Pal Benkö and the Fischer challenge

by Frederic Friedel
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.

Endgames of the World Champions from Fischer to Carlsen Endgames of the World Champions from Fischer to Carlsen

Let endgame expert Dr Karsten Müller show and explain the finesses of the world champions. Although they had different styles each and every one of them played the endgame exceptionally well, so take the opportunity to enjoy and learn from some of the best endgames in the history of chess.


Pal Benkö and the Fischer challenge

Eight years ago our friend Pal Benko, Hungarian-American grandmaster, World Championship Candidate, author and composer of endgame studies and chess problems, sent us the following three-mover as one of a set of Easter problems.

When Benko sent us the problem he was 82 years old. He told us that he had originally composed it at the age of fifteen. The problem was first published a quarter of a century later. Before it appeared in the magazine Chess Life & Review, Pal showed it to his friend Bobby Fischer, during the Lugano Olympiad of1968. Bobby bet Pal that he would solve it in less than half an hour — and lost the bet.


We urge you to try to compete with the great American World Champion. Move the pieces on the board above and try to mate in three moves. The chess engine will play countermoves against you, and will stop (obviously) when you have mated the black king. You can 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.

Want to time yourself? Click "start" to start the clock.


Were you able to solve the problem in less than half an hour? Pat yourself on the back if you were, and a little hint if you weren't: in Lugano Pal joked that Bobby was not able to solve it "because you never play the Italian Opening, only Ruy Lopez!"

Fischer lost a second wager with Benko. After the latter had shown him the solution he bet Pal that he could find a cook — a second key move — by the next morning.

"I told him that was impossible," says Pal, "and the next day he paid up." In his very entertaining book Joys of Chess (excerpts of which can be found in a number of ChessBase reports) the author, Prof. Christian Hesse, tells the story of the Fischer challenge and writes: "Fischer lost the bet, because Benko's problem had indeed only one single key which delivers mate in 3 moves. A fully paid up, dual-free member of the three-moves club." Incidentally Hesse gives the diagram with the black king on e5, not e4. That does not change the character of the problem, or what we are going to say below.

So what is the delightful key move? If you are done trying to find it you can...

1.Bc4! (the bishop move of the Italian Opening that Fischer never played) 1...Kf5 2.Qf3+ Kg6 3.Qf7# or 1...Ke5 2.Qd5+ Kf6 3.Qg5#.

When he composed the problem (at fifteen, we remind you) Pal knew that it contained a dual. The key move is indeed unique, and only 1.Bc4 makes a mate in three possible. But on the second move, after the defence 1...Kf5, White can play 2.Qf3+ or 2.Qh5 and mate in the required three moves. The author was told by experts: "Forget about dual, it is more elegant without additional material." The purity of the position made up for the dual.

Problemists, fascinated by the position, have been looking for modifications that could make the problem completely dual free. Most recently, Werner Keym, a highly original composer, found an elegant "correction". I am not going to tell you what it is, or tell you how Pal himself masterfully eliminated duals in his problem. Instead we issue a challenge to our readers: fire up your chess engines and look for a modification of Benko's problem that makes it perfectly dual free. Naturally the position must retain the beauty and elegance of the original, and not change its basic character. Submit your suggestions in our feedback mailer.

For the best correction submitted we have a signed ChessBase software program waiting.

This is what two readers got in our April Entertainment article – programs signed by Fabiano Caruana, Wesley So, Viswanathan Anand, Magnus Carlsen, Hikaru Nakamura, Levon Aronian, Hou Yifan, Judit Polgar, Anatoly Karpov, and Jan Timman.

About the author

Pál Benkö, 90 (born July 14, 1928), is a Hungarian-American chess grandmaster, openings theoretician, author and problemist. He became Hungarian champion when he was twenty and finished in first place (or tied for first place) in a record of eight US Championships: 1961, 1964 (in that year he also won the Canadian Open Chess Championship), 1965, 1966, 1967, 1969, 1974, 1975. Benko's highest achievements were playing in the Candidates Tournament with eight of the world's top players in 1959 and 1962. He qualified for the 1970 Interzonal tournament, the leaders of which advance to the Candidates. However, he gave up his spot in the Interzonal to Bobby Fischer, who went on to win the World Championship in 1972.

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. He is an over-the-board GM and also a FIDE IM of chess composition. The only other person we know who has these two titles is Jan Timman of the Netherlands. Pal Benko is also a dear friend who keeps in touch with us regularly, sending problems and puzzles for the ChessBase news page on special occasions.

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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SulemanAgha2009 SulemanAgha2009 7/9/2022 04:41
I figured it out, beautifully composed :) took me 19 minutes
Paul Michelet Paul Michelet 9/1/2019 07:05
An amusing counterpoint to the position is :

8/8/8/4k1B1/2B5/8/8/3QK3. BTM

and after Black moves, White mates in three 1...Kf5 2Bc1! with all the dualfree mates preseved. I mentioned this idea some years ago to Pal and he approved of it.
Green22 Green22 7/9/2019 07:09
@adbennet Well I guess the "joke" went over my head... *shtug*
adbennet adbennet 7/9/2019 05:47
BTW, on iOS I could not login using the form here. I had to use the menu. Perhaps user error, but it could be checked.
adbennet adbennet 7/9/2019 05:44
I did solve it, although it took me maybe one hour. Perhaps someone will be interested in my thought progression. At first I was fixated on using the wK, so 1.Qh5, 1.Qd6. Here already I noticed the idea 3.Qd5# but no way to get there. A ridiculous try 1Kf2. Then various 1.Bf1-moves. Then 1.Bc1-moves. Finally I thought of 1.Qd2!? and within one minute I had it. I always find endings with Qs difficult because of the overwhelming number of candidates. My usual thinking is either positional/plan based or theme/combining based. Qs require some other organization. As noted above I saw the first mate relatively quickly, and only stumbled on the second mate much later. With both mates I was able to quickly combine them in the correct way.

I agree the dual is insignificant.

@Green22 - You quoted the word "joke", and yet ... ?
Green22 Green22 7/8/2019 09:41
Is this a misprint? Fischer played the Italian many times "in Lugano Pal joked that Bobby was not able to solve it "because you never play the Italian Opening, only Ruy Lopez!" BC4 one game for example... i'm sure BF could have found this in 30 minutes!