- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 3, 2019

The blessing/curse — “May you live in interesting times” — just may have been conceived with Pal Benko in mind.

The storied Hungarian American grandmaster and problemist, who died last week at the age of 91, lived such a full life at and away from the chessboard that one column cannot begin to do justice to his ordeals and achievements.

Consider: Before he even began a 60-year career in the U.S. as a competitor, problem composer, coach, opening and endgame authority and magazine columnist, Benko had already lived through the hardships of World War II (he deserted from the army at 16, while his father and brother spent time in a Soviet prison camp), won the Hungarian national championship at the age of 20, and later spent 16 months in a brutal prison after a first, failed effort to defect to the West in 1952.

Ironically, he’s best known to the general public for the games he didn’t play — generously giving up the slot he earned in the 1970 Palma de Mallorca interzonal tournament to Bobby Fischer, setting Fischer on the path to his world title win over Boris Spassky two years later.

“The U.S. Chess Federation had always treated me well; by my action I hoped to show my gratitude,” Benko recalled later.

But make no mistake — Benko was a world-class talent and chess polymath in his own right, winning Olympiad medals with both Hungary and the U.S., capturing eight U.S. Opens, playing in two candidates’ cycles, and notching wins over such greats as Fischer, Mikhail Tal and Vasily Smyslov.

One of his best victories — over GM Arthur Bisguier at the 1963-64 U.S. Championship tournament — plays out like a Benko problem, witty, educational and lucidly accurate in all phases. (It would have won the event’s brilliancy prize had not Fischer — who famously went 11-0 in the tournament — not played his own immortal win over Robert Byrne four rounds earlier.)

Benko aggressively plays the Black side of this Grunfeld aggressively from the get-go, and finds a Fischer-like combination to cash in: 14. Nxd4 Rc8 15. Qb1 Nh5!! (an anti-positional move; White’s bishop on f4 and knight on d4 both hang, but Bisguier probably thought he had things in hand) 16. Nb3 (Bxh5 Qxh5 17. Nf3 Bxf1 wins material) Nxf4!!, simply ignoring the attack on the queen.

White has no choice but to plow forward with 17. Nxa5 Nxe2+ 18. Kh1 Rc1! (the White queen is trapped but the struggle is by no means over) 19. Qxc1 Nxc1 20. Rxc1 Bxf1 21. Rc8+ Bf8. White is a full piece down but Black’s position will be hard to unravel. Benko must have relished the tricky, problem-like task before him.

There followed 22. Ne3 (a key point here is 22. Nc6 doesn’t work because of the remarkable 22…Nxc6 23. Rxa8 Ba6! (now it’s White’s rook on a8 that doesn’t have an escape route) 24. Ne3 f6! 25. Nd5 Bb7 26. Re8 — the only safe square on the back row — Kf7 27. Nc7 a5, and White’s pieces are frozen in the endgame) Ba6 23. Rd8 e6, and White’s rook still has no escape hatch.

One more tactical touch seals the deal: 27. h4 Bxh4 28. g3 (desperately trying to get the Black bishop off the h4-d8 diagonal) Bb5! 29. Nf6 (Rc8 Be7 30. f3 Bd7 31. Rc7 Bd8 and wins) Bxe8 30. Nxe8+ Kf8 31. Nc7 Bd8! and White resigned. After 32. Nxa8 Bxa5, it’s the White knight which is now trapped on a8 and the ending is hopeless.

We can’t close without at least one Benko problem from today’s diagram, one that characteristically instructs as it delights. We’ll dispense with the bogus “Try to solve it on your own” admonition, though cover up the next paragraph if you’re so inclined to try to find the forced mate in eight moves.

The instructional point here is that White has a won ending with just the knight on h6, so some fiendishly clever housekeeping is in order: 1. Na2!! Kxa2 2. Be6+ Ka1 3. Ba2!! Kxa2 4. Nf5 Ka1 5. Nd4 Ka2 (a2 Nb3 mate) 6. Ne2 Ka1 7. Nc1 a2 8. Nb3 mate.

For those wanting to learn more of his colorful and event-filled life, Benko’s own “Pal Benko: My Life, Games and Compositions” is one of the most readable chess autobiographies/anthologies on the market. Another good appreciation of Benko’s life, talent and influence can be found on chess.com.

Bisguier-Benko, 16th U.S. Championship, New York, December 1963

1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 g6 3. Nc3 d5 4. Nf3 Bg7 5. Qb3 dxc4 6. Qxc4 O-O 7. Bf4 c6 8. e4 b5 9. Qd3 Qa5 10. Be2 b4 11. Nd1 c5 12. O-O Ba6 13. Qc2 cxd4 14. Nxd4 Rc8 15. Qb1 Nh5 16. Nb3 Nxf4 17. Nxa5 Nxe2+ 18. Kh1 Rc1 19. Qxc1 Nxc1 20. Rxc1 Bxf1 21. Rc8+ Bf8 22. Ne3 Ba6 23. Rd8 e6 24. Ng4 Kg7 25. e5 Be7 26. Re8 Bg5 27. h4 Bxh4 28. g3 Bb5 29. Nf6 Bxe8 30. Nxe8+ Kf8 31. Nc7 Bd8 White resigns.

⦁ David R. Sands can be reached at (202) 636-3178 or at dsands@washingtontimes.com.

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