Pál Benkö dies at 91

by Frederic Friedel
8/27/2019 – He was a world-class grandmaster, twice World Champion candidate, friend of Bobby Fischer (whose participation in the 1972 World Championship match he directly enabled), inventor of the eponymous Benko Gambit and the 1.g3 Benko Opening (which he used to beat Fischer and Tal). He is also known as the composer of some of the finest endgame studies and chess problems we have ever seen. Pál was also a loyal friend who provided us with countless articles over the last decade. He will be deeply missed. | Photo Diana Mihajlova.

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FIDE announced it this morning:

It is with the deepest sadness that we learnt about the passing of Pal Benko, a two-time candidate for the world title (1959 and 1962), as well as a renowned composer of endgame studies and chess problems. He was 91 years old.

To the chess family, Benko was a historical figure of legendary proportions, whose name and legacy will never be forgotten as long as people keep playing this game.

His love for chess and his contributions to many aspects of the game, from the opening to the endgame, were an inspiration to several generations of players. Very few in the history of the game demonstrated the inextricable link between art and chess quite as he did. He left behind an invaluable legacy, compiled on several books.

Besides, he was a fantastic individual, respected by everybody who crossed paths with him. His personal charm and bonhomie earned him countless friendships among his colleagues.

Short biography

Benkö Pál (Hungarian orthography) was born on July 15, 1928, in Amiens, in France. 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 was a noted authority on the chess endgame and a composer of endgame studies and chess problems. He was an over-the-board GM and also a FIDE IM of chess composition.

Frank Zeller on Pal Benko

The following material is taken from an article that appeared on the ChessBase news page on July 15 last year, celebrating Benko's 90th birthday. You will find the full text here.

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 very active. He was ten when he learned to play chess.

At the end of 1944 the Soviets had occupied Hungary and things got really bad. Benko's father and brother were arrested 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. 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. But his free spirit was not suited for blind submissiveness. In March 1952 he tried to flee the Eastern bloc from West Berlin, but failed. 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 at last free.

When he arrived in the USA the young chess master did not speak a 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. Under these circumstances, Benko began the most successful years of his chess career. In 1958 he qualified for the Interzonal tournament in Belgrade, where he met and befriended the young Bobby Fischer. 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 beat 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.

Boris Spassky vs Pal Benko at the Interzonals in Amsterdam, July 7, 1964. The picture was taken by F. N. Broers and is part of the Fotocollectie Anefo in the Dutch National Archief.

Around this time Benko abandoned the security of his job and became a chess professional — the only American chess professional apart from Reshevsky and Fischer at that time! He became a feared open player, travelling to 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.

Pal Benko and his famous gambit, Budapest 2013 | Photo: Diana Mihajlova

Benko was looking desperately for a new weapon with Black and he found it: the Benko Gambit, which is characterised by the move 3...b5 in the Benoni Defence (1.d4 ♞f6 2.c4 c5 3.d5 b5). 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.

The Benko Gambit is a brilliant concept that fits this type of player perfectly. The strategy is very clear, very easy to learn, Black knows where to put his pieces and has a solid pawn structure without weaknesses. Moreover the 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.

There are a number of DVDs on the Benko Gambit in the ChessBase Shop

But Pal Benko never saw himself as an opening expert. He was a strong positional player with a tendency to get into time-trouble which cost him a number of points and possibly also stopped him from going to the very top. However, he was an excellent blitz player.

Another photo from the Dutch National Archief showing Pal Benko at the Hoogoven tournament in Beverwijk on January 19, 1970 | Photo: Eric Koch

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.

In May 1975 Pál appeared on the cover of Chess Life & Review. One of his final articles for Chess Life, published in August 2018, won him an award for “Special Achievement” from the Chess Journalists of America.

On a personal note

Pal Benko was a dear friend who kept in touch with us regularly, sending problems and puzzles for the ChessBase news page on special occasions. The very first article, as far as we can tell, was sent to chief editor Frederic Friedel in December 2009, as a contribution to the Christmas Puzzle week. Frederic stayed in regular touch with Pal, right until the end. His final message to Pal (regarding a follow-up to this Fischer Challenge article) was sent on Sunday. He received a reply from Benko's wife, who wrote: "Dear Frederic, sorry, my husband could not write to you, because he died on 25 of August." Shocking and sad.

Naturally the article, and many more, will follow. Pál Benkö will not be forgotten.

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.

Trump, Kramnik, Botvinnik, Junge, Benko
1/23/2017 – "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.

Christmas puzzles with Pal Benko
12/25/2016 – 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.

Can computers compose artistic problems? (2)
6/16/2016 – 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.

Can computers compose artistic problems? (1)
6/14/2016 – 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.

Pal Benko's April entertainment
4/1/2016 – 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.

ChessBase Christmas Puzzles 2015 (6)
12/30/2015 – 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.

Pal Benko's birthday problems
7/18/2015 – 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!

Pal Benko: Variations on a Kubbel study (2)
7/12/2015 – 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.

Valuation: variations on a famous Kubbel study
6/23/2015 – 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.

Happy New Year 2015 from Pal Benko
12/31/2014 – 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!

Benko: Fun problems to celebrate April 1st
4/4/2014 – 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.

Pal Benko on Richard Réti’s endgames (2)
3/29/2014 – 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.

Pal Benko on Richard Réti’s endgames (1)
3/26/2014 – 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.

Pal Benko: Secrets of Study Composition (2)
12/23/2013 – 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.

Pal Benko: Secrets of Study Composition (1)
12/17/2013 – 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.

The Life Gambit à la Benko
7/15/2013 – 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.

The Life Gambit à la Benko – Part two
7/18/2013 – 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.

Greetings from Pál Benkö for 25 years of ChessBase
5/20/2011 – "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.

Easter puzzles by Benko – a World Champion challenge
4/24/2011 – 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.

Pal Benko improves on Troitzky
12/30/2009 – 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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