They didn’t tell me I’d be writing obituaries when I signed on as US Chess Digital Editor.
So when I saw that Pal Benko had died on August 26th, I slumped back in my chair and began to think. What could I possibly write about a legend like Benko, especially as I had never had the pleasure to meet the man?
And then these lines floated through the years back to me, lines I read years ago in Fred Waitzkin’s masterful book on Garry Kasparov. Here, Waitzkin encounters a dejected Kasparov packing up his hotel suite in New York after a difficult first half of the 1990 World Championship match.
“The last two or three times I had visited, I had brought with me an autographed copy of Grandmaster Pal Benko’s endgame book, a volume that Benko had published himself and which he had asked me to give Kasparov. I believe there were a hundred copies or so in this new edition. Each time I came, I forgot to give it to Garry, or his mood was so bad that I thought that he wouldn’t notice it. …
When Garry came back in the room to sit among the boxes, I handed him Benko’s self-published book, half-expecting him to drop it at his feet. But instead, he started reading. “This is very important,” he said, as he slowly turned a page. Garry’s face softened. He moved his lips and smiled as he calculated a witty move. For the next hour or so, he lost himself in Benko’s book, which contained interesting and instructive endings culled from numerous games, along with Benko’s sharp analysis. Garry was enjoying chess for the first time since the start of the match.”
Pal Benko was an outstanding chess player, an important opening theoretician, and one of the world’s leading authorities on chess problems and studies. But his true legacy may lie in his writing. Benko wrote six books and countless columns published right here in Chess Life. (He also revised and algrebratized Reuben Fine’s Basic Chess Endings, one of the most important books in chess history.) This month we celebrate the words and works of Pal Benko.
Benko’s first book, The Benko Gambit (1973), was one of my first chess books. Or, to be more precise, it was one of the first that I devoured as a young player, scouring the shelves of Long Island libraries in a search for knowledge. I recall how mystified I was by Black’s effortless activity, and at the cost of just one pawn! A notebook, filled with lines cribbed from Benko’s book, is lost to time. Just as well – one wonders what holes the engines would punch in the analysis…
Winning with Chess Psychology (1991), written in conjunction with long-time Chess Life editor Burt Hochberg, is an interesting book with a slightly misleading title. It is not an academic study of chess from a psychological perspective, as one might find in de Groot’s Thought and Choice in Chess, or Krogius’ Psychology in Chess. Instead, readers are given practical advice rooted in Benko’s knowledge of chess history and culture.
The first part of the book, five chapters in all, sketches “the development of the psychological method” with reference to the World Champion, viewing chess alternatively through the lenses of fight, art, sport, life, and war. The remainder of the book offers Benko’s ideas about “chess psychology” in all facets of the game, including openings and endings, draw offers, final rounds, and time pressure. The chapter on women and computers is at once ahead of its time (regarding women) and badly dated (regarding engines).
While both of these titles were good for their time, neither can begin to compare to Benko’s My Life, Games, and Compositions, co-written with and edited by Jeremy Silman, and featuring an extensive opening survey by John Watson.
At 668 pages My Life, Games, and Compositions is exactly what its title suggests: a comprehensive look at Benko’s life, 135 of his self-annotated games, and 300 of his problems and studies. But without Benko’s incredible life story, those 668 pages would “thin soup” indeed. Very few have led lives as rich, for better and for worse, as did Pal Benko, and I cannot think of a chess biography as good as this one.
Benko takes us through his early life in Hungary, his suffering during the Second World War and under Russian occupation. Playing tournaments (literally) to eat, Benko built a reputation for himself, becoming a master in 1945 and an International Master in 1950.
Never a member of the Communist Party, Benko was jailed in 1952 by Hungarian authorities for attempting to defect, and for more than a year and a half he was held in a squalid work camp. Released in October 1953, Benko kept playing chess and looking to the West. He finally managed to defect in 1957 at the World Student Championships in Iceland, and after a few years working in the financial field, he became a “chess professional,” with Fischer (on his telling) being his only colleague.
Gripping as it is, Benko’s tale is told in service to the presentation of his games. And for those of us who only knew Benko as “the endings theoretician” or “the guy who gave Fischer his Interzonal spot,” it may come as a shock to play through Benko’s games and realize just how good he was. A positional player by nature, and of course known for his endgame acumen, he could also mix it up tactically, as his 1951 brilliancy against Korody shows. While Benko says that this is his most published game (55), it does not appear in MegaBase.
