It is amazing.There he was, a child lost in the concrete anonymity of Brooklyn, solitary,restless, different. And then he cultivated a demanding friend: chess.Obsessed, he would stay up half the night replaying the games of the masters,scorning school and withdrawing deeper into himself. Distressed by hisisolation, his protective, foreign-born mother introduced him to the famedManhattan Chess Club where he became renowned for his killer instinct. Asometimes petulant prodigy, he was given to gloating about "destroying theweakies" when he won and scattering the pieces off the board when helost.
At 16, declaringthat "teachers are stupid," he quit Erasmus Hall High School and becamea chess vagabond. He toured the world, winning tournament after tournament,complaining about playing conditions and accusing the Russians of conspiringagainst him. And then, after settling in California, he mounted an all-outassault to wrest the world chess title away from the vaunted Sovietchampion.
What's that? Youheard it all before? But that is the amazing thing: you have not. Though thestated facts of their careers are exactly the same, the prodigal son ofBrooklyn referred to is not Grandmaster Robert James Fischer but GrandmasterWalter Shawn Browne.
January 12, 1976
Amazing and, yes,perhaps consciously imitative in some respects.
Still, for allthe eerie parallels, the differences between the two Erasmus Hall dropouts arejust as striking. For one thing, at 26, Browne is far more outgoing than thecelebrated bachelor recluse of South Pasadena, overbearing but nonetheless anengaging person. For another, as he proudly notes, "I have some advantagesthat Bobby Fischer doesn't." Browne has a stabilizing helpmate. His wifeRacquel, a clinical psychologist from Argentina, says, "Shawnees a leetlebeet crazy, but so am I. So eet works out."
And though heparrots Fischer in saying, "Chess is not like life; chess is life,"Browne ventures beyond the tight little world of 64 squares. He pursues thesame sports that Bobby does to keep in playing shape ("I can beat four outof five people in Ping-Pong," says Browne, "nine out of 10 intennis"), but he is also a universal gamesman, the only person ever tocompete at the highest levels in chess as well as three other serious tests ofman's cerebral skills. "I can beat 97 out of 100 experts in Scrabble,"Browne says, "98 of 100 in backgammon and 99.9 of 100 in poker. At hi-lo,table-limit poker, I'm the best in the world." Looking down on that worldfrom the $65,000 mountaintop villa he purchased in Berkeley, Calif, with helpfrom his poker winnings, he adds, "Amarillo Slim is a patzer compared withsome of the guys I play with."
And, oh yes,there is one other critical distinction between the Brooklyn wonder boys.Browne has not won the world chess championship—yet. Except for Fischer, whosepowers are deemed so transcendental in chess circles as to preclude drawingcomparisons, Browne is the U.S.'s strongest threat to win back the world titlethat Bobby forfeited to Russia's Anatoly Karpov last year.
Of Fischer'srefusal to defend his championship because FIDE (Féderation Internationale desEchecs, the game's governing body) would not agree to all of his myriadrequests, Browne says, "If Bobby had insisted on 80 of his 100 demands,he'd be all right. If he'd insisted on 90, he'd be unreasonable. But the factthat he insisted on all 100 makes him kind of crazy. When my turn comes, I'llbe reasonable."
He has no doubtat all that his turn will come eventually. This summer, in fact, he took a steptoward that goal by winning the U.S. championship for the second straight year.That qualified him to compete this summer in the FIDE Interzonals with threedozen world-class players, the next plateau in the three-year playoff cycle forthe world championship. If Browne survives that trial, he will then join sevenother aspirants in the Candidates' Matches in 1977, a cutthroat series todetermine who wins the right to challenge Karpov in 1978.
"I've got thetalent," says Browne. "All I need to do is persevere. And I will,because I'm concentrating all my energies on becoming world champion. I havethis fantastic discipline to study chess six, eight, 10 hours a day, this driveto win at all costs short of physical violence. I got this aggression thatnever quits, this feeling of terrific power. I feel this big hot thing like thesun inside me. I'm not bragging. I really feel as if I can beat anybody atanything!"
While waiting tooverpower the world, Browne spent two months last fall polishing off the entireUnited States of America, purple mountain by fruited plain, town by town, pawnby pawn. More than a promotional tour, it was an organizational tour de forcethat he conceived as "a new kind of fun game." Called a "simul"in the trade, the format was standard if exhausting grandmaster exhibitionfare: for a $225 guarantee, one night's lodging and $7.50 for each additionalplayer over the 30-board minimum, Browne gave a lecture and then took on allcomers. What made this road show extraordinary was that he was in effectplaying one unending series of simuls, driving up to 13 hours a day,hopscotching across the country like some knight-errant in quest of aself-mate.
From upper Oregonto lower Florida, Massachusetts Bay to the Mexican border, Browne played inYMCAs, motels, universities, factories, shopping malls, VFW halls and a prison.By his calculation, $15,000, 15,000 miles, 2,000 games, 60 days, 50 cities and40 states add up to an "inhuman feat."
