Hungarian-American chess grandmaster Pal Benko has passed away at the age of 91. Pal Benko was one of the world’s top grandmasters in the 1950s and 60s, playing in the Candidates Tournaments in 1959 and 1962 and notching up wins against the likes of Bobby Fischer and Mikhail Tal. He achieved that despite spending a year and a half in a Soviet concentration camp and defecting to the US in 1957. In his new homeland he adopted the Benko Gambit that’s now named after him and remained active into his 90s, focusing on chess composition.
The news of Pal Benko’s death was shared by former Women’s World Champion Susan Polgar:
Pal Benko was the world’s second oldest grandmaster after 97-year-old Yuri Averbakh, and it seems he lived the fullest possible life. He was born in Amiens, France on July 15, 1928, but grew up in Hungary, where his teen years coincided with World War II. By the age of 20, in 1948, he won the Hungarian Championship, while there was a memorable final move in his game against 9-time Hungarian Champion Laszlo Szabo in the 1951 event:
You can replay that game, and all the other games mentioned, by clicking on a result below (the games are listed in chronological order):
Life was still far from easy for Benko, and in 1952 in Berlin he made a first attempt to seek asylum in the West. It failed, and he found himself facing interrogation. Genna Sosonko records Benko’s description of what followed in an article for chess-news.ru:
Having searched my flat, they found postcards with strange letters and numbers: back then I played a lot of correspondence chess. However much I tried to persuade them that those were chess moves they were convinced that they’d discovered some kind of secret code, and they began to beat me even more. But nevertheless they didn’t manage to beat a confession out of me that I was involved in a conspiracy against the Soviet government of Hungary. Finally my imprisonment came to an end and, without even pronouncing a sentence, they sent me to a concentration camp. Although it was only 1952, I managed to see people in the camp who had been imprisoned there for seven years and remained there, not knowing when their term would end. Many died of hunger, and I was also incredibly exhausted, but I was young and strong and survived in the end. I spent a year and a half in the camp among people who were sentenced literally for nothing, until a miracle happened: Stalin died! An amnesty was declared, and I found myself free! Although I was already a master, second in terms of strength after Szabo, they wouldn’t let me play chess for half a year, and then I lived under constant supervision by the secret police. My only dream was to leave Hungary as soon as possible; only chess could help me to escape to the free world. A year later my foreign passport was returned to me and I could travel abroad, though at first only to countries under Moscow’s control. In 1957 they allowed me to represent Hungary in Reykjavik at the Student World Championship. I played on the first board, Portisch on the second, and I played all the games [scoring 7.5/12]. Afterwards I went to the American Embassy and asked for political asylum. A press conference, waiting for a visa and – a week later – New York…
It was in the years immediately after moving to the US that Pal Benko’s career really took off. He finished joint third with Tigran Petrosian below only Mikhal Tal and Svetozar Gligoric in the 1958 Portoroz Interzonal, an event that included a nice demolition of a young Bobby Fischer. That made him one of the eight players in the 1959 Candidates Tournament, and although he finished in last place he came back again to qualify for the famous 1962 Candidates in Curaçao. This time he took 6th place (Mikhail Tal withdrew due to ill health):
One of the things Benko was lucky with in his life was in the naming of chess openings, and 1.g3 is sometimes known as “Benko’s Opening”. He earned that distinction the hard way, using it to beat both Bobby Fischer and Mikhail Tal in quick succession. He stayed true to the opening, playing it in his first 11 games with White in the event.
His most memorable contribution to the tournament, however, was to beat Paul Keres in the penultimate round, a topic covered in depth in Joosep Grents’ series on Keres. Benko had previously lost 7 and won none against Keres but, despite rebuffing a late night offer of help from Petrosian and Geller, he won an adjourned position to end Keres’ chances of qualifying for a World Championship match. Petrosian would go on to beat Botvinnik and become World Champion, while Keres had to play a playoff for 2nd place after Benko controversially lost a won position on time in the final round.
That perhaps still wasn’t Benko’s greatest impact on chess history, however, since in 1970 he qualified for the Interzonal Tournament but gave his place up to Bobby Fischer. Without that gesture we wouldn’t have seen Bobby’s phenomenal run that culminated in the 1972 World Championship match against Boris Spassky.
Meanwhile on the US chess circuit Benko had a problem, which was that his positional style wasn’t ideally suited to the cut-throat opens where you were forced to go all-out for a win in almost every round. One of his solutions was to play the gambit 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 c5 3.d5 b5!?, which is now known as the Benko Gambit in English (in Russian it’s usually called the Volga Gambit).
The popularity of the opening has waxed and waned, but it can still be found at the very highest level – for instance, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave reached the final of the recent Riga Grand Prix by steering his brilliant game against Alexander Grischuk into Benko territory.
Benko finished first in eight US Open Championships, while as a team player at the Olympiad he represented Hungary once, taking team bronze, and then the United States in six tournaments in a row from 1962 to 1972, taking individual silver in 1962 and team silver in 1966. He would later go on to captain both the US women's and open teams, leading to some memorable stories:
As Benko’s playing career began to wind down he focused on other avenues of chess creativity, publishing numerous books and writing regular chess columns. His special focus was on the endgame and the composing of chess studies, which he continued to actively engage in all the way into his 90s. He had some party tricks, including composing studies shaped for someone’s initials:
It was as a composer that Pal Benko perhaps made his biggest impression on future generations of players. During Round 9 of the 2019 Sinquefield Cup Levon Aronian paid tribute to Pal:
And the 13th World Champion Garry Kasparov also joined in the praise:
There are few players below the level of World Champion whose
legacy is so sure to live on after their death. May he rest in peace.
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