On Monday August 26, the Hungarian-American grandmaster Pal Benko died at the age of 91. He was a strong player who took part in the candidate tournaments of 1959 and 1962, and also a gifted and fabulously productive composer of problems and endgame studies.
One of my most cherished chess books is Pal Benko, My Life, Games and Compositions, which appeared in 2004. It is a collective effort of Benko, Jeremy Silman and John Watson. Watson wrote 130 pages about Benko’s contributions to opening theory, which were considerable – think of the Benko gambit – especially when you take in account that Benko loved endings much more than openings and claimed to have fallen asleep often while studying openings.
In 668 pages, the book covers all aspects of Benko’s career: his tournaments, his compositions, and his openings, but it is also about his eventful life, his women and his fights. The stories about his fights surprised me, as I had always known him as a friendly and mild-mannered man, with a slightly ironic smile.
But in his preface, Jeremy Silman describes how he first met Benko at a tournament in New York in the early seventies. At the start of the game Benko’s opponent had lovingly pulled out a new and expensive chess set that he had just received as a gift.
But in one of his habitual time scrambles Benko blundered a rook and in his frustration he picked up the board and pieces and flung them across the room, destroying the beautiful set. Silman thought that the man was crazy.
Later in the book, a quarrel about a girl at a swimming pool is mentioned in which Benko apparently almost drowned an Hungarian boxing champion. Then there was the notorious brawl with Fischer during the candidates tournament in Curaçao in 1962, and two years earlier, during a blitz game against Larry Evans, violence had only just been avoided. “You’ll be famous for beating all the best players in the world...physically” had Evans said. But it seems that these outbursts of temper never did cause permanent bad feelings amongst his chess colleagues.
In the book, Benko tells us about a happy childhood in Hungary which was cut off by the Second World War. As a 16-year old boy he was conscripted into the Hungarian army, but he deserted and went into hiding. Then the Soviet army came to bring Hungary a liberation that was to turn sour very quickly.
On the run from the Hungarian army from which he had deserted, and from the Soviet army that tended to pick up wayward males and send them to Russia to work there, Benko found that his father and elder brother had indeed been arrested and sent to Russia. They were to return later, but of course this was not known at the time. Just before his seventeenth birthday his mother died.
Benko became one of the strongest Hungarian chess players. In 1952 he tried to defect to the West, but he was caught and became imprisoned for a year. In 1957 he tried again.
During the Student Olympiad in Reykjavik in 1957 – one could be a “student” for quite a long time in the chess world in those days – he presented himself at the American embassy, where his request for political asylum was granted. After a few months in Iceland, Benko could go to New York, where a few weeks later he joined his father, who had managed to reach the U.S. earlier.
In Hungary he had been Benkö, but in his new country he lost the trema on his “o” and became Benko, just as about half a century earlier Aaron Niemzowitsch had lost his e when he emigrated from Latvia. Though, on my scoresheets of the games we played (+2 =3 to his advantage) he was always Benkö, I’ll stick to his American name here.
Bobby Fischer is quoted as having said during the Interzonal in Portoroz in 1958 when he was 15-years old, that he wanted to be an international playboy like Benko. Benko’s big book has a lot of stories about women. The women come in droves and depart in the next paragraph, leaving no trace in the book and apparently not in Benko’s heart either. But maybe his love life stabilized later on.
During the sixties, the political climate in Hungary had eased and Benko was able to visit the country regularly. In 1968 he married Gizella, a professor of mathematics whom he had already known before he left Hungary in 1957. In Budapest he became a family man, raising a daughter and a son.
At the same time during tournaments, his fellow chessplayers were used to finding him with another constant companion, the Brazilian master Ruth Cardoso, and the situation reminded me of a film I had seen, The Captain’s Paradise.
This captain, played by Alec Guinness, runs a ship between Gibraltar and Morocco. In Gibraltar he is married to a solid English woman and leads a quiet life. In Ceuta, the Spanish enclave in Morocco, he is also married, to a Spanish lady who fullfils his wilder dreams. In his cabin he keeps a two-sided portrait of both wifes that on each trip, half-way through the Strait of Gibraltar, is turned so that the wife who is awaiting him comes into sight. Ruth Cardoso, a very nice woman, died in 2000. She is not mentioned in Benko’s big book.
In 1970, Benko had qualified for the Interzonal tournament in Palma de Mallorca, but realising that he no longer had the ambition to become world champion, he gave his place to Bobby Fischer, who thereby was set on the path to become world champion two years later.
How strong was Benko as a player? His best years were when the Elo system did not yet exist. The chessmetrics site of Jeff Sonas says that his highest rating would make him the world’s #17 in 1958. Undoubtedly his impact on the chessworld has been much greater than that of the average #17.
As far as I can ascertain from the databases, he kept playng in serious events until 2010, but as a composer of endgame studies and problems he remained active untill shortly before his death, combining depth, beauty and fun.
The problem in the game viewer was composed by Benko in 1978 for the 77th birthday of Max Euwe, which was celebrated in Brazil. There was a birthday cake with two chessboards and chocolate pieces that formed an M and an E. Two mating problems: white begins and mates in three. The cake, perhaps baked by Ruth Cardoso, was not allowed to be eaten until Euwe had solved those problems.
The M was solved by Euwe quickly, but the E problem in our game viewer took Euwe so much time that Benko was forced to whisper the solution in his ear. The guests were hungry.
Click here to see the “E” problem by Pal Benko.