His father taught him to play chess when he was 8, but he did not begin playing in tournaments until he was 17, mostly because of the difficulties brought on by World War II. (His father and older brother were sent to Russia to work as laborers, and his mother died just as the war was ending.)
Once he began to play, Mr. Benko improved rapidly. He won the Hungarian championship when he was just 20.
In 1952 Mr. Benko qualified for the first stage of the world championship cycle, but before he could compete, he tried to defect to the West while playing a tournament near Berlin. He was caught and sent back to Hungary, where he was imprisoned for 16 months. He was freed after Stalin’s death, when many political prisoners were given clemency.
In 1957, while playing another tournament, this time in Reykjavik, Iceland, Mr. Benko successfully defected after strolling into the American Embassy. He was allowed to emigrate to the United States, where he settled and eventually became a citizen.
In addition to playing, Mr. Benko composed chess problems, winning many international competitions.
Mr. Benko also became an expert in the positions and theories arising in the final stages of chess games, an area known as endgame theory. He was considered a world-class authority on the subject, and for decades he wrote a column called “Endgame Lab” for the United States Chess Federation’s monthly magazine.
Because of his endgame expertise, he was a sought-after tutor for up-and-coming players, particularly from his native Hungary. Among his students were the Polgar sisters, Susan, Sofia and Judit, and Peter Leko, who was once the youngest grandmaster in history.
Mr. Benko also made some contributions to opening theory. He was an early practitioner of the hypermodern king’s fianchetto opening, and an opening originally called the Volga gambit was renamed the Benko gambit after he studied and began playing it in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
But he said that the reason he liked to study the endgame was that it was the purest form of chess.
“It doesn’t change in theory like openings,” he said. “It is permanent. Opening theory is not real chess, I think.”
From Chess.com obituary;
Then another bad period began for Benko (“My fall from grace,” as he calls it in his 2003 autobiography Pal Benko: My Life, Games, and Compositions). After playing a tournament in Goerlitz, East Germany in March 1952, he tried to defect to the American embassy in West Berlin, but was arrested by police, brought to Hungary and interrogated for three weeks. The authorities thought he was an American spy.
“During this time I was kept alone in a prison cell — there was no contact with anyone other than the people questioning me,” Benko wrote. “Sleep wasn’t allowed and bright lights were constantly in my face.”
Eventually he was sent to a concentration camp with very bad conditions, with hardly any food or daylight, for a year and a half. He saw many other prisoners succumb to starvation. While his family thought he had escaped to the U.S., Benko only got out of the camp after the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin died in 1953, and Hungarian president Imre Nagy gave amnesty to most prisoners.
For a while, Benko was seen as a “black sheep” and was denied participation at several international tournaments. Five years after his release, he could finally initiate his desired emigration to the United States. He defected after having played the World Student Team Championship in Reykjavik, Iceland, where he received a visa at the American embassy.
Later, many thought he had been one of the many Hungarians who had fled the country after the Soviets’ harsh response to the 1956 revolution. However, because the quota for Hungarian refugees in the U.S. had reached its limit of 30,000, Benko ended up entering the desired country with his French passport, having been born in France.
As a result, he never received the benefits that other refugees from his country received, but due to the earlier hardships he appreciated the small pleasures of life.
He wrote: “Everything had a wonderful glow to it, the food tasted like nectar and women seemed so beautiful that I had to date as many as possible.“
Having studied economics back in Hungary, Benko initially worked at the New York Stock Exchange. When he qualified for the 1959 Candidates’ Tournament, a year after FIDE had awarded him the grandmaster title, he decided to become a chess professional.