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Thursday, October 14, 2021

Pal Benko, An Overcomer

     They are called the Greatest Generation. They were born between 1901 and 1927; they were shaped by the Great Depression and were the primary participants in World War II. 
     The term was popularized by the title of a 1998 book by American journalist Tom Brokaw who wrote that these men and women fought not for fame or recognition, but because it was the "right thing to do." 
     It was the generation my parents belonged to and while I don't know about the term "Greatest", I do know that I could not have survived the things they went through. 
     Brokow was, of course, writing about things from the prospective of an American, but during that time things were far, far worse for other people in the world. 
     Things were unimaginably bad for a lot of people in those days. At one time I had an employee who told me that he had been a policeman in Budapest and he had been a member of various secret organizations and taken taken part in the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. For his part in the failed revolution he ended up doing a few years in Siberia. At first I suspected he was pulling my leg, but then I saw his story that had been written up in a Canadian newspaper. All the horror stories Otto told me were true. He passed away at the age of 71 in 1999.
     Pal Benko was one of those that had it bad during the war. His father was an engineer who wanted to be an artist. And because that was his dream, he moved his family all over Europe which is why the Hungarian Pal Benko came to be born in Amiens, France on July 15, 1928. 
     Benko's mother didn't like being a vagabond and insisted the family settle down in back Hungary. Even then, Benko's father continued his wanderings by himself and once was arrested in Germany for trying to cross over the French border without the proper papers. Benko admitted that he turned out to be very much like his father. 
     Benko learned to play chess at the age of ten, but it was just a game though he did occasionally play in the parks. Life wasn't bad, but then in 1940, when Benko was 12, his world, to use his term, "turned to hell" when the war reached Hungary. Food shortages left everyone starving and everyone was issued ration cards. He wrote of the bread lines when thousands of people would begin lining up at midnight for a loaf of bread that was only passed out at 7am. 
     But bread wasn't the only thing scarce. Coal shortages forced people to stay home in the winter. Then there was the outbreak of lice...bad because in those days there wasn't any Nix Lice Control medication or some such. People had to take hot baths and wash their clothes in scalding water. 
     But then after the Germans invaded in 1944 things got even worse thanks to the Americans. In July, as part of the British and American strategy to lay mines in the Danube River by dropping them from the air, they dropped bombs and leaflets on German-occupied Budapest. Along with the incessant bombing, leaflets threatening punishment for those responsible for the deportation of Hungarian Jews to the gas chambers at Auschwitz were also dropped.
     In spite of the bombing and the misery Benko was still able to play a little chess in school tournaments and some offhand tournaments in the local parks. He also studied a book with 350 of Capablanca's games and as a result Capablanca became his hero. 
     There was a strong chess club tournament held in 1943 and Benko, who was quite strong by that time, was leading when the tournament was canceled after most of the players got drafted. 
     When he turned 16 Benko also got drafted. He was assigned to an outfit whose job it was to dig ditches and after four months they shipped out to Austria. That's when Benko deserted and hid out in the homes of peasants and tried to make his way back to Budapest and his family. 
     This was serious (and frightening) business because the standard procedure during war time was to shoot deserters. Everybody did it...shot deserters. During World War II, US Army Private Edward Slovik was the first soldier executed by firing squad for desertion since the Civil War in what was probably a miscarriage of justice given Slovak’s circumstances. I posted about it HERE.  
     In Benko's case, he was trying to avoid the Russian army, the Hungarian army and the police. In the end it was the Russians who nabbed him and put him to work as a laborer working on a bridge. When a bomb threat forced them to go into a blackout, Benko made his escape. 
     He finally made it to Budapest in early 1945 only to find that the Russians had arrived two months earlier. At first the Hungarians were glad to be rid of the Nazis, but soon found out that things were just as bad, if not worse, under the Russians.
     If that wasn't bad enough, Benko discovered that the family's apartment had been bombed out and his father and brother had been shipped to Russia as slave laborers and some relatives had simply vanished. Under the Russians chaos ruled: women were raped and if a Russian soldier demanded a person's coat or shoes, they were either handed over or the person was beaten, possibly even murdered. Benko went into hiding again because his mother feared he'd be shipped off to Russia, too. 
     Benko related how life was somewhat easier if you joined the communist party which is what the great Hungarian player Laszlo Szabo did. But not Benko. He refused because he didn't believe the manure they were spreading and besides, they had enslaved his father and brother. 
     He eventually landed a temporary construction job and accepted an invitation to his first real tournament, an 18-player event that featured ten masters, seven candidate masters and the untitled Benko. He was expected to come in last especially since he had never played a tournament game against a master. He surprised everyone by winning it and as a result was awarded the Master title. 
     Then shortly before he turned 17 his mother died at the age of 42. He blamed it on the lack of shelter, the cold winter, the scarcity of food and the loss of her husband and oldest son which simply proved too much for her. Benko was devastated, but he had to press on because his little sister was depending on him. With no opportunities in Budapest, he left her with a relative and moved to Szeged, Hungary. 
     Arriving in Szeged starving and penniless, he managed to win a small masters tournament and as a prize won some food...flour and bacon. He was also lucky because his success landed him a job teaching six chess aficionados as well as being given a place on the local chess team. 
     At this time Benko's father became ill while in the Russian gulag and they released him along with Benko's brother. Benko rejoined them in Budapest where he was able to begin university studies in economics. During that time Benko recalled how inflation was so rampant that money became so worthless that workers preferred being paid in food! 
     When he played in the 1946 Hungarian Championship the prizes were food which was something more valuable than money. Here's a game from that championship event.

