Person of day - 15 JULY 2021
Pal Benko was born in France, but his family soon moved to Hungary. Pal’s parents played chess and some sources even claim that Benko’s birth certificate stated his name was Pal Charles- after the great Murphy.
Hungary was teeming with chess activity, which sped up the junior’s progress. While Benko was a secondary player during the first national championships in post-war Europe, he came first in 1948. Pal was called up for the Hungarian team, which won the Balkan Games by a hefty margin, overtaking a strong Yugoslav team. In the Budapest-Moscow match in 1949, he won 7 points out of 16 against eight Soviet grandmasters and received glowing reviews in the European press. In a friendly match between Hungary and the USSR in 1955, Pal drew against Keres twice, lost 0,5:1,5 to Petrosian and Bronstein and won 1,5:0,5 against Ilyvitsky and Mikenas. In 1956, Benko won bronze in the Moscow Olympiad with the Hungarian team.
In 1956, the Soviet Army suppressed the Hungarian Revolution and deposed Imre Nagy. One year later, Pal Benko, having just qualified for the inter-zonal tournament from the European zonal one, decided to emigrate to the US. The move invigorated the Hungarian master further- in Portoroz, Pal played wonderfully and split 3rdplace with Petrosian, which made him a grandmaster and ensured his qualification for the candidates’ tournament.
Pal Benko came last in the candidates’ tournament, but this ill-fortune did not break him. Pal won the 1961 US championship, split 4th-6th places in another inter-zonal tournament and qualified for another candidates’ tournament after an additional match-tournament against Stein and Gligoric. At that 1962 tournament in Curacao, he performed respectably: he won 2,5:1,5 against Filip and Korchnoi, drew 1,5:1,5 against Tal (the ex-world champion was knocked out before the fourth round), lost 1,5:2,5 to Fischer and, most importantly, won the final match against Keres, which he was losing 0:7 at one point. In the end, the Estonian finished half-a-point behind Petrosian and did not play the match against Botvinnik…
Pal Benko won silver at the 1966 Olympiad with the American team. He won the open US championship eight times, but he never became the national champion. He played against every world champion from Botvinnik to Karpov and won against Smyslov, Tal, Petrosian and Fischer. Right until the end of the 1960s, Pal was considered a very difficult opponent.
After he retired from playing, Pal became interested in chess composition. He is the author of multiple chess problems and studies; in 1995, he became an international master in composition. Western literature has named the opening after Benko and the King’s Fiachetto 1.g3- a modest pawn’s move that helped Pal beat Fischer and Tal in Curacao.
He wrote a monograph about his beloved opening alongside multiple books on endgame theory. In 2003, Pal Benko re-published Reuben Fine’s famous Basic Chess Endings with additions and explanations. In 1993, he was included in the Hall of Glory of American chess in St Louis. Even at a considerable age, the American grandmaster continued to live an active lifestyle, promoting his favourite game.
Pal Benko passed away on August 26, 2019, at the age of 91.