Pal Benko's last Merry Christmas Puzzle

by Frederic Friedel
12/25/2019 – Every year Pal Benko, grandmaster, former World Championship candidate, and one of the best problem composers in the world, sent us some very special seasonal greetings. They came in the form of chess problems for our readers. Just weeks before his death (at 91 last August) Pal started working on this year's Christmas puzzles. Unfortunately he was only able to suggest the first one, for Christmas Day. It is a problem by Sam Loyd and was supposed to fool our readers (Pal retained his humour and mischievous nature to the end). We share this puzzle with you today.

Komodo Chess 14 Komodo Chess 14

Last year Komodo won the world championship title on two occasions and can call itself "2019 World Computer Chess Champion" and "2019 World Chess Software Champion". And the current Komodo 14 has been clearly improved over its predecessor!


Christmas puzzles

It is the start of our Christmas puzzle week, which we bring you for the twentieth year in succession. Prepare for puzzles that cannot be easily solved with a computer (the point of this endeavour), tasks which require you to think all by yourself. But unlike in the past we will not be giving you a separate installment every single day between Christmas and New Year. Just occasional entertainment during the holiday season.

So the first problem Pal Benko sent for the 2019 Christmas season was at the end of July, in spite of increasing infirmity.

Pal wrote: "Unfortunately my books are not in good order, many of them are in boxes. Anyhow, my eyesight is bad, I cannot see small or pale print."

We had been discussing his very famous problem which had a dual, one that he had recently corrected. For Christmas, he advised me to start with another famous problem, one that looks easy but needs some thinking outside the box.


I am not going to tell you the trick in this problem, or why Pal suggested it. Work it out by yourself. It is not hard and you should find what the position is all about in a few minutes.

Loyal ChessBase readers will remember how we used to greet our readers, on Christmas day — with animated ICQ greeting cards: "Santa's time machine" is still in operation (requires Flash and may no longer run automatically in some browsers) and the lever on the bottom right is to switch to new ages and places

In our July correspondence I told Pal about a young boy who was visiting us and whom I had given the beautiful Benko three-mover. Fischer had not found the solution when Benko showed it to him decades earlier, and of the six super-talents I gave it to in the Kramnik camp in Geneva, only one (Praggnanandhaa) had solved it in reasonable time. But now we had the 12-year-old Dev Shah in Hamburg, and during a walk in our lovely City Park I gave him the position.

Thinking: 12-year-old Dev Shah and his mother Krupali in the Hamburg City Park

Prancing: the joy at having solved the Benko problem!

This boy gave me the solution in just over two minutes. I was suspicious and started discussing it with him: what about 2.♕h5+ on the second move? "Oh," he said and started to think all over again. Within a minute he realized that his solution was sound and that the problem had a dual (which was discussed in this article). I asked the boy if he had seen the problem before, and he said no. I believe him: I tried giving him a puzzle I assumed he knew. Already while I was dictating the position he interrupted and blurted out: "Oh yes, I know that one!" Dev is rigorously honest — no deception there.

In any case this young boy was so delighted with Pal Benko's three-mover that he decided to compose a problem himself. Of course, he did this without board or pieces, right there in the park. He soon came up with two fairly quickly:


I told Dev it was more like a study and I had seen something like it before, especially the final manoeuvre. Maybe you will want to find the solution yourself, dear reader.

Young talent Dev Shah working with endgame expert GM Karsten Müller. Behind Dev is his mother Krupali, next to her my wife Ingrid — we were picking them up for dinner.

Dev doing an Endgame Magic broadcast with Karsten in July

In the ChessBase office GM Dr Karsten Müller, who was tutoring Dev, told him that the idea at the end of his problem was not new. It had been discovered by Polerio in 1590, and it had been used in many problems and studies. But it was a nice fledgling attempt by his student. The next day Karsten had pulled out a number of studies from Harold van den Heiden's database.

Polerio-inspired studies

If you run through these studies you should find the solution to Dev's problem. That evening in the City Park he started composing a second study. This is what he came up with:


Once again you may be interested to try to work this out yourself. It is not a perfect study, and again I had to tell Dev that I had seen something similar before. But I was deeply impressed to see a young boy — a child actually — come up with something as complex as this in his head, without board or pieces, while walking in a park.

So I sent both studies to Pal Benko in Budapest and told him the story. "Can you help the boy?" I wrote. "Remember, you inspired him, you gave him a new hobby: composition." I soon got a reply: "Good effort by the boy!" and a promise to help him make proper studies after these initial attempts. But his general advice was: "Dev is hugely talented and should concentrate on his game. Tell him I gave up problems when I was 16, and started to compose again when I was 40, when I did not have great ambitions any more in the practical game."

Unfortunately that was one of the last messages I got from Pal. His death was an immeasurable loss.

IM Norm

Our 12-year-old has been following Pal Benko's final advice and playing in numerous tournaments. Yesterday, I received a Christmas Eve email from Dev:

"Hi Frederic, I am extremely happy to tell you that I got an IM norm at the Zadar Chess Open 2019 in Croatia." He attached a PDF (click to expand) which certified that he had shown a performance rating of 2461 after eight games.

