, and without trial put into a concentration camp. A terrible time and a break in his life: he sees how his fellow prisoners get weaker and weaker and sometimes even collapse and die. He does not know whether he will ever leave prison again. But after one and a half years imprisonment he is suddenly released — after Stalin's death, a number of political prisoners in Hungary were pardoned!

Benko's robust nature and his youth helped him to regenerate quickly. He adapted and was careful but still knew that he had to flee the country. Chess, he thought, might help. He had to be successful, he had to become even better to get invitations for tournaments abroad. The successes came, and during the World Student Championship in Iceland in July 1957 Benko grabbed the opportunity: he went to the American Embassy in Reykjavik and asked for political asylum — and was free.

Benko in 1957

Rest day at Portmarnock beach, Dublin, 1957: Pal Benko and Ken O'Riordan | Photo: Joe Keenan /

At the end of 1957, he arrived in the USA. The young chess master did not speak one word of English and had only a few dollars in his pocket, but he had the fortune of the brave: connections helped him to get a job with paid holidays to go to chess tournaments!

The peak of his chess career

Under these favourable circumstances, Benko began the most successful years of his chess career. In 1958 he qualified for the Interzonal tournament in Belgrade where he met the young Bobby Fischer whom he befriended. Both qualified for the Candidates Tournament 1959 and became Grandmasters. The Candidates tournaments in Yugoslavia 1959 and in Curaçao 1962 were the highlights of Benko's chess career.

In Curaçao, Benko opened eleven of his 14 games with White with 1.g3, and since then his name has been linked to this opening move. In the first round, Benko won against Fischer, and he played a decisive role in the outcome of the tournament when he won against Keres at the end of the tournament. Before this game, Keres shared the lead with Tigran Petrosian but Keres' loss against Benko helped Petrosian to win the tournament and to become World Champion after defeating Botvinnik in the World Championship match 1963.


However, in both tournaments Benko finished at the bottom of the table; the players from the Soviet Union were simply too strong.

Benko in 1964

May 21, 1964, in Amsterdam | Photo: F.N. Broers / Anefo [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

Winning one open after the next

Even though Benko failed to make it to the very top in the candidates tournaments he decided to put his faith in chess. He abandoned the security of his job and became a chess professional — the only American chess professional apart from Fischer at that time! But his decision to play chess full-time stopped his ambitions to achieve even more in chess: Benko became a feared open player, playing weekend after weekend in open tournaments all over the USA. The prizes gave him a good income but he had to adapt his style: in open tournaments, you always had to play for a win, even with Black. And your openings did not have to be refined but effective.

Benko was looking desperately for a new weapon with Black and he found it: the Benko Gambit! In 1967 he played his first games with this line. The new concept brought him a lot of success, and his opponents did not know what to do against it. But Benko never saw himself as an opening expert. He loved the endgame and he loved studies and problems. He was a tactically strong positional player with a tendency to come into time-trouble which cost him a number of points and possibly also stopped him from coming to the very top. However, he was an excellent blitz player.

Benko setting clock

Benko in 1970 | Photo: Eric Koch / Anefo [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

The Benko Gambit is a brilliant concept that fits this type of player perfectly: Black's strategy is basically very clear, very easy to learn. Black knows where to put his pieces and has a solid pawn structure without weaknesses. Moreover — endgames are often very promising for Black!

It was a revolutionary concept — a gambit in which you are willing to exchange and that offered long-term, positionally sound compensation. Benko estimates that he played far more than 50 games with his gambit and only lost three of them.

Attacking with the Benko Gambit - Part 2

GM Ramirez completes his repertoire suggestion versus 1.d4 with powerful systems among others against the ColleSystem, Trompowsky or the declining move 3.Nf3. An absolute asset - not only for friends of the Benko Gambit!

A ladies man

Benko never concealed that he was very fond of female company. In his biography that was co-authored by the well-known chess author Jeremy Silman, Benko tells a number of gallant stories. His success as a ladies man provoked envy. Benko reveals how the young Fischer once exclaimed: "I also want to be a bon vivant and ladies man like Benko!" But with a wink Benko says that the chess genius Fischer did not know much about women and did not have much success with the ladies!

When Benko was 40 years old, however, he decided that it was time to marry, and marry he did, with his Hungarian girlfriend Gizella. From then on Benko, who played tournaments all over the world and spent a good part of the year in the US, spent more time in his old home, Hungary.


In 1970 Benko had finished third in the US Championship and thus had the right to play in the Interzonal tournament. But then the US Chess Federation asked whether he would be willing to forego his place in the Interzonal in favour of Fischer, who decided he wanted to make a serious attempt to become World Champion despite having not qualified following a break from tournament chess. Benko did not want to sabotage Fischer's ambitions and he was realistic enough to see that Fischer had much better chances than he did. He also would have liked to accompany Fischer as a second in Reykjavik, although ultimately Fischer went with the late William Lombardy.

As he grew older, Benko gradually withdrew from tournament chess and focused on his great love and passion: composing studies and chess problems. In this field, too, he is considered to be world class.


Move the pieces on the live diagram or review the solution below

Benko in 2013

Benko in Budapest in 2013 | Photo: Diana Mihajlova


Translation from German: Johannes Fischer


Frank was born in 1969 and hails Giengen, Germany. He has been an International Master, chess journalist and author since 2001. In the German League he plays for Schwäbisch Hall.


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