Stress of Chess, The and its Infinite Finesse

My Life, Career and 101 Best Games

Walter Browne

Reviewer: John Watson
432 pages

I’ve always thought that a book of Walter Browne’s games would be an extremely worthwhile project; his autobiographical games collection THE STRESS OF CHESS AND ITS INFINITE FINESSE confirms that and then some. Although it could have done with less and/or more interesting prose (more on that below), the games and annotations are nothing short of magnificent, and a tribute to Browne’s skill, energy, and creativity. Before going any further, let me quote at length from Yasser Seirawan’s Foreword. He emphasizes two aspects of Browne’s play, hard work and deep calculation, outstanding traits I would also single out. And the following well-written description matches what I observed of Browne over the years:

“In the many games that we contested we held a deep post-mortem. Often these lasted for hours and during them it was obvious, time in and time out, that Walter had out-calculated me. We had looked at the same variations, but he had calculated them more deeply than I had. In many instances Walter went far beyond the point where I had stopped, being satisfied with a line. Walter wanted to be sure. When he felt a win existed he wished to nail it down with calculation and cold-blooded determination. When I asked why he didn’t just play an obviously good move, he would often say that while his ‘instinct’ had told him to play the ‘natural’ good move it was his calculation that guided him to consider other possibilities, and what ultimately caused him to come to a decision was the calculated line.

“In most cases Walter’s instinct and calculation were one and the same, producing the same move, which he would then play. But here comes the rub. He would go into deep concentration, using large amounts of time on his clock to confirm his instinct with concrete calculation. The result? Chronic time trouble. The flip side of his greatest strength, calculation, was that it often led to harrowing time-scrambles. Bingo! Wonderful, you may think. All I’d have to do is present enough problems for Walter early and often enough and he would drift into time-trouble, at which point I might take advantage… Unfortunately, it was precisely here, when he was in time-trouble, that Walter was at his most dangerous. Cobra fast, he could make 20 moves within one minute, and those 20 moves were like perfect links in a chain leading to victory. It was truly remarkable to see him in action while in time-trouble. He was a demon. Any one caught playing time trouble blitz against him would likely fail as again and again Walter would come through the most harrowing clock pressure in better shape than when he started. How he kept his nerves during these episodes remains a mystery to me.”

Bingo! Here are the Contents:

Foreword by Yasser Seirawan . . . 7
Foreword by Danny Kopec . . . 11
Foreword by Bill Chen . . . 17
Preface . . . 19

CHAPTER I – Early Development, 1953 – 1969 . . . 21
1963 . . . 33
1967 . . . 36
1968 . . . 38
1969 . . . 41

CHAPTER II – Elite Tournaments and Simul Tours, 1970 -1978 . . . 47
1970 . . . 81
1971 . . . 86
1972 . . . 110
1973 . . . 133
1974 . . . 140
1975 . . . 155
1976 . . . 167
1977 . . . 170
1978 . . . 194

CHAPTER III – International Success and Semi-retirement, 1979 – 1989 . . . 215
1979 . . . 249
1980 . . . 256
1981 . . . 276
1982 . . . 282
1983 . . . 295
1985 . . . 303
1987 . . . 310
1988 . . . 314
1989 . . . 319

CHAPTER IV – Blitz, Opens and Poker, 1990 – 2011 . . . 327
1990 . . . 373
1991 . . . 387
1992 . . . 395
1993 . . . 397
1994 . . . 403
1995 . . . 417
1996 . . . 427
1997 . . . 438
2001 . . . 440
2002 . . . 443
2003 . . . 446
2004 . . . 448
2006 . . . 453

Index of Players . . . 457
Game list . . . 461

The first chapter is a very readable account of Browne’s childhood, followed by the frantic world travels he undertook, both to make a living and to secure his IM and GM titles. He dashes back and forth between continents, often running out of money, and has to gamble on Blitz games, play poker, and win Swiss Systems to stay solvent and fund his pursuit. Americans in particular had extremely few opportunities to play for norms, since few tournaments within the United States fulfilled the necessary conditions (even if everything else was right, you still had to play three FIDE-rated foreigners, but usually there weren’t three to be found!). In spite of these obstacles, Browne fought his way to the title. In fact, only two grandmaster titles were handed out in 1970: Browne and Karpov. Players and fans today have no idea how difficult it was to become a grandmaster. In fact, several of the few Americans who got titles around or before that time did so in a single event, or without enough norms but as a deal with other countries in exchange for letting their players become GMs as well. Browne very much earned his way.

