A tribute to Pal Benko (1928-2019)

11 Sep. 2019 | by Peter Wong

The legendary grandmaster and problemist Pal Benko has passed away on August 26, at the age of 91. He was one of the very few world-class players who also excelled at chess composition, adept in devising problems and endgame studies alike. Indeed, he held the unique distinction of acquiring both the titles of GM for the over-the-board game and IM for problem composing. Thus not too surprisingly, he was my No.1 pick in an earlier post, The greatest masters of both the game and problems – Part 1. Additionally, Benko did much to popularise the art of composed problems through his long-running columns, “Endgame Lab” and “Benko's Bafflers,” in the U.S. magazine, Chess Life. His book, My Life, Games and Compositions (2004), likewise must have introduced many chess players to the world of directmates, helpmates, and studies.

Photo: YouTube

For this tribute to Benko as a composer, I have selected three of his works from different genres. Besides the orthodox types represented here, he also delved into unconventional forms, such as letter-shape and retro-analytical problems. Notwithstanding his versatility, he was most proficient in the field of endgame studies. His specialty was miniature studies employing no more than seven pieces that, contrary to their simple appearances, involve dense and difficult play. Benko created such compositions before the arrival of strong engines and endgame tablebases, a fact that only makes it even more impressive when such devices confirm the perfect accuracy of his analysis.

Pal Benko
Chess Life 1981

Mate in 2

We start with a traditional two-mover that is solved by an excellent waiting key, 1.Qb4! The queen surprisingly unguards both white knights and so grants two flights to the black king. If Black accepts the sacrifices, each king move self-pins one black knight on a diagonal, allowing the other to be captured by the queen with impunity: 1…Kxd5 2.Qxd6 and 1…Kxe5 2.Qxe4 – two fine matching variations showing pin-mates. Any move by the d6-knight enables the queen to control e7 (besides letting the b8-bishop cover e5) and frees the d5-knight to mate: 1…Sd~ 2.Sf4. If Black moves the other knight, a random placement results in a dual, 1…Se~ 2.Qxd6/Rf6, but two specific defences separate these mates: 1…Sf2 2.Qxd6 and 1…Sc5 2.Rf6.

Pal Benko
Magyar Sakkélet 1974, Hon. Mention

Helpmate in 2, 2 solutions, Duplex

The helpmate presents a well-known promotion idea with great economy. The first pair of solutions sees White promoting the pawn to different pieces to guard the black king’s flights, in support of the queen which executes both mates. 1.Re5 g8=Q 2.Kf5 Qf3 and 1.Kf5 g8=S 2.Kg6 Qh7. The duplex condition reverses the two players’ roles, so that in a second pair of solutions, White plays first and helps Black to deliver mate in two moves. Now the white pawn promotes in order to block the king’s flight on g8, and in each part White chooses a promotee that will avoid interfering with the eventual mate. Another flight-square is blocked by the queen, which must be pinned by one black piece while the other mates. 1.g8=R Be5+ 2.Qg7 Rh5 and 1.g8=B Rh5+ 2.Qh7 Be5. Since White makes all four possible kinds of promotion during the course of play, the Allumwandlung theme is effected.

Pal Benko
Chess Life 1981

White to play and win

One of Benko’s less demanding studies, this position provides an exception to the adage that two connected passed pawns on the sixth rank defeat a rook. White can win here because the black king in the corner is vulnerable to mating threats; hence White starts aggressively with 1.Ke7!, aiming to trap the black piece. White avoids 1.Rg4?, losing to either 1…c3/d2; and 1.Ke6? d2! also fails because the rook cannot reach d6. 1…d2. If 1…Kg8 then 2.Rd6 stops the pawns in time. 2.Rd6 c3 3.Kf7 Kh7. Or 3…c2 4.Rd3 d1=Q 5.Rh3+ and mates next move. 4.g4! Not 4.Rd3? Kh6! and Black wins as the king escapes. 4…c2. Or 4…g6 5.g5 c2 6.Rxd2 and then mates. 5.g5. Not 5.Rxd2? c1=Q 6.Rh2+ Qh6 7.Rxh6+ Kxh6, drawing only. 5…d1=Q 6.Rh6+! gxh6 7.g6+ Kh8 8.g7+ Kh7 9.g8=Q mate. The outlying white pawn in the diagram position turns out to be the star as it performs an Excelsior (i.e. it promotes after trekking from its starting rank), facilitated by a sparkling rook sacrifice.