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Saturday, June 3, 2017

I Bought a Chess Book!

     Over the years I have purchased my share of chess books, but many years ago I gave away about a hundred to a local chess club. Then a few years back I gave away a garbage bag full of chess books and a couple of extra chess sets to a friend at work...another 50 books, or so. More recently, maybe three years ago, I lost a couple of dozen when our house flooded during a torrential downpour and nearby tornado struck. Today my library has about a dozen books, plus there are about 40 in my electronic library. These days I just don't buy them. However, I made an exception when I came across The Stress of Chess: My Life, Career and 101 Best Games by the legendary Walter Browne. 
     I saw Browne in action on many occasions. He was a nice enough guy, but I always thought he was kind of an odd fellow. It looked to me like he was kind of clumsy and always on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Colorful is a good description. 
     Walter Shawn Browne was born in Australia on January 10, 1949 and unexpectedly passed away in his sleep on June 24, 2015 at his home in Las Vegas, Nevada. Besides his numerous exploits in international play and open tournaments, he won the US Championship six times earning him the name “Mr. Six-time.” His two early inspirations were Tahl and Fischer and his style was characterized by careful opening preparation and sound classical play that was usually capped off with a tactical finish. 
     Browne begins the book with his early development years which cover 1953 to 1969. I always wondered how he ended up in the United States. He was born in Sydney to an Irish-American father and Irish-Australian mother. His father, an American veteran of WW2, was an artillery captain in the US Army. His parents met in the US right after the war and moved to Australia. In 1953 they moved back to New York where his father got a degree in business administration and became vice president of a commodities corporation. 
     When his parents moved from the upper-middle-class, mostly residential neighborhood of Forest Hills, New York to the dynamic and ethnically diverse Brooklyn things changed. His childhood was filled with a wide variety of activities, including sports. After they moved to Brooklyn he began collecting and selling stamps by placing ads in the newspaper. After six months the stamp business was only breaking even so he gave it up and started collecting coins and...playing postal chess for Al Horowitz' Chess Review! Who knew Browne ever played postal chess?!  As he got better he began playing at the Brooklyn Chess Club and at the Brooklyn library where he was tutored by a local Expert whom he was soon able to beat. 
      At the age of 14 his parents were concerned about the time he was spending playing chess and they took him to a psychiatrist. During the sessions doctor and patient ended up playing chess (!) and after a half dozen visits his parents decided that was enough trips to the psychiatrist. 
     During this time Browne met and played many well known New York masters and steadily improved, becoming a master himself at the age of 15. Also, by the age of 16 he had become an expert poker player, often winning money in games around the city. 
     In 1967 at the age of 18 he headed for California and a couple of years later found him representing Australia and winning the 1969 Australian Championship. He tied first with Renato Naranja while representing Australia at the 1969 Asian Zonal tournament in Singapore, earning the IM title in the process, which in turn earned him an invitation to a GM tournament in San Juan, Puerto Rico. There, he gained the GM title by tying for second through fourth places with Bruno Parma and Arthur Bisguier, behind reigning world champion Boris Spassky. He played first board for Australia at the 1970 and 1972 Chess Olympiads before switching to representing the United States in 1974. 
      Some reviewers (John Watson and Jeremy Silman) thought that aside from the first chapter the book was dull because Browne seldom talked about “any meaningful life experiences outside of chess.” And, they claim the lengthy introductions to each chapter fall into a tiring recitation of which event he played in, opponents he played, plus his descriptions of the games are “abstract.” Their claim is that it quickly becomes tedious. They also didn't like his descriptions of the Swiss events he played in: driving to them on bad roads, whether the accommodations were good or bad, the weather, the food and, as expected, the bad lighting. 
     I didn't by the book to discover any meaningful life experiences or get chess lessons and I enjoyed Browne's descriptions of his life on the road. I like it because it describes the journey of a struggling master who became one of the most colorful and successful players in the US. Browne lets us know what it was really like to play in all those tournaments. There no buyer's remorse over the $20 I spent on this book and it's already looking like it will be one of the very few chess books I have owned that will be read from cover to cover. 
     The following game from the 1974 US Championship in Chicago, which was Browne's first title win, is the one he considered the best game he ever played. Browne won the championship in convincing fashion and after this game played in round 9, he had a 1.5 point lead with four rounds to go and coasted home with four draws. 
     The day before Bisguier was to play Browne, he agonized over his choice of opening. Andy Soltis suggested a tricky but untested P-sac in the popular 3 d4 line of the Petrov Defense that Rogoff and he had analyzed some years before. Bisguier was interested, but he was warned to be sure he had something prepared for the older variations beginning with 3 Nxe5. Bisguier replied, "Oh, I know that stuff," but it turned out that Browne discovered something at the board that neither Bisguier nor anybody else (except perhaps Bobby Fischer) knew!


  1. My favorite Walter Browne memory is from a tournament is Philadelphia where Browne, annoyed at a sudden burst of noise, looked up from his board and gave a loud "Shush!" to the passing Saint Patrick's Day parade!

    I wonder if Silman and Watson found those descriptions boring because they had also led the nomadic life of an American chess pro, so every thing Browne was describing was old hat to them. It sounds interesting to me.

  2. I first saw Browne at the US champ in Oberlin, 1975 and he always seemed nervous and shaky, almost hyper. He complained about poor lighting in the tournament hall, but none of the others found any fault with it. Browne said most of the players didn't come to play chess so they didn't care about lighting. At the 1977 champ in Mentor, Ohio about halfway through the tournament Browne told a reporter the other players weren't hoping to win because they knew he was too good...they were only there for the opportunity to play him. Of course he also complained about the lighting. I was there for most of the rounds at both events and didn't see anything wrong with the lights.