Gideon Barcza - Pal Benko

Result: 0-1

Site: Hungarian Championship, Budapest

Date: 1945

Reti Opening

[...] 1.♘f3 d5 2.b3 At the time this game ws played Larsen was unknown, hence the name Reti Opening. 2...c5 3.♗b2
3.e3 is probably better as then after 3...♘f6 4.♗b2 avoids the pitfall mentioned in the next note.
3...f6 Benko assigned this move a ! based on the reasoning 3.Bb2 was a mistake. When playing a regular Q-Indian ( l .d4 Nf6 2 .c4 e6 3 .Nf3 b6), the strong move 4.f3 isn't available to white because his N is on that square. In this, a Q-Indian reversed, black can take advantage of the fact that his N isn't on f6 and a) build a powerful center and 2) block the B on b2. Such are the nuances of GM chess! 4.d4 cxd4 5.♕xd4 e5 6.♕d2 ♘c6 7.e3 ♗b4 This activates this B and stops white from playing c2 -c4. Another GM opening nuance.
7...♗e6 8.♗e2 ♗b4 9.c3 ♗a5 10.O-O ♘ge7 11.♖d1 O-O is equal. Simonian,H (2520)-Salem,A (2469)/Abu Dhabi 2009
8.c3 ♗a5
8...♗c5 9.♗a3 ♗xa3 10.♘xa3 ♘ge7 11.c4 ♗e6 with an equal position. Meijers,V (2470)-Bailet,P (2474)/Rennes 2013
9.b4 ♗b6 10.a4
10.c4 dxc4 11.♗xc4 ♘xb4 Benko gave this a ! thinking black is better, but actually, after 12.♕c3 ♘e7 13.O-O Now that the N is subject to capture all black has done is lose time so white is actually better.
10...♗e6 This prevents white form playing c3 -c4. 11.a5 ♗c7 12.a6 bxa6 13.♗xa6 ♘ge7 14.♘a3 O-O 15.O-O This natural move loses a P, but black's position was already somewhat better owing to his strong center and white's only good break, c2-c4 is not playable. (15.c4 ♘xb4 16.cxd5 ♗a5 17.O-O ♘xa6 wins) 15...e4 16.♘e1 ♘xb4
16...♘d4 was also playable as after 17.♕xd4 ♕d6 and black is better here, too, but he has not won a P.
17.♘b5 A tactical mistake. (17.cxb4 ♕d6 threatens both ...Qxh2 mate and ...Qxa6)
17.♗e2 would have kept black's advantage to a minimum. 17...♘bc6 leaves black better, but it was white's best hope.
17...♘xa6 18.♖xa6 ♗b6 19.♘d4 ♗c8 20.♖a2 ♘f5 Also very strong was placing the N on e5 with ...Ng6-e5 21.♘ec2
21.♘xf5 ♗xf5 22.♗a3 ♖e8 23.♘c2 ♕c7 24.♘d4 ♗d7 and black is quite well off.
21...♘xd4 Placing the N on e5 via ...Nd6-f7-e5 was still an option. 22.♘xd4 ♕d7 This defends the e6 and f5 squares. Black will eventually to activate his light-squared B by ...a7-a5 followed by ...Ba6. 23.f3 White's position was already bad, but this only makes matters worse. Still, his desire to get some activity in this fashion before black plays ...a7-a5 then activates his B with Bc8-a6-c4, and finally plays ...f6-f5-f4 establishing a winning position is understandable. If he palsy 23.Ba3 and then Bb4 and just waits, in the end he is likely to lose anyway. 23...exf3 24.♖xf3 ♖e8 25.♕d3 a5 26.♗a3 ♗a6 27.♕f5 One may wonder why Barcza would trade Qs and enter into an ending where he is a P down. General principles say that in such positions you should keep the pieces and trade the Ps. he reason Barcza trades Qs is because he had faith in his legendary endgame technique...an area in which a young master is not likely to have yet developed technique. Of course, in later years Benko himself was to become a master of endings. 27...♕xf5 28.♘xf5 ♗c4 (28...♗d3 29.g4 ♗xf5 30.♖xf5 ♖xe3 was even better.) 29.♖d2 ♖ad8 30.♔f2 g6 31.♘d6 This is even better than 31.Nd4 because it eliminates back's tweo Bs which could be a huge factor in the ending. 31...♖e6 32.♘xc4 dxc4 33.♖xd8+ ♗xd8 34.♖f4 ♖c6 35.♔f3 f5 This stops the K from reaching an active position and threatens 36...Bg5 37.Rd4 Bf6 winning the c-Pawn. Benko has been very careful not to allow an opposite-colored B ending and his Ps are on the right squares. With his extra, passed P the win is assured...with the right technique, of course! 36.♔e2 ♗g5 37.♖f1 a4
37...♗f6 keeps an even firmer grip after 38.♔d2 ♖b6 and if 39.♔c2 ♗xc3 40.♔xc3 ♖b3+ 41.♔xc4 ♖xa3 42.♔d4 ♖a2 black has a won ending.
38.♔d2 simply worsens the situation
38.♖a1 isn't much better as after 38...♗f6 39.♔d2 ♖b6 40.♗c1 ♖a6 41.♗a3 ♔f7 and with white tied up the approach of black's K will decide the game.
38...♖e6 39.♗c5 ♖e5 This forces the B to give up its blockade of the passed P. 40.♗d4 ♖a5 41.♔c2 a3 42.♔b1 ♔f7 The K is heading for e4. 43.♔a2 ♗e7 The purpose of this move is to use the B to defend a3 thereby giving the R the freedom to move around in an aggressive fashion. 44.♖b1 Otherwise, 44 . . . Rb5 and a black K march will decide the game. 44...♖a6 45.♖b7 ♖c6 46.♗b6 ♔e6 47.♗a5 h5 Now black's K is free to roam since everything is guarded. Notice how Benko is taking his time. Patience is a very important quality in the endgame. 48.♖b1 ♔d5 49.♗b4 With ...Ke4 threatened Barcza makes one last desperate attempt. 49...♗xb4 50.cxb4
50.♖xb4 and it's curtains at once 50...♔e4 51.♔xa3 ♔d3 52.♔b2 ♔xe3
50...c3 51.♔xa3 c2 52.♖c1 ♔e4 53.b5 ♖c8 54.b6 ♔d3 55.♔b3 ♖b8 White resigned.
55...♖b8 56.♔b4 ♖xb6+ 57.♔c5 ♖b1 58.♖xc2 ♔xc2 59.♔d4 ♔d2 60.g3 ♖b2 61.e4 ♖b4+ 62.♔c5 ♖xe4 63.h4 ♖e3 64.♔d5 ♖xg3 65.♔e5 ♔e3 66.♔f6 f4 67.♔e5 f3 68.♔f6 f2 69.♔e5 f1=♕ 70.♔e6 ♖g2 71.♔d6 ♖b2 72.♔c5 ♕a6 73.♔d5 ♖b5+ 74.♔c4 ♕c6#
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