On a daily level, Browne’s life was a bohemian one; he mentions three incidents with policemen; in one he was jumped on and punched by cops and in another he was roughed up without cause. Walter, who used to have particularly long hair, has never struck me as a radical, so he surprised me by writing of the police: “…and they wonder why they are called PIGS!” Old feelings persist. I think he’d grant that the percentage of brutal and severely prejudiced police has declined dramatically, but he’s also right to point out that people were treated very badly based solely upon their appearance.

The games are naturally the core of the book, and they are as exciting and dynamic as one would expect from Browne, who arguably played the sharpest chess of any U.S. player in his generation. The annotations, appropriately, are extremely concrete. There are few excurses into abstract positional principles, or philosophic meanderings, or commentary about how Browne is “feeling” during the game. Instead, the majority of moves from beginning to end are annotated, usually with pure analysis; verbiage is mainly limited to assessments with (sometimes) brief explanations to justify them. The games themselves are simply wonderful, in my opinion as good or better than in any similar work. Many are lengthy slugfests with twists and turns and exciting opportunities for both sides. There are only a few one-sided wins, and they are attractive ones. For the most part, Browne chooses complex and colorful games whose quality is such that it would be almost impossible to analyze them without a computer and a good deal of time. This is chess at its best.

My main problem with the book is the one that Jeremy Silman points out about most autobiographical chess books. After the interesting first chapter, Browne seldom talks about any meaningful life experiences outside of chess. There are lengthy introductions to each succeeding chapter (27, 26, and 54 pages, respectively), but increasingly, they fall into a tiring recitation of which event he played in, and which opponents he played in which round (often describing the games purely in the abstract, which is not likely to engage the reader). This quickly becomes tedious, and continues to the very end of the book. The fact that he disagrees with some of the pairings isn’t likely to elicit sympathy or interest 30 years later. When we get to his cross-country travels playing in Swiss Systems or doing simultaneous exhibitions, it doesn’t get much better. We find out that the lighting wasn’t good, that he drove to city X on bad roads, that the accommodations were either good or bad (without explanation). Once in a while he refers to some unexceptional weather or other. Way too often, we find out that he had a dinner somewhere and the food was great.

I never hung around Walter, but he strikes me as someone whose life has probably been a lot more interesting than this book indicates. I understand the desire for privacy, and disinclination to put his own experiences and opinions out in public; but in that case, there’s really no need to include prose sections of this length at all. To be fair, I should stress that very few chess autobiographies reveal much about the players themselves. Nevertheless, considering the outstanding quality of the games and analysis, this book would have been better as a traditional games collection with only a small fraction of the narrative material. It doesn’t help that the writing itself is often awkward and rambling, and there are numerous grammatical lapses. New in Chess has always impressed me with their excellent editing, but this work could have used a serious proofreading.

On the Swiss System circuit, Browne was renowned for complaints and disputes (it seemed to me this happened in every tournament). In the book, he periodically brings such things up but doesn’t obsess about them. He also upon occasion blamed defective clocks for losses; there is some irony here, and in his accounts he could have acknowledged that pounding away on these old mechanical clocks in his almost inevitable time trouble was not only a recipe for such problems, but very distracting to opponents. In general, Browne feels that he was repeatedly slighted by the U.S. chess authorities, whether the American Chess Foundation or United States Chess Federation (once he uses the term “double-crossed”), or the editors of Chess Life. He indicates that this persisted in spite of his numerous U.S. titles and superb international results. I think there’s a lot to this; as far as I could see, only a small subset of American players were part of the in-crowd and received consistent support. Browne’s aggressive personality probably didn’t help in that regard, but as the number one player and leading U.S. candidate for world honors, he deserved better. In Fischer’s case, when there was money and prestige for the bureaucrats at stake, truly horrendous personal behavior was somehow never an obstacle to the same fawning officials. Also, it’s pretty obvious that things wouldn’t have worked this way had he settled in New York instead of California. Today, for all the complaints about U.S. chess, I don’t see such provincial favoritism being a core problem. Maybe I’m being naïve.

The book ends with a chapter which continues in the “I went to tournament T and played against X, Y, and Z” mode. But at the end, Browne discusses some of his poker career (he was/is a first-rate player), which may interest the many poker fans out there. I should also mention that Browne was one of the world’s best Blitz players, and he spent years promoting Blitz chess via events that he organized and the magazine which he founded and wrote, Blitz Chess.

In the end, regardless of my technical complaints above, a book like this should be read for its chess content. For that reason, I enthusiastically recommend THE STRESS OF CHESS to all chess players from 1600 up through grandmaster. Browne’s games and notes are as good as it gets, easily better than you’ll see in most books about or by world champions. If you enjoy chess as an art and a struggle, you should grab a copy of this book and play through the games. It may remind you what you liked about chess in the first place.