In the popular imagination, he’s perhaps most famous for the tournament in which he didn’t play. Pal Benko, the Hungarian-American GM who turns 90 on July 14, willingly gave up his slot in the 1970 Interzonal Tournament to Bobby Fischer, putting Fischer on track to win his epic world title match against Boris Spassky two years later.
But, as any chess fan who has read his engrossing 2004 memoir/anthology, “My Life, Games and Compositions,” knows, Benko is a titan of the game in his own right with a legacy stretching from the first move (his Benko Gambit in the Benoni Defense has passionate fans at every level of the game) to the last (he is one of the world’s foremost endgame specialists, with his popular “Endgame Lab” column running in Chess Life for more than 30 years).
Throw in eight U.S. Open titles, an uncountable number of ingenious problems and studies, a plaque at the Chess Hall of Fame, a half-dozen books and a host of fans both here and abroad, and you could argue that Benko has left as large an imprint on the American game as any other U.S. grandmaster of the past half-century.
After a Dickensian childhood dealing with the brutalities of fascism and communism in Hungary, Benko settled in the U.S. in 1958, the same year he was awarded the grandmaster title. He has tussled with — and beaten — many of the game’s greatest players at the board, including Fischer, Mikhail Tal, Paul Keres and Samuel Reshevsky. His win over former Soviet world champion Vasily Smyslov in the 1959 Candidates Tournament featured some nice positional play capped by, appropriately, a brilliant endgame win.
In a Kan Sicilian, Benko as White gets the better of the opening play, seizing space on the queenside after 13. Bd2 a4 14. Na5! Qe7 15. b4! axb3 16. axb3 0-0 (unfortunately for Black, 16…Bxc5?? is disastrous after 17. Nxc6! Rxa1 18. Nxe7 Rxf1+ 19. Kxf1 Kxe7 20. Qxc5+) 17. b4.
Black tries a kingside diversion, but his attack is turned aside and his weak e-pawn falls after 24. Ra8 Rf8 25. Qb2! (a nice double-purpose move pressuring the long diagonal and the b-file) Bf3 (effectively ceding a pawn, but even worse would have been 25…f6? 26. b5! Bc7 [cxb5 27. Qxb5 Qc1 28. Bb2 Qb1 29. Qxb7 Be2 30. Nd2 Qd1 31. Rxb8 Qxd2? 32. Qb3+ Kh8 33. Rxf8 mate] 27. Qa2 Be6 28. Rxf8+ Kxf8 29. Qa8+ Kf7 30. Qxb7, and White is winning) 26. Bxe5 Bxe5 27. Qxe5 Qxe5 28. Rxf8+ Kxf8 29. Nxe5 Bxe4 30. Nc4 Nf6 31. Nd6 Bf3 32. Bc4 Nd5 33. Bxd5 Bxd5 34. Nxb7, and White finally cashes in.
All very nice, but this is one game where the best is saved for last: 59. Kh4 (after long maneuvering, White gets the set-up he wants, eyeing the weak h-pawn) Kc7 (Be8 60. b5 cxb5 61. Nxb5 Kc6 62. Nd6 Bd7 63. Kg4 Kd5 [Kxc5 64. Ne4+] 64. Kf4 Bc6 65. Ne4 h6 66. Nxf6+ Kxc5 67. Ke5 and wins) 60. Ne6+ Kd7 61. Nf8+! Ke7 (Smyslov thought White’s idea was impossible, as the knight is trapped, but Benko has seen farther) 62. Nxh7!! Bg8 63. Ng5! fxg5+ 64. Kxg5, and it turns out the White pawns are unstoppable, even with the Black king and bishop standing squarely in the way.
The fantastic finale: 67. h5 Bc4 (Kf7 68. h6 Bh7 69. b5! cxc5 70. c6 Be4 71. c7 Bb7 72. h7) 68. Kf4 Kf7 69. Ke5 Bd3 70. h6 Kg6 71. Ke6 Bc4+ 72. Ke7 Bd5 (Kxh6 73. f7 Bxf7 74. Kxf7 Kg5 75. Ke6 Kf4 76. Kd6) 73. f7! Bxf7 74. h7!, and Black must give up his bishop; Smyslov resigned.
Benko’s many problems and studies display a trademark mix of the rigorous, the instructive and the whimsical. Today’s diagram is a 2015 mate in three composition Benko authored with the pieces forming a “B-for-Benko” shape. Cover the next paragraph if you want to try it yourself.
The delightful solution: 1. b3! axb3 (Nxc3 2. R4b5+! and any of the three piece captures allows 3. b4 mate; 1…Bb5 2. R6xb5+ Nxb5 [or 2…Ka6] 3. Rxa4 mate) 2. Ra4+ Kxa4 3. Rxa6 mate.
Happy 90th, Pal, and keep up the good work.
Benko-Smyslov, Candidates Tournament, Bled, Yugoslavia, September 1959
1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 e6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 a6 5. c4 Nf6 6. Bd3 Nc6 7. Nxc6 dxc6 8. O-O e5 9. Qc2 Bc5 10. Nd2 Be6 11. Nb3 Ba7 12. c5 a5 13. Bd2 a4 14. Na5 Qe7 15. b4 axb3 16. axb3 O-O 17. b4 Rad8 18. Bc3 Bb8 19. Rfd1 Nh5 20. g3 Bc8 21. Nc4 Qg5 22. Bf1 Bg4 23. Rxd8 Rxd8 24. Ra8 Rf8 25. Qb2 Bf3 26. Bxe5 Bxe5 27. Qxe5 Qxe5 28. Rxf8+ Kxf8 29. Nxe5 Bxe4 30. Nc4 Nf6 31. Nd6 Bf3 32. Bc4 Nd5 33. Bxd5 Bxd5 34. Nxb7 Ke7 35. f4 Ke6 36. Kf2 f6 37. Ke3 Bh1 38. Nd6 Bg2 39. Kd4 Bh3 40. Nc4 Bg2 41. Nd6 Bf1 42. Kc3 g5 43. Kd4 gxf4 44. gxf4 Ba6 45. f5+ Kd7 46. Nc4 Bb5 47. Kc3 Ba6 48. Kb3 Bb5 49. Nd6 Be2 50. Kc3 Ke7 51. Nc4 Kd7 52. Ne3 Ke7 53. Nc2 Kd7 54. Nd4 Bf1 55. Kd2 Bc4 56. Ke3 Bf7 57. Kf4 Bc4 58. Kg4 Bf7 59. Kh4 Kc7 60. Ne6+ Kd7 61. Nf8+ Ke7 62. Nxh7 Bg8 63. Ng5 fxg5+ 64. Kxg5 Kf7 65. h4 Kg7 66. f6+ Kf8 67. h5 Bc4 68. Kf4 Kf7 69. Ke5 Bd3 70. h6 Kg6 71. Ke6 Bc4+ 72. Ke7 Bd5 73. f7 Bxf7 74. h7 Black resigns.
• David R. Sands can be reached at 202/636-3178 or by email [email protected].