Problem chess with Pal Benko

by Frederic Friedel
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.

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On Christmas day I published an article on helpmates. It included a description of a problem I had composed in 2002, as an amateur, and the process that led to the final version. My initial attempt had produced a nice helpmate, but it had a number of cooks — alternate solutions that were not intended. I found a remedy and in the end was able to publish a sound problem (given in the above article).

I received a number of comments, including a very nice one on Boxing Day by Noam Elkies, who showed me how I could use a massive internet database of problems to check compositions. A few days later I got another overwhelming letter, this time from Pal Benko, one of my oldest and most cherished friends. Pal wrote:

Hi Frederic, congratulation for your article. Your problem is a nice model mate. But you could have started with the white pawn on h2 instead of h4. In that case it would be 1.h2-h4 and a complete Excelsior. It would be even better if you work out a version that starts h2-h3. In any case you just have to indicate that it is White to move.

I replied to Pal that I was devastated — that I had not thought of this myself. I spent some time looking for a version with the pawn on h2 and the first move being h2-h3. But I didn't believe that it is possible, and so I simply took Pal's advice and moved the pawn to h2. This is what the problem looked like (full replayable diagrams are at the end of this article):


The solution: 1.h4 Rc5 2.h5 Re6 3.h6 Kc6 4.h7 Kd6 5.h8=Q Rc6 6.Qd4# (move the pieces on the board above to execute the mate). I believe this version is interesting and valid. Experts may check it with solving programs (which I do not have) — I don't believe there is a deviation in any move that can lead to mate in six. My thanks to Pal Benko for helping me create an Excelsior — it is probably the only one I will manage in this life.

I sent this to Pal and he replied, saying "Actually I prefer to make my problems as close to a real game as possible. For me, the white king would be better on e1, not d8." I spent a short while thinking about this and came up with the following position:


The intended solution is 1.h3 Rd4 2.h4 Rf5 3.h5 Kf3 4.h6 Ke3 5.h7 Rf3 6.h8=Q Rd3 7.Qe5#. But there are move order duals, e.g. 1...Rf4 2.h4 Rd5 3.h5 Rd3 4.h6 Kf3 5.h7 Ke3 6.h8=Q Rf3 7.Qe5#; and 3...Rd3 4.h6 Kf3 5.h7 Ke3 6.h8=Q Rf3 7.Qe5#. I spent some time pondering this and came up with a genius solution (I thought): put a black pawn on e5 to prevent the rooks from switching places:


Now the solution is 1.h3 Rd4 2.h4 Rf5 3.h5 Rd3 4.h6 Kf3 5.h7 Ke3 6.h8=Q Rf3 7. Qxe5#. A full Excelsior including the 1.h3 step! Spectacularly beautiful, right? Unfortunately, there are still some minor move order duals in the solution: Black can continue 3...Kf3 4.h6 Rd3 (instead of 3...Rd3 4.h6 Kf3) and 4...Ke3 in this line. But much more seriously: Werner Keym's problem checking software revealed that there were mates in seven after 1.Kd1, 1.Kd2 and 1.Ke2 (they are given in the replay board below). "Many-move helpmates are notoriously difficult to construct without cooks and duals," he wrote. "Without solving software it is almost impossible to get a correct problem."

So what to do? The indefatigable Benko went to work and after a few days provided the following position, which uses black pawns instead of rooks:


This is indeed a full Excelsior, with no cooks or duals (as Werner Keym has confirmed): 1.e3! Kf7 2.e4 Ke6 3.e5 Kd5 4.e6 c3 5.e7 Kc4 6.e8=Q Kb3 7.Qb5#. I am stunned by the beauty of the first move: after 1.e4? Kf7 2.e5 Ke6 the mating position cannot be achieved in time. White simply has to start with 1.e3!

I bow to the master, and now vividly understand the difference between him and an amateur like myself. In closing, I invite our readers to solve another problem Pal sent — a real challenge:


Come on, just five pieces and three moves to make (right here, on the diagram above). How can it be that difficult? Well, Benko tells us that it baffled the greatest players in the world: "Botvinnik, Keres and Geller could not solve it in an hour, and similarly Fischer, who liked helpmates, lost a bet on it. Only Reshevsky was able to do it in about half an hour." At the time Pal also sent the problem to his wife, who composes helpmates. "Her colleagues and students in the Math Department worked on it. It took a full week for someone to find the solution."

Hint: the final position is a model mate, i.e. the king and all flight squares are each attacked by just one piece. I ask our readers to please not post any solutions in the feedback section below. That would spoil the fun for so many other visitors. Instead, write to us, give your solution, and tell us how you found it (and how long it took). Amongst all submissions, we will draw a winner who will get a ChessBase software DVD signed by at least one World Champion.

Replay all problems from this article

About GM and problemist Pal Benkö


Pál Benkö, 90, is a Hungarian-American chess grandmaster, openings theoretician, author and problemist. He became Hungarian champion when he was 20 and finished in first place (or tied for first place) in eight US Championships, a record: 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.

As we have learned (in the magazine New in Chess 2016#2) Benko actually struck the 19-year-old Bobby Fischer during the 1962 Candidates tournament in Curaçao during an argument over the services of GM Arthur Bisguier during adjourned games. Pal called Bobby a selfish pig, and Bobby said equally nasty things to Pal, who told him not to repeat that. When he did, "I hit him. The next day I regretted it and from that moment on I could not play against him." (Benko had beaten Fischer in the first round of that tournament). "I should not have hit him," says Benko. Miraculously the incident did not destroy their friendship – Fischer continued to revere, admire and respect Benko till the end of his life.

Some earlier ChessBase articles by and about Pal Benko

Happy 90th Pal Benko and eleven twins solutions
7/15/2018 – On his 90th birthday, which we celebrated with a major biographical article earlier today, we add to the congratulations: Happy 90th, Pal, please stay with us as long as you can, and remain as incredibly creative as you still are. It is also appropriate to present our readers with the solutions to Benko's record-breaking twin problems, which turned out to be harder than expected.

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

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. | Photo: Diana Mihajlova

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. | Photo of Benko: Diana Mihailova

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.

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. The prize winner of the Nihal Sarin puzzle will follow shortly.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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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