Happy Birthday, Pal Benko

Pal Benko, the Hungarian-born chess grandmaster, has just turned 80.

I first heard of Pal Benko at the U.S. Chess Championship in 1983.  I thought that I remembered him playing there, but the tournament records show that he was not a player that year.  Perhaps he was covering it as a journalist, or perhaps my memory is just going bad.  The championship was held at Thiel College in Greenville, PA, and I was living there that summer.  The admission to the tournament was $4.00/day, and I was totally broke, so I got in free by working at the tournament, moving the pieces on the demonstration boards.

There were 14 players in that tournament, of whom I remember several.  Joel Benjamin was invited because he was the Junior Champion.  He actually had time for a few games of speed chess with me, when his brain needed a warm-up.  The top-rated players at the time were Walter Browne, Larry Christiansen, Nick DeFirmian, and Yasser Seirawan.  There were also a number of Soviet defectors, including Roman Dzindzihashvili (a co-champion who had a cameo role in Searching for Bobby Fischer), Anatoly Lein, and Lev Alburt.

Pal Benko was not playing in the Championship, but among defectors from Iron Curtain countries, he was a legend.  He defected from Hungary in 1957, at the height of the Cold War, and he was the first Grandmaster to do so.  His defection required a lot of skill and planning.  He had tried to leave the country earlier, but had been caught, interrogated for weeks, and then imprisoned for over a year.  After he was released, he hoped to use his chess prowess to get another chance to defect.

In a few years, he was invited to a zonal tournament (these tournaments were the first step in the world championship cycle at the time) in Iceland. To get to this tournament, he had to play very carefully.  If he won the preceding tournament, he would go to a zonal in a Soviet-occupied country.  So he had to be careful to do well, but not to win, and also not to arouse any suspicions about his play.  He managed this, and was able to defect, and eventually settle in the United States.

His act inspired quite a few other players to defect, so that by 1983, nearly half of the players in the US Chess Championship were Russians.  Seeing that many people, all in one place, who had left their homeland and a fairly secure livelihood (chess was heavily sponsored by the Soviet Government)  to live in a free country, definitely affected the way I looked at the world.  I had read a few books about life under Communist rule, but for a few weeks I got to see a lot of people who had lived there and escaped.

So Happy Birthday, Pal Benko.

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2 thoughts on “Happy Birthday, Pal Benko

  1. The things you find out after 20 years of marriage! I knew that you’d been to that tournament, but I never knew about how it was a hotbed of defectors, and the impact it had on you. That is a cool story.

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