Pal Benko: a Merry Christmas Puzzle

por Frederic Friedel
25/12/2019 – Todos los años, el gran maestro Pal Benko, ex candidato por el Campeonato del Mundo y uno de los mejores compositores de problemas de ajedrez del mundo, nos solía mandar sus preciosos problemas de ajedrez. Le encantaba ese tipo de felicitación particular y muy "ajedrecística" y habitualmente eran varios problemas de ajedrez. Este año, solo le ha dado tiempo para enviarnos un problema de Navidad. Nos lo mandó por correo electrónico, muy poco antes de que nos llegase la triste noticia de su fallecimiento... ¡Pero tanto más vamos a recordarlo y disfrutar una vez más de su genialidad en esas Navidades!

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Loyal ChessBase readers will remember how we used to greet our readers, on Christmas day – with animated ICQ greeting cards. You can watch "Santa's time machine" above by clicking the image (may no longer run automatically in some browsers). The lever on the bottom right is to switch to new ages and palces.

It is the start of our Christmas puzzle week, which we bring you for the twentieth year in succession. Prepare for puzzles that cannot be easily solved with a computer (the point of this endeavour), tasks which require you to think all by yourself. But unlike in the past we will not be giving you a separate installment every single day between Christmas and New Year. Just occasional entertainment during the holiday season.

So the first problem Pal Benko sent for the Christmas season was at the end of July, when he wrote: "Unfortunately my books are not in good order, many of them are in boxes. Anyhow my eyesight is bad, I cannot see small or pale print." We had been discussing his very famous problem which had a dual, one that he had recently corrected. For Christmas he advised me to start with another famous problem, one that looks easy but needs some thinking outside the box.


I am not going to tell you the trick in this problem, or why Pal suggested it. Work it out by yourself. It is not hard and you should find what the position is all about in a few minutes.

In our July correspondence I told Pal about a young boy who was visiting us and whom I had given the beautiful Benko three-mover. Fischer had not found the solution when Benko showed it to him decades earlier, and of the six super-talents I gave it to in the Kramnik camp in Geneva, only one (Praggnanandhaa) had solved it in reasonable time. But now we had the 12-year-old Dev Shah in Hamburg, and during a walk in our lovely City Park I gave him the position.

Thinking: 12-year-old Dev Shah and his mother Krupali in the Hamburg City Park

Prancing: the joy at having solved the Benko problem!

This boy gave me the solution in just over two minutes. I was suspicious and started discussing it with him: what about 2.Qh5+ on the second move? "Oh," he said and started to think all over again. Within a minute he realized that his solution was sound and that the problem had a dual (which was discussed in this article). I asked the boy if he had seen the problem before, and he said no. I believe him: I tried giving him a puzzle I assumed he knew. Already while I was dictating the position he interruped and blurted out: "Oh yes, I know that one!" Dev is rigorously honest – no deception there.

In any case this young boy was so delighted with Pal Benko's three-mover that he decided to compose a problem himself. Of course he did this without board or pieces, right there in the park. He soon came up with two fairly quickly:


I told Dev it was more like a study and I had seen something like it before, especially the final manoeuvre. Maybe you will want to find the solution yourself, dear reader.

Young talent Dev Shah working with endgame expert GM Karsten Müller. Behind Dev is his mother Krupali, next to her my wife Ingrid – we were picking them up for dinner.

In the ChessBase office GM Dr Karsten Müller, who was tutoring Dev, told him that the idea at the end of his problem had was not new. It had been discovered by Polerio in 1590, and it had been used in many problems and studies. But it was a nice fledgling attempt by his student. The next day Karsten had pulled out a number of studies from Harold van den Heiden's database:

Polerio-inspired studies

If you run through these studies you should find the soultion to Dev's problem. That evening in the City Park he started composing a second study. This is what he came up with:


Once again you may be interested to try to work this out yourself. It is not a perfect study, and again I had to tell Dev that I had seen something similar before. But I was deeply impressed to see a young boy – a child actually – come up with something as complex as this in his head, without board or pieces, while walking in a park.

So I sent both studies to Pal Benko in Budapest and told him the story. "Can you help the boy?" I wrote. "Remember, you inspired him, you gave him a new hobby: composition." I soon got a reply: "Good effort by the boy!" and a promise to help him make proper studies after these initial attempts. But his general advice was: "Dev is hugely talented and should concentrate on his game. Tell him I gave up problems when I was 16, and started to compose again when I was 40, when I did not have great ambitions any more in the practical game."

Unfortunately that was one of the last messages I got from Pal. His death was an immensurable loss.

Ex editor jefe de la página de noticias de ChessBase en inglés. Estudió Filosofía y Lingüistica en las universidades de Hamburgo y Oxford. Del mundo académico pasó al periodismo científico, produciendo documentales para la televisión alemana. En 1986 fue uno de los fundadores de ChessBase.