Stress of Chess, The and its Infinite Finesse

My Life, Career and 101 Best Games

Walter Browne

Reviewer: Timothy Randall
New In Chess
432 pages

When Fischer sucked the air out of the American chess boom by retiring in the 1970s, my focus of interest shifted to the paths of players such as Kavalek, Soltis, and Benko, but no one filled the void as complete as the mercurial Walter Shawn Browne. At each arrival of the monthly U.S. Chess Federation flagship magazine, Chess Life & Review, I vicariously lived his tournament battles relishing the sharp wit and even sharper moves within articles by this intense, combative, and humorous hirsute player who captured the U.S. Chess Championship six straight times.

While an impressionable young player, I had the opportunity to be within arm’s reach of this grandmaster who frequently graced the cover of CL&R; Standing near his table edge during a post-mortem at a Paul Masson vineyards tournament, I quietly listened to Browne’s confident staccato voice emitting from beneath his straw brim hat, punctuating moves and ideas that flowed across the board. Several years later, I again had chance to watch this personification of ball lightning, as he competed at the U.S. Championship in Berkeley. While his results then paled in comparison to other performances, I again felt like I was in the presence of a chess deity.

Fast-forwarding three decades later, I discovered with tremendous anticipation the release of a biography and games collection of Walter Browne (started in 1983!) by New In Chess, which I promptly ordered. When the 464-page tome arrived, I greedily tore open the UPS packaging, eager to relive the entertaining and instructive words and moves I had read during the 70s and 80s. After several hours of literary digestion, I realized I had relearned an important life lesson: expectations are not always what they are cracked up to be.

The biography read like a free-flowing monologue revealing sloppy editing evidenced by sentence fragments, run-ons, verb tense changes and other various errors. The author seemed addicted to repetitious use of idioms such as “in for a penny, in for a pound”, “all hell broke loose”, “injected”, “seal the deal”, and “(my opponent) saw the light and resigned”. Frequently, tournament descriptions emerged as dry checklists of tournament reporting, opening sentences with “In round 1….”, “In round 2…”, ad nauseum. Anecdotes appeared to be unaware of the existence of their “twins” elsewhere in the book, as Browne replicated getting blitzed by the “punk” Nakamura, duplicated an incident with law enforcement in southern California, and felt the need to repeat references to Igor Ivanov’s issues with alcohol. Twice, Danny Kopec, the coiner of the phrase “a Browne Ending” received a plug for one of his books, and Paul Magriel’s nickname “X22” was cited at least three times in the book.

Several disembodied passages were mysteriously incomplete. Browne cast suspicion on Gleck for his “roller-coaster” game, offering neither evidence nor explanation. During the 1985 Interzonal, Browne’s second, GM John Fedorowicz, could no longer watch games in progress because “there was a pig in the hall”; he and Fed soon parted ways. Within analysis to his 1977 U.S. Championship win over GM Robert Byrne, the author confided, “Now I have to reveal a secret. At this moment I felt I was having a surreal experience!” (I had to read that passage more than once.) Browne disjointedly announced the end of his 15-year boycott to the annual People’s Tournament held in his hometown Berkeley without explaining the reason he had refused to play nor why he changed his mind. Again and again portions of the writing left me scratching my head wondering what I had missed.

To balance missing information, there exists voluminous minutia of which I list but a fraction: Notification of the frequency with which he was assigned the black pieces appears important to report. During his simultaneous tour across America, he accidentally ingested broken glass at a restaurant. He once bowled with an unnamed actor who played a driver in the movie “Bonnie & Clyde”. He injured his leg playing racquetball while going for a backhand. Air France reimbursed the author for a flight ticket over a year later. And I certainly could have lived without his recounting a bout with “Montezuma’s Revenge”.

Browne does not miss the opportunity to use his biography to settle scores, though he is certainly not the first chess author to do so. I had little doubt whether an individual fell on the author’s friend and foe lists. He gave kudos to “the legendary” (?) local organizer Tom Dorsch and “chief organizer and promoter extraordinaire” Fred Gruenberg, but made no effort to hide his contempt for Bill Goichberg “in his lofty perch”. He noted that he was “double-crossed” by the head of USCF, oddly omitting the name of the official. Some individuals made both lists. GM Sammy Reshevsky was described as “a complete gentleman”, who on the other hand did not show upon resumption of an adjourned game to shake hands or sign score sheets. I was informed that this also occurred three years earlier, too. Another GM target, Pal Benko was chastised for shafting Browne as an adjudicator plus also leaving a game for dinner, leaving Browne to wait for Benko’s flag to fall. On the other hand, sincere appreciation appears to be given to the renowned problemist for providing monthly contributions for Browne’s Blitz Chess publication.

Browne lamented that an article on a tournament victory submitted to CL&R by Larsen was months late, claiming “such a thing would never have happened if another American… had won”. His “novelty of my life”, as Browne calls his amazing 14.Bh6!! versus Arthur Bisguier (game 30), would have received first place as the Informant’s top game instead of second place had Russian influence not been in play. Late in the book, Browne offers what I found to be a narcoleptic account of his relatively brief, but thankfully rewarding career in poker. A short glossary of poker terms is provided to translate the heavy jargon, but for players like myself who purchased the book for chess content, this portion was a non-starter that would not have been missed had it been excluded.

Pardon my inclusion of my petty nitpicks: The comment after 1.d4 in game 39 was the guttural “Nnn.” A photo caption depicted Browne “speeching” after his 1974 Lone Pine victory. The caption to a photo reading, “Playing blitz with expert Maxim Dlugy”, should correctly read, “GM Maxim Dlugy”. Within game annotations, Browne attributed, “Passed pawns need to expand”, to Alekhine. I can find no such quotes by the world champion, and believe Nimzowitsch was intended. The game listing in the back of the book appears designed as if alphabetical order was a quaint concept. The nearly useless index included people at essentially every time they were listed, however peripherally.

From within this mountainous rambling recollection there were still valuable gems to be unearthed by the reader that demonstrate the Browne’s passion for the game, his human side, and many intriguing and entertaining insights to his career in competitive chess. Examples include:

* Browne shares his unabashed feelings when he played his all-time heroes Fischer and Tal, “It’s rare that you get to play one of your heroes who inspired you to play the royal game. And it’s almost surreal if you beat them.”

* Browne reveals preferences that seemed to remain true to his style throughout his career, “In my youth I always wanted the two bishops.”

* Browne briefly mentions he had a laptop with ChessBase with him for the first time at the 1991 World Open, and also shares difficulties adapting to digital clocks.

* During a blitz match with GM Ulf Andersson Browne reveals he learned a lot about Ulf’s style because the Swede insisted on playing each starting position without queens. (All games were drawn!) The author discusses how to squeeze an advantage from a position: “This type of situation is fairly common in grandmaster chess. The player with superior position must hit upon the right set-up to increase his edge. He goes about this by trying out various formations that might cause the opponent to slip up, and if he doesn’t, perhaps a forced win will be discovered anyway. This is the point of the following prolonged maneuvering.”

* During an outdoors living PreChess exhibition, with people representing the pieces, Browne toned down his competitiveness and agree to a draw in a better position, as some of the pawns, played by children, were wilting in the heat.

* Browne periodically acknowledged games when opponents played well! He called his loss to Ulf Andersson “a real classic…a games for the ages which all aspiring students should study.”

* Time-trouble advice was given at the end of a battle against Lev Polugaevsky, “Unnecessary, but in extreme time pressure – meaning seconds left – it is useful to check and think in your opponent’s time.”

* Grandmasters were shown just as human as amateurs to annoyances, “When my adversaries continue in dead lost positions I’ve a tendency to shorten the post-mortems, if I even have them.”

While the narrative fell short, I certainly got my money’s worth from the game selections and annotations. Many have already been published years ago in chess periodicals but have been Fritzed or co-annotated with others. Some can’t-miss games include a titanic draw against his hero Fischer, a Morphyesque miniature over Quinteros, an “orgy of sacrifices” against Zuk the Book on the squares f7, h7, and g6(!), a brilliant rook sacrifice to crush an offbeat opening by Tony Miles, a tactical slugfest against the legendary Bent Larsen (published in CL&R, “Beating a Grandmaster”), and a compelling exchange sacrifice to topple Deep Thought.

A wish list of transformations/makeover that would transform this book include:

* Elaboration of his development as a chess player.

* Additional complete games mentioned in the biography, such as his game against Tal Shaked at the American Open (“the most exciting game of the whole event”).

* Insertion of game positions in contrast to the continual use of disembodied verbal references to battles.

* Utilization of game fragments as opposed to complete games. In game 1, Browne shares a game mainly to argue that Fischer erred in adjudication. He admits, “This game is not very remarkable, though it does contain an interesting rook ending.”) The first 40 or so moves could have been replaced by a diagram as a staring point.

* The evolution of his incomparable game preparation from pre-computer to the silicone age.

* A thorough recounting of the landmark K&Q vs. K&R wager with the Bell Laboratories programmers.

*A better title. I was hoping for “White, Black, Browne”, coined by Pal Benko.

* A co-author honed in presentation skills. A “question and answer” interview format such as that used in “The Life and Games of Mikhail Tal” would have created a freer flowing story line.

While my huge disappointment over what this book could have been made this a difficult review to write, I must admit my admiration for Walter Browne remains intact. I respect his fighting spirit, and suggest it is difficult to devalue his exhaustive cross-country simultaneous exhibition tour to popularize chess and his Herculean efforts to popularize blitz chess before the Internet usurped its interest. While heavily opinionated and often myopic in perspective, Browne consistently displays integrity, unflinching-to-a-fault loyalty, and laser-focused intelligence combined with an indomitable will to win.

Yes, I experienced another life lesson during this review: nostalgia dies hard.