Pal Benko, 1928-2019
Benko at a tournament in 1964. | Photo: F.N. Broers/Anefo.

Pal Benko, 1928-2019

| 81 | Chess Players

The Hungarian-American grandmaster Pal Benko has died at the age of 91. A two-time candidate for the world title, he was also an author and composer of endgame studies and chess problems. The Benko Gambit is named after him.

The news of Benko's death came from the Hungarian-American grandmaster Susan Polgar on Twitter. Polgar confirmed the news with Benko's wife, Ziki. 

The US Chess Federation has also reported Benko's death on its website.

Pal Benko was born on July 15, 1928 in Amiens, France, where his family was traveling from Hungary. Benko did spend most of his childhood in Hungary, where he learned to play chess from his father at age 10. He was also active in other sports.

A happy childhood was followed by a disastrous period for Benko, and one for the whole world: World War 2. About these dark pages in history, he gave the following account himself:

When I was 16 they took me to the army. I was made to dig ditches somewhere on the Austrian border. I deserted and managed to return home only to find that my father and brother were no longer there. They were shipped to Russia as "prisoners of war." Prisoners of war!? They were not even soldiers! Those were the times then. One could end up as a prisoner for any reason at any time. They never saw my mother again, because during their captivity in Russia, she died. My father was let out after a year and a half and soon afterwards he defected to the USA.

After the war ended, it took Benko only a few years to become one of the strongest chess players in his country and in 1948, at age 20, he won his first Hungarian championship. In the late 1940s and early 50s, Benko was second in his country only to Laszlo Szabo. Meanwhile, he was working as a bookkeeper.

Then another bad period began for Benko (“My fall from grace,” as he calls it in his 2003 autobiography Pal Benko: My Life, Games, and Compositions). After playing a tournament in Goerlitz, East Germany in March 1952, he tried to defect to the American embassy in West Berlin, but was arrested by police, brought to Hungary and interrogated for three weeks. The authorities thought he was an American spy.

“During this time I was kept alone in a prison cell—there was no contact with anyone other than the people questioning me," Benko wrote. "Sleep wasn’t allowed and bright lights were constantly in my face."

Eventually he was sent to a concentration camp with very bad conditions, with hardly any food or daylight, for a year and a half. He saw many other prisoners succumb to starvation. While his family thought he had escaped to the U.S., Benko only got out of the camp after the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin died in 1953, and Hungarian president Imre Nagy gave amnesty to most prisoners.

For a while, Benko was seen as a “black sheep” and was denied participation at several international tournaments. Five years after his release, he could finally initiate his desired emigration to the United States. He defected after having played the World Student Team Championship in Reykjavik, Iceland, where he received a visa at the American embassy.

Later, many thought he had been one of the many Hungarians who had fled the country after the Soviets’ harsh response to the 1956 revolution. However, because the quota for Hungarian refugees in the U.S. had reached its limit of 30,000, Benko ended up entering the desired country with his French passport, having been born in France.

As a result, he never received the benefits that other refugees from his country received, but due to the earlier hardships he appreciated the small pleasures of life.

He wrote: “Everything had a wonderful glow to it, the food tasted like nectar and women seemed so beautiful that I had to date as many as possible.“

Having studied economics back in Hungary, Benko initially worked at the New York Stock Exchange. When he qualified for the 1959 Candidates’ Tournament, a year after FIDE had awarded him the grandmaster title, he decided to become a chess professional.

He finished in last place in 1959 (the tournament was won by Mikhail Tal, who ended up beating Mikhail Botvinnik the next year) but did beat former world champion Vasily Smyslov in a game:

Benko qualified for the 1962 Candidates' Tournament, where he finished sixth, behind Tigran Petrosian, Paul Keres, Efim Geller, Bobby Fischer and Viktor Korchnoi, and ahead of Tal and Miroslav Filip.

Here's a win vs. Tal from that event, where he used his pet opening move in those days, 1.g3:

In the 1968 U.S. Championship, Benko won the following beautiful miniature:

By finishing in third place at the 1969 U.S. championship, Benko qualified for the 1970 Interzonal tournament in Palma de Mallorca together with Samuel Reshevsky and William Addison. Fischer had chosen not to play in this national championship, which functioned as a zonal event and therefore was the first step into the 1969-1972 world championship cycle. Claiming that the tournament was “too short,” Fischer effectively withdrew from the cycle. 

Benko felt confident that Fischer had a good shot at winning the title (as opposed to himself), so he decided to give up his place in the Interzonal. This made it possible for Fischer to participate in Palma de Mallorca, win there with a 3.5-point margin and eventually become world champion in 1972.

Reacting to suggestions of having been paid to give up his spot, Benko wrote in July 1975 in Chess Life & Review:

The idea for me to step down and give Fischer my place was my own; it was made voluntarily and without pressure from anyone. I felt that as one of the world's strongest players he should have the right to participate in that critical Interzonal. The U.S. Chess Federation had always treated me well; by my action I hoped to show my gratitude. (The USCF had given me the opportunity to qualify for the Interzonal in Amsterdam in 1964 by arranging a match between Bisguier, who had qualified, and me, who had not. And there have been many other things for which I am grateful to the USCF.)

The figure $2,000 is sometimes mentioned as the price I was paid for stepping down. Actually, that fee was paid, but it was for my services as second to Reshevsky and Addison at that tournament - and it is the same amount I would have received as an appearance fee had I actually played. The only condition I asked for stepping down was for Fischer to agree not to withdraw from the Interzonal or the ensuing matches should he qualify for them - and he fulfilled this condition.

