The Early Life Of Pal Benko
Benko at a tournament in 1964. | Photo: F.N. Broers/Anefo.

The Early Life Of Pal Benko

| 39 | Chess Players

Pal Benko was born July 15, 1928 and died August 25, 2019 at the age of 91. Instead of throwing endless games at you (okay, okay…I will throw you a lot of games), I first want you to understand Benko’s personality and who Benko really was.

Benko was extremely creative, had a great sense of humor and was a fantastic chess player. Benko never shied away from what he believed was right; he was clearly a man’s man.

The first time I got close to Benko was more than 25 years ago in a very strong tournament in New York. We were sitting at our boards, side by side. I can’t remember whom I was playing, but I do remember Benko’s game; his opponent had brought a very expensive board and pieces, and in the middle of the game Benko blundered and lost a whole rook. Pal went berserk, grabbed the board and pieces, and destroyed it by throwing it across the room.

I remembered that he was known to blunder rooks quite often, but he almost never gave away other pieces and pawns. Years later, when we were friends, I ask him about the “giving the rook” thing. He laughed,  andsaid he indeed tossed away rooks, but he never knew why he did it.

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

Every chess lover knows that Benko was one of the best players in the world, and yes, everyone knows (or should know!) that Benko gave up his earned spot in the world championship interzonal tournament to Bobby Fischer so Fischer could compete for the title (and as we all know, thanks to Benko’s kindness, Fischer went on to beat Boris Spassky and gain the world championship). 

Stepping aside from Benko’s chess, he also experienced many adventures (be them good or unfortunate). Here are some of them.

Starving Benko at 12 Years Old

Everything was fine before 1940, but then my whole world turned to hell. The war hit Hungary hard. Food shortages left everyone starving, and ration cards became a necessity. I still remember the bread lines; thousands of people would begin lining up at midnight for a loaf of bread that was only passed out at 7 A.M.

The lack of food wasn’t the only problem. There was no coal to heat the schools, so everyone stayed home throughout the colder times of year. A city wide infestation of lice also made things unpleasant, since in those days we didn’t have anti-louse medications (very, very hot saunas and washing one’s clothes in scalding water was the only way to eradicate the little monsters). Then, as if famine and parasites and freezing to death were not enough, the Americans started to bomb Budapest relentlessly.

16th Birthday, Hello Chess

I accepted an invitation to my first real chess tournament. It was an 18-player event that featured 10 masters, seven candidates, and me. Clearly, I was expected to come in last (All the more so since, going into this event, I had never played a tournament game against a master!), but I surprised everyone by winning first prize, and because of this I was awarded the master title. I still have the diploma on my wall today.

Chess Player Beats Boxer!

Benko was 20 years old and was with his girlfriend on the beach. Unfortunately, a professional boxer was also dating Benko’s girlfriend! The boxer and the boxer’s friends tried to rough up Benko, and both the boxer and Benko fell into the pool. The boxer tried to hit him, but Benko (who was very strong) just grabbed the boxer and held him underwater until he passed out. When he got back to home, he read this in the newspapers: “Chess master beats up professional boxer on the beach.” In the newspaper story, it said that chess players might be tougher than people thought!

Concentration Camp

In 1952 Benko had enough of what was going on with Hungary and he tried to escape. Unfortunately, he failed and was arrested, interrogated (they even looked at his postal games and thought it was code), and finally tossed into a concentration camp where he was supposed to stay for the rest of his life.

This is what Benko said about that period:

The ‘camp’ — a large, dark building — had many small rooms, each of which was crammed with 20 or more people. The windows throughout the building were all blackened, and no sunlight was ever allowed to seep in. The victims inside had no idea of time — if someone got sick they were ignored and left to die, and if their teeth went bad we would just pull them out. While I was there, many succumbed to starvation, and I remember one unfortunate man who became so depressed that he tried to commit suicide by swallowing spoons and anything else he could get down his throat. Sadly, the poor bastard survived, but was in constant agony as the swallowed objects ate through his insides.

At that time, normal citizens were having trouble finding proper food. Not wishing to waste what little existed on scum like us, we were given old bread and meager amounts of stinking slop, the likes of which most dogs would gag at. Somehow I only lost 20 pounds, but I was young and very strong and he allowed me to survive. Nevertheless, is life in hell really a life at all? Looking into the endless gloom, one would see walking ‘skeletons’ hobbling by, and many of these bags of bones would simply drop dead of starvation — one moment a live human being, the next a rotting corpse that we would be forced to step over.

I had been living like a diseased troll for a year and a half when a miracle occurred: Stalin died! Shortly after that, President Nagy, who wanted to test the Soviet’s tight control, gave amnesty to most prisoners. When I got out, I stayed with my brother. Everything had a wonderful glow to it, and the food tasted like nectar.


Benko loved to make compositions. Here are three of them.

Composition One:

White Mates in Three

Composition Two:

White Mates in Three


Composition Three:

White to move and win




A Tiny Tactic


The Power of Space


Don't Trust a Simple Glance



Notes by Benko



Little Tactics End Black's Dreams


Notes by Benko



Who is Winning?


Notes by Benko



Notes by Benko



Notes by Benko

Check back in October for the next article: At Last, Freedom!

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