By Racquel'sreckoning it was "loco completo." Het sentiments are understandable;she was doing the driving. "My husbond weel get to be world chompion,"she said shortly before their departure, "but he weel not get his driver'slicense." Unhearing, Browne kept enthusing about the throngs that wouldturn out to play him. "It's their chance to do a very personal thing,"he said, "like throwing a football with Joe Namath."
Strategy?"I'm going to trick 'em, trap 'em," he said. "If I don't get 'em inthe opening, I'll get 'em in the middle, and if not in the middle, then I'llget 'em in the end. And if not in the end, then they will have passed a test ofthe highest order." Stamina? "If I don't hold up, I will kill mywife." "Eef you play bockgommon when we get to New York," Racquelcountered, "I weel keel you."
And so at noon ona Friday in the middle of October—tennis rackets, chess books and snow chainsstowed in their burgundy BMW sedan—off they went. "When we get back,"Browne promised, "I will have played more people in two months than theaverage tournament player would meet in 200 years."
And that was justfor starters. Coming up: Inhuman Feat No. 2, an attempt to break the worldrecord for simultaneous play set by Argentina's Miguel Najdorf when he took on250 opponents in S√£o Paulo, Brazil in 1950. Browne says, "I'm going to playat least 260 people—just 251 would look bad." Figuring that it will take 18to 22 hours, he adds, "It's not a question of can I do it but how well, howfast I do it. Talk about the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat. Peopledon't know what that is compared to what I'm going to do. It will be themarathon of marathons! A fantastic event! A spectacle!"
Browne alreadylays claim to two other world marks. In 1971 in Adelaide, Australia, he playedand defeated 29 challengers in 45 minutes. "Forty-five minutes!" heexclaims. "You know how fast that is? About a minute and a half a game! Andsome of the games went to 50, 60 moves. This combination has never happenedbefore and will never happen again. It's almost physically impossible. If I'dstopped to take a drink of water, it was all over."
At Manhattan'sChess City two years ago Browne played 106 opponents, including a ColumbiaUniversity computer called the Ostrich, and won 94 games, drew nine and lostthree. "That is probably the best score ever for that many people," hesays, "and the record without doubt is that I finished in seven hours, 20minutes." (Browne had the computer beaten in just 15 moves. "Tell yourOstrich to read Nimzovich," he sniffed, referring to the father of thehypermodern school of chess.)
"We're nottalking about ticktacktoe here, you know," Browne concludes. "We'retalking about the most profound game ever created. That's why there is not acomputer alive that can beat me. They lack imagination."
Browne obviouslydoes not. But why the big rush, why this compulsion to subject a nice quietpastime to new land-speed and endurance trials? "It's toward the commongoal," says Browne, "the promotion of chess and the promotion of me. Idon't have time to waste. God didn't give me any. We can't wait for Bobby tohelp us. He's like a volcano that has gone to rest. We've got to helpourselves. Right now."
Right now, as haslong been the lamentable case, selling chess in the U.S. is like trying topeddle New York City bonds. Forget the mania touched off by Fischer foursummers ago; it was a fad that faded almost as rapidly as it began. In fact, ifBrowne errs on the side of stridency, it is only the echo of frustrations bornlong, long before the Age of Ali.
Indeed, anyunderstanding of Browne or what he represents can only be gained by viewing himas the descendant of a fabled if forgotten American tradition. More even thanFischer, he reflects an era that began with Paul Morphy, the Flashing Meteorfrom New Orleans, who was the unofficial world champion (1858-59) and thedarling of the Continent at age 21. After one feat of simultaneous play at theCafé de la Régence in Paris, a legendary chess hotbed where Napoleon tried tooutflank his opponents by illegally moving his knights like a cavalry unit,Morphy was paraded through the streets on the shoulders of his ecstaticadmirers.
At the turn ofthe century Harry Nelson Pillsbury of Somerville, Mass., another dazzling youngprince of the royal game, sought acclaim by performing such prodigious stuntsas playing 12 games of chess, six games of checkers and a game of duplicatewhist at the same time—blindfolded.
And then came theintoxicating time when New York City was the chess capital of the world. Led bysuch luminaries as Reuben Fine, Frank Marshall, I. A. Horowitz, Isaac Kashdanand Sammy Reshevsky, the U.S. team won the biennial Chess Olympiad fourconsecutive times during the 1930s. But those gifted players were children ofthe great Depression, brilliant minds turned to the most stimulating freeoccupation available, and as the nation recovered, the game relapsed.
By contrast,while the U.S. was putting a chicken in every pot, the U.S.S.R. was thrusting achess set into the hands of every worker. "The modern Marxian line,"decreed the Daily Worker, "considers chess an important intellectual factorin the social program of mankind." To Lenin, a skilled player in his ownright, chess was "the gymnasium of the mind." To author RaymondChandler, voicing the opinion of a New Deal America that still endures, it was"the biggest waste of human intelligence you can find outside of anadvertising agency."
By 1948, whenRussia's Mikhail Botvