Pal Benko: At Last, Freedom!
Benko in 2005. Photo: Jaapvanderkooij via Wikipedia.

Pal Benko: At Last, Freedom!

| 25 | Chess Players

For Jeremy Silman's article on the early life of Pal Benko, click here.

Pal Benko:

My ticket to freedom was, naturally, chess. First on my agenda was to qualify for an out-of-country zonal. Of course, I didn’t want to play in a Soviet-controlled country! Luck was with me and I ended up in an Ireland zonal. Then I went to Luxembourg for a month giving exhibitions and whatnot, and then Reykjavik, Iceland (it was a better place to actualize my defection) where I was invited to the World Student Championships (I played first board, Portisch was on board two).

The only people who knew I was going to defect were my brother and sister, who remained in Hungary. They gave me their best wishes and, on the way to Iceland, I sent a telegram saying, "My uncle is sick." This was a secret code telling them to clean out my apartment because I wasn’t coming back. 

Thus, in July 1957, I walked into the American embassy in Reykjavik and asked for asylum. The Americans seemed quite happy about it, no doubt realizing that I was a political tool. I gave a press conference and explained why I didn’t want to go back. It almost seemed too simply, but I was free. All that remained was to wait until I was given clearance to travel to the United States.

Pal Benko: My Life, Games and Compositions.
Pal Benko: My Life, Games and Compositions.

New York, New York:

Benko landed in New York in October 17, 1957. Low on money, he rented a room at a YMCA . He asked the USCF for help, but with only 6,000 members they just couldn’t do it. 

Here’s what Benko said about it: 

This chess desert extended far beyond my own life. The U.S. team couldn’t go to the Olympics in Moscow due to lack of funds, and the concept of a chess professional was non-existent. Reshevsky had a job, Lombardy because a priest, Rossolimo was driving [a] cab, and Evans was into all sorts of things. With a heavy heart, I realized that I might have to give up chess completely.

Benko eventually got a good job in a brokerage firm and arranged paid vacations whenever he needed to play internationally.

Here are some quick blips.

1959 Candidates Tournament in Zagreb, Yugoslavia:

I arrived there a week before the tournament started so I could get acclimatized. I didn’t have an early reservation at the international hotel where the event was going to be held, so I found a smaller place to stay while waiting for everything to begin. This hotel officially cost $1.25 a day, but on the black market you could arrange a price of one dollar. Anyway, I was very happy about this price, of course, and then began to search for reasonably cheap restaurants to eat at. Finally someone asked, "Why are you eating out when you’ve already paid for your food?" I was shocked to discover that the dollar a day price included both lodging and food—three full meals every day!

I became acquainted with Fischer at the picturesque town of Portoroz, situated along the Yugoslavian coast. He was just a teenager at that time, a nice kid. Sometimes he would cry if he lost a game, and I quickly became quite fond of him, almost protective. Once I asked him what he wanted to be, and he said, "I want to be an international playboy, just like Benko!" Unfortunately, he was always very shy and never learned how to communicate with women.

The Curacao Candidates' Tournament (1962):

Quite a few things happened in Curaçao (a beautiful island in the Dutch Indies). However, the USCF (specifically, a man named Kasper, who was the U.S. federation official) did a donkey mistake, making other unfortunate mistakes look fine: It sent just one analyst (Bisguier) for both American players. 

But there was a provision (though Benko wasn’t told) that if Fischer needed Bisguier to analyze an adjournment, Bisguier would ignore Benko and just help Fischer. Needless to say, Benko was horrified since he needed help with his game against Petrosian. That created a face-off between Benko and Fischer, with both players getting more and more distraught. 

This is what Benko said: 

I was outraged. During our face-off I was sure Bobby knew what was going on. Unfortunately, in the heat of the moment, with both of us convinced that we were in the right, things got ugly. Bobby got insulting and upset, I got more and more angry, Bobby goaded me, and BANG, I hit him!

Everyone knew I hit him, but when he woke up, Fischer started to rage insanely. He was getting more and more angry, so I hit him again!

Fischer and Tal:

The Candidates' Tournament in Curacao 1962 was very strong (everyone would play four games against everyone else), with Petrosian first, Keres and Geller tied for second and third, Fischer fourth, Korchnoi fifth, Benko sixth, and Tal and Filip 7th-8th.

Why did Tal play so badly? He was very ill and ended up in the hospital! Oddly, the only player who visited Tal was Fischer!