I asked Dev to send me a nice example of a recent game, and he chose one below. "I have won a number of nice games, but they were slightly unbalanced," he wrote. "This game has a clean finish." The notes in the game are his.

[Event "Pardubice Open"] [Site "?"] [Date "2019.07.20"] [Round "2"] [White "Dev Shah"] [Black "Potapov Alexander"] [Result "1-0"] [ECO "A89"] [WhiteElo "2147"] [BlackElo "2409"] [Annotator "Shah,Dev"] [PlyCount "59"] [EventDate "2019.??.??"] 1. d4 {90} f5 {90} 2. g3 {90} Nf6 {90} 3. Bg2 {91} g6 {91} 4. Nf3 {91} Bg7 {92} 5. O-O {91} O-O {91} 6. c4 {92} d6 {92} 7. Nc3 {92} Nc6 {92} 8. d5 {92} Ne5 {92 } 9. Nxe5 {92} dxe5 {92} 10. Qb3 {92} (10. e4 {is the main move in this position played by many top players.} f4 11. gxf4 exf4 12. Bxf4 Nxe4 13. Bg3 Nxg3 14. hxg3 e6 15. Rc1 exd5 16. cxd5 Kh8 17. Nb5 c6 18. dxc6 bxc6 19. Qxd8 Rxd8 20. Rfd1 {1-0 Yu Yangyi (2759)-Xu,X (2581)}) 10... Kh8 {92} 11. Rd1 { 90 This is not the main line in Leningrad, but there are few top level games.I chose this line as it gave an active position which I liked.} h6 {93} (11... a6 12. c5 Rb8 13. Qa3 h6 14. b3 g5 15. Bb2 Qe8 16. d6 exd6 17. cxd6 cxd6 18. Rxd6 Qh5 19. Rad1 f4 20. Rxf6 Rxf6 21. Rd8+ Kh7 22. Be4+ Bf5 23. Bxf5+ Rxf5 24. Rxb8 e4 25. Rxb7 e3 26. Ne4 Rf7 27. Rxf7 Qxf7 28. Bxg7 f3 29. Qxa6 {1-0 (29) Bacrot, E (2689)-Shabalov,A (2563) London ENG 2016}) 12. c5 {82} e4 {93} 13. Bd2 { 65 This idea is quite known in Dutch can be applied here too.} g5 {92} 14. Rac1 {62} Qe8 {88} 15. Be1 {53} a6 {[#] 87} 16. d6 $1 {52 It is the right time to break according to me as Black has a clear plan of Qh5 and there is some attack.} (16. f3 $5 {I was also thinking of this move in the game as it opens up the position a little.} exf3 17. exf3 Qf7 18. Bf2 $14) 16... cxd6 {66} 17. cxd6 {52} exd6 {62} 18. Rxd6 {52} f4 $2 {62 This is I think the first mistake as Black does not give any threat. It is a non-developing move and and White's attack increases instantly.} (18... Qe5 $142 {The idea is to stop Nd5 and maybe get some time to improve the pieces.} 19. Rcd1 b5 20. e3 $16 {Though White is better his attack has been stopped and he needs to go Ne2-Bc3. Black gets some time.}) 19. Nd5 {49} e3 {39} 20. Rc7 {32 Bringing the rook to the 7th rank!} exf2+ {34} 21. Bxf2 {32} Qe5 {25} 22. Qb6 {31 Bringing all the pieces into the attack!} fxg3 {15} 23. Bxg3 {28} Qf5 {15} 24. e4 $1 {28 An important move stopping all counterplay.} Nxd5 {15} 25. Rxh6+ {27} Kg8 {15} 26. Rxg7+ {28} Kxg7 {15} 27. Qd4+ {28} Kxh6 {15} 28. exf5 {29} Nf6 {13} 29. Be5 {29 } Ne8 {12} 30. Qb6+ {29} 1-0


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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ErrantKnight5 ErrantKnight5 12/27/2019 10:38
It's a nice puzzle. I think I've solved it, using a bit of retrograde analysis. I guess I'll find out next week if I was right.
Frits Fritschy Frits Fritschy 12/27/2019 01:01
Hint: at the end of the year it's a good thing to look back.
ShimmiS ShimmiS 12/27/2019 10:08
Can we get the solution of the study by Samuel Loyd? Thanks!
thehaymaker thehaymaker 12/26/2019 05:29
Nice puzzle. Merry Christmas!
Pieces in Motion Pieces in Motion 12/25/2019 01:13
Nice article and tribute.

Merry Christmas to all. :-)
Frits Fritschy Frits Fritschy 12/25/2019 11:57
The Von Bilguer study is incorrect. After 12 Ke5, Van der Heijden's database gives 13 Kd1! drawing, the point being that square b3 isn't accessible for the white queen. White will first have to take the a4-pawn, but then black doesn't have to play Kc1 after Qb3+, as after Ka1 Qxc2 it's stalemate. Strangely, Van der Heijden doesn't give the immediate 11... Ka1/2, also drawing.