Semi-Slav Meran [D47]
1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6 3.Nf3 Nf6 4.Nc3 e6 5.e3 Nbd7 6.Bd3 dxc4 7.Bxc4 b5 8.Bd3 Bb7 9.0–0 b4 10.Ne4 c5 11.Nxf6+ gxf6 12.Qe2 Qb6 13.a3 Bd6 14.axb4 cxd4 15.exd4 Rg8 16.b5? Qxd4!! 17.h3
17.Nxd4 loses to 17. … Rxg2+ 18.Kh1 Rxh2+ 19.Kg1 Rh1 mate.
17…Ne5! 18.Nxd4 Rxg2+ 19.Kh1 Rh2+
The forced mate runs 19. … Rh2+ 20.Kxh2 (20.Kg1 Rh1#) 20. … Ng4+ 21.Kg1 Bh2 mate.
My Life, Games, and Compositions also illustrates the depth and scope of Benko’s compositional efforts. Few auteurs work across the whole of the problem world – mate problems, endgame studies, helpmates, serials and retros – and Benko shows us the full span of his artistry. Here is one of his “Bafflers,” published in these pages in 1994, and while Benko himself preferred more complex compositions, his “lightweight” (620) efforts are both pleasing and practical for we mortal solvers.
(For the answer, in best “Baffler” fashion, please check the bottom of this post.)
This study featured in Benko’s longest running Chess Life column, “Benko’s Bafflers,” which appeared monthly from 1967 through Benko’s retirement in December 2013. But that was not his first foray into chess journalism. Benko’s words first appeared in Chess Life’s September 1963 issue as annotations to Benko-Gligoric from the 13th round of the First Piatgorsky Cup.
Beginning in December 1963, when “Two Wins from Chicago” was published, Benko’s name graced the Chess Life masthead with increasing regularity. “Benko’s Bafflers” helped introduce problems and studies to a broad readership. He took over the “In the Arena” column beginning in 1971, analyzing games (often his own) from important events around the world.
In January 1981 Benko switched gears, inaugurating his “Endgame Laboratory.” It was not Chess Life’s first endgame serial – Edmar Mednis’s “The Practical Endgame” had ended 18 months earlier – but Benko’s work here raised the bar, with a remarkable depth of analysis and clarity of explanation.
Benko always kept his focus squarely on the practical needs of the over-the-board player, and he was ahead of the technological curve, citing endgame databases and computers before it was popular to do so. With examples current and classic, and through his engagement with readers through contests and published letters, Benko made the endgame accessible to generations of Chess Life readers.
Benko’s two self-published collections of his endgame columns, both named Chess Endgame Lessons (1989, 1999), together cover two decades of his work. Both are widely sought after by aficionados. Jeremy Silman once called the first volume “the best endgame book ever written,” and the aformentioned John Watson wrote that it was “one of [his] favorite endgame books.” For my part, the two volumes of Chess Endgame Lessons were on a very short list of titles that, once acquired, gave me the sense that I was a real collector.
Today these books hard to find, and neither I nor (presumably) Kasparov are looking to sell ours anytime soon. But there is good news for those who might want to dip into the vast store of Benko’s Chess Life writings.
It was announced at the 2019 Delegates Meetings in Orlando that, in the interest of our 501(c)3 educational initiatives, back issues of Chess Life were being digitized and released to the general public for free download with a one-year paywall. When this project is completed, all of Benko’s writings for US Chess will be available to anyone with an internet connection. The files are big, so be patient when downloading. I assure you that it will be entirely worth it.
Answer to diagrammed Baffler:
1.Nf7+ Kh7 2.Bh3! Qb5 [2. … Qd5 3.Bg4 Qb5 4.Ng5+ Kh8 5.a3 Qd3 6.Nf7+ Kh7 7.Bf3!] 3.Ng5+ Kh6 4.Bg4 Qxb4+ [4. … Qd3 5.Nf7+ Kh7 6.Bf3!] 5.Kg8 Qxf4 6.Nf7+ 1–0
 Waitzkin, Fred. Mortal Games: The Turbulent Genius of Garry Kasparov. New York: Putnam, 1993. 186-7.
 There is a separate collection, Pal Benko’s Endgame Laboratory published by Ishi Press in 2007, that also contains the first six years of the column.
 Both quotes are from reviews at Jeremy Silman’s old website, obtained via archive.org.