Leave the Past Alone!

Another memory I have of Bad Gastein was meeting a very beautiful young woman during the tournament. She was wonderful, and we spent a lot of time together and became pretty close. As was so typical of those times, we somehow lost track of each other.

Twenty years went by and, by then, I was living in the United States. One day a letter arrived. Amazingly, it turned out to be from her! She told me that she owned a hotel in Switzerland and she invited me to visit. I was polite and sent her a postcard, but a second letter followed where she admitted that she now had four children and was twice her previous size! Again I replied and politely refused her invitation. Sometimes it’s best to leave the past alone.

Reshevsky's Memory:

I acted as Reshevsky’s second in his matches versus Korchnoi and Hort. While preparing for Korchnoi, I visited his home and asked, "Where are your chess books?" To my horror I found he only owned three or four, and they were ones that he wrote! Once I realized just now bad his memory was, I was able to have some good-natured fun with him. For example, I showed him a game once and asked, "What do you think of this game?"

Reshevsky said, "It’s nothing special at all. These guys weren’t very good."

"But Sammy, this is one of your own games!"

Fischer on Tilt

When I went to Hungary to discuss the book, Benko and his wife were both very kind, and Benko told me that we would go to a restaurant that Benko and Fischer liked; Fischer promised that he would meet us there. Sadly, when the time was to go to the restaurant (Fischer was just a block away!) he screamed on the phone, “I refuse to eat with that Jew!” Benko wasn’t happy about that at all!

Benko and I put all the energy we had to create the book about Benko’s life, games and compositions. Believe it or not, it took five years to finish. Once it was available, this massive tome (668 pages) was the first time a book won all three major chess book awards!


Composition One:

White mates in four.

Composition Two:

White to move and win.

First prize, Magyar Sakkelet 1980.


Composition Three:

White to move and win.

e.g. 1989, after T. Gorgiev.

Composition Four:
White to move and win (Inside Chess, 1990).

Notes by Benko.
Notes by Benko.
Notes by Benko.
Benko squashes Robert Byrne.
White has a rook for Black’s bishop. Though White should win, his king is open on the h1-a8 diagonal and, when Black’s bishop gets on that diagonal, bad things might happen to White. How can White stop any nonsense?
Notes by Benko.
Notes by Benko. Pure, wonderful positional play.

I have already mentioned that Benko tossed away rooks (not pawns, not queens, not bishops or knights; just rooks!), though he never knew why. Here is one of those “vanishing rook mysteries."
Let’s see what Benko said about it (all notes from here are Benko’s):

The tournament at Reggio Emilia was a pleasant affair, though I once again conformed to "tradition" and left a rook en prise. This relegated me to second place and left quite a bitter taste in my mouth since I was easily winning the game.
Notes by Benko.

Benko on the Benko Gambit:

I desperately wanted a new opening that would allow me to avoid mainstream theory, and would force my opponents to think for themselves. Looking at the ….b7-b5 gambit idea in more detail, I soon realized that I was onto something! Here was a complete system (against 1.d4) that had no body of theory (thus no memorization!), that was largely unknown (my opponents would not know what was going on), that lent itself well to general ideas and strategic motifs, and that gave black excellent chances in most endgames!

I began testing it in American tournaments with incredible success. In 1967 I introduced the gambit into international competition. Within a few years many player added it to their repertoire and Benko Gambit theory developed by leaps and bounds. Eventually I realized that I created a monster—it was born to help me avoid opening preparation, but now all my opponents entered each game booked to the hilt! As a result, I found it necessary to turn to other opening in the mid-seventies.

Notes by Benko.

Notes by Benko.

Walter Browne had been watching me play the Benko Gambit for a while, but he never showed any real interest in my system. This attitude changed when we were both playing in a tournament in Spain. He approached me and asked if I would teach him how to play this gambit. I accepted and spent time showing him the ideas and variations. He successfully played it for a couple of years, and then he published his games under the name, the "Browne-Benko Gambit." I couldn’t believe my eyes!”


Pal, it was a blast writing our book, Pal Benko, My Life, Games and Compositions, together. And it was lots of fun working as coaches in youth events all over Europe. You will always be remembered.

More from IM Silman
The Downs And Ups Of GM Elmars Zemgalis (Silman's Last Article)

The Downs And Ups Of GM Elmars Zemgalis (Silman's Last Article)

How To Build Winning Chess Positions

How To Build Winning Chess Positions