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John Henderson
By John Henderson

It is the end of an era with the sad news that the Hungarian/American grandmaster, Pal Benko, has died recently in Hungary at the age of 91. Born in Amiens, France, in 1928, Benko grew up in Hungary, but for more than half a century lived and represented the United States, becoming a two-time candidate for the world title, played in seven Olympiads and won a record eight US Open titles before he retired from active play and returned to his homeland.

Apart from being a world-class player – with victories over Smyslov, Tal, Petrosian, Fischer (3-times!), Kortchnoi and Keres to his name – the multifaceted and multilingual World Chess Hall of Famer was also an authority on the endgame, world-renowned endgame composer and a leading theoretician of the game. Yet despite all of Benko’s accolades and writings throughout his long career, arguably he will be best remembered for magnanimously ceding his world championship cycle qualifying spot in 1970 to close friend Bobby Fischer. The rest being history, as they say, as Fischer went on to beat Boris Spassky in 1972 to become world champion.

Despite passing his place to Fischer, Benko himself played in the candidates’ tournaments for the world championship in 1959 and 1962, falling well short on both occasions. He might have lost his best chance to contest for the title because he spent several years in prison in the early 1950s for trying to emigrate to the West. At the end of the 1957 World Student Team Championship in Reykjavik, Iceland, Benko skipped away from the Hungarian team as they headed to the airport, and was granted asylym at the US Embassy. He soon settled in the US, where he lived for decades before returning home, though still remained active in chess right up to his final days by writing his popular Chess Life endgame column and composing remarkable problems and endgame studies.

As a theoretician, Benko became an eponym by honing 1 d4 Nf6 2 c4 c5 3 d5 b5!? into a fearsome weapon that was named after him. The original name of the opening was the Volga Gambit – after the Volga River – following an article written by B. Argunow about 3…b5!? that appeared in Schachmaty in USSR magazine of 1946. But with Benko’s reworking of the gambit, it shot to fame and popularity at club-level by the end of the 1960s and early 1970s as a fierce attacking weapon for Black – and Benko himself led the charge by using it to great effect in his many big US Swiss victories during this period.

Through his rich and often turbulent life, one of Benko’s most satisfying artistic pastimes has been the creation of chess problems (specializing on helpmate themes) and endgame compositions. One of Benko’s most famous helpmate examples, which he composed at the age of 15 but was only published in 1968 in Chess Life & Review, even stumped Fischer, who lost a series of wagers over. In today’s diagram, it is White to play and mate in three moves – but at the Lugano Olympiad of 1968, just prior to the study being published, Benko made a bet with the future world champion that he couldn’t solve it in under 30 minutes. The time ran out, and a frustrated Fischer demanded to see the solution – but when Benko did reveal it, Fischer unwisely made a second wager that “other solutions” had to exist. Weeks passed, and Fischer couldn’t find any, so he had to pay Benko for losing both bets! (See if you can do better than Fischer by finding the mate-in-3 – the solution can be found under today’s game).

Benko’s acclaimed biography, co-authored with IM Jeremy Silman, Pal Benko: My Life, Games and Compositions, is not only wonderfully entertaining and instructive but also the 2004 Chess Book of the Year. His co-author explained that he wanted to collaborate on a biography of a man whom he “admired, who was part of chess history, who played many beautiful games, and who lived a colorful life that transcended mere chess concerns – life and death struggles, sexuality, financial stability etc.”

Like many US stars, Benko labored in Fischer’s giant shadow; but here was a talented player who was equally capable of some world-class play, including an almost Fischeresque takedown of fellow GM Arthur Bisguier in the 1963/64 US championship in New York – yet despite it being among the best of Pal, it was overshadowed by Fischer’s unprecedented 11-0 perfect winning score!

Photo: RIP GM Pal Benko (1928-2019) | Collection of the World Chess Hall of Fame; gift of Raquel Browne

GM Arthur Bisguier – GM Pal Benko
US Championship 1963/64
Grünfeld Defence
1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 d5 4.Nf3 Bg7 5.Qb3 dxc4 6.Qxc4 0-0 7.Bf4 c6 8.e4 Not only similar to the famous Byrne-Fischer “Game of the Century” in its sacrificial execution from eight years earlier, but also with the same opening moves! 8…b5 In the aforementioned fabled Byrne-Fischer game, Fischer played 8…Nbd7 with the knight going to b6 – but the move Benko played had long been recognized as a good move. 9.Qd3 Qa5 10.Be2 b4 11.Nd1 c5 12.0-0 More solid was 12.d5 Ba6 13.Qe3 Bxe2 14.Qxe2 Qa6 (Risky is 14…b3+ hoping for 15.Nc3? Nxd5! with a big advantage, as the simple 15.Nd2! looks very good for White.) 15.Nd2! Qxe2+ 16.Kxe2 with equality. 12…Ba6 13.Qc2 cxd4 Also interesting is 13…b3!? but after 14.Qc3 the mutual hanging pieces keeps the balance in the game, where after 14…Qxc3 15.Nxc3 cxd4 16.Nxd4 Nxe4! 17.Bxa6 Nxa6 18.Nxe4 Bxd4 19.axb3 Nc5 20.Nxc5 Bxc5 21.Rfe1 Black has a slight advantage, but the game is heading towards a draw. 14.Nxd4 Rc8 15.Qb1 Nh5! 16.Nb3 Bisguer has found himself walking right into a tactical trap Benko had foreseen. And there’s no turning back now, as 16.Bxa6 Qxa6 17.Be3 Bxd4 18.Bxd4 Nf4 19.Be3 Ne2+ 20.Kh1 Rc1! 21.Bxc1 Nc3! is winning. 16…Nxf4!! Benko charges on with his inspired Fischer-like queen sacrifice. But when the dust eventually settles, Benko emerges with the material advantage after a series of clever forced trades. 17.Nxa5 Nxe2+ 18.Kh1 Rc1! The queen is trapped, but kudos to Benko who had to have seen well in advance all the tactical steps through to the end of the game. 19.Qxc1 Nxc1 20.Rxc1 Bxf1 21.Rc8+ Bf8 22.Ne3 Ba6 23.Rd8 It is still not easy, but Benko shows impressive technique as he unravels to bring home the win. 23…e6! The simplest and the best. 24.Ng4 There’s no hope now from Bisguier. If 24.Nc6 Nxc6 25.Rxa8 f5! and the bishop-pair will soon dominate the lone rook. 24…Kg7 25.e5 Be7 26.Re8 Bg5 27.h4 Bxh4 28.g3 Bb5! A nice touch, with a timely re-routing of the bishop that soon forces Bisguier into resignation. 29.Nf6 Typically though, Bisguier goes down with a flourish rather than meekly with 29.Rc8 Bd7 30.Rc7 Bd8! 31.Rc5 Na6 and a further loss of material. 29…Bxe8 30.Nxe8+ Kf8 31.Nc7 Bd8 0-1 Bisguier resigns, faced with not just losing the Na5 but also the knight on a8, which will be trapped and falling to Kf8-e8-d8-c8-b7xa8.

Benko/Fischer diagram solution: 1.Bc4 Ke5 [1…Kf5 2.Qf3+ Kg6 (2…Ke5 3.Qf4#) 3.Qf7#] 2.Qd5+ Kf6 3.Qg5#

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