During his career, Benko had become known as the “King of Opens” as he won the U.S. Open a record eight times in the years 1961, 1964, 1965, 1966, 1967, 1969, 1974 and 1975.

He played in seven Olympiads. First, scoring 10/15 on board three (behind the aforementioned Szabo and Gedeon Barcza), he helped Hungary to team bronze in 1956 in Moscow. He played six times for the U.S. in the years 1962-1972. He won silver for board two in Varna 1962 and team silver in Havana 1966.

With the passing of Benko, an era of American team chess has ended. All players who were active in the 1970 Olympiad are gone now: Benko, Fischer, Reshevsky, Larry Evans, William Lombardy and Edmar Mednis.

Over his career, Benko defeated four world champions: Fischer, Tal, Petrosian, and Smyslov. His score against Fischer was three wins, eight losses and seven draws.

Besides playing 1.g3 successfully (he defeated both Fischer and Tal with it at the 1962 Candidates’—the Tal game was given earlier and the Fischer game is right above this text), Benko’s biggest opening theoretical legacy is, of course, the Benko Gambit: 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 c5 3.d5 b5.

In Eastern European countries it was known as the Volga Gambit, and at the time Benko himself called 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 c5 3.d5 b5 the Volga, and 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 c5 3.d5 b5 4.cxb5 a6 the Benko. These days, the opening is often called Volga-Benko Gambit.

The opening became extremely popular and the theory expanded so quickly that the creator himself lost interest in playing it.

“I had created a monster,” he said. “I found it necessary to turn to other openings in the mid-seventies.”

Inducted in the Chess Hall of Fame in 1993, Benko was also an enthusiastic composer of studies and problems, and was awarded the title of International Master of Chess Composition by FIDE.

Yochanan Afek, a grandmaster of composition himself since 2015, said Benko was “very special” in the world of endgame studies: “He composed really good studies, but they were game-like studies. The positions were often natural for over-the-board players and solvers, but by no means they were easy ones. It’s also interesting to note that, compared to other composers, he was pretty accurate in composing. He made studies for most of his life without engines, and relatively few were ‘cooked’. He was a great analyst, and won many first prizes, especially in Hungarian study tournaments.”

Afek provided three of his favorite Benko studies:

Benko also composed problems, such as helpmates (often showing typical chess humor!) and mates to solve. Here’s a famous example, which he composed at the age of 15 but was published in 1968 in Chess Life & Review.

White to mate in three.

Benko was a prolific writer. His column in Chess Life ran just over 46 years, from April 1967 through December 2013. In 2013, he chose to retire, but continued contributing regularly after that.

“He was amazingly easy to work with,” former Chess Life editor, now Senior Director of Strategic Communication Dan Lucas said. “There was no ‘legend diva’ about him. He always submitted his column on time and was always happy to see his material in print. If this class-C editor didn't understand something and questioned him about it, he simply reworded the material until I could understand it. Nor did he care what my playing credentials (or lack thereof) were—he simply accepted me for what I was—the person hired by US Chess to edit his column. He was a complete professional.”

“Upsetting, but it had to come—especially when I realize I may be next in line,” said IM Antony Saidy, a contemporary of Benko. “Making a living from the infernal U.S. weekend Swiss tournaments warped his style, as he came to dominate them. At the top level he was highly positional, but the clock plagued him (an American disease—see Reshevsky, Sherwin, Lombardy, Saidy). Fischer once said: ‘The players have gotten soft on the Botvinnik-Barcza-Benko diet.’"

Saidy: “I like often to quote him at a post-mortem analysis, maintaining the rhythm of the Hungarian tongue, as I suppose he is this hour kibitzing Tal, Gligoric, the Byrne brothers et al on high: "No FOOLing around!”

American GM Lev Alburt, who defected from the Soviet Union in 1979, wrote: “I knew Pal for many years. In the 1980s we played a couple of games, and at some occasions we analyzed together his/our gambit. He was a self confident, well adjusted to the world man. Unlike many other players he didn’t complain being denied the opportunity to reach the greater heights, he wasn’t bitter: even as he missed several of his best years in jail, and then in a larger jail in communist Hungary. Because of our first-hand knowledge of communism, we had similar views on many subjects. I remember one saying we liked: that socialism is a road to hell, and communism a true hell. Pal was a great guy; I—and many others, and chess, certainly—will miss him.”

The former women’s world champion Susan Polgar was close to Benko, and had visited him in Budapest only a week before he passed away.

Polgar said: “I knew it might be the last time I saw him, but I was optimistic that it wasn’t. He wasn’t in great shape, but I didn’t expect this.”

benko with Susan Polgar
Benko with his wife Ziki and GM Susan Polgar. Photo: Susan Polgar.

Polgar described Benko as follows:

When he visited our family in the late 80s and early 90s, he was generous with his time, and never charged a penny. He shared a lot of his brilliant endgames with me and my sisters [Sofia and Judit –PD], mostly the practical ones, also helpmates, which he was very passionate about. We also played a lot of blitz games.

In those years he was living a dual life, spending six months in the U.S. and six months in Hungary. He is the true example of a typical Hungarian-American. He is an icon in both countries.

He was a very generous person, good hearted, passionate. About chess, as a player, a composer, and about about his family, his children, and politics. He had a hard life but made the best of it.

Benko is survived by his wife, two children and a grandchild.

Mike Klein contributed to this report.

Peter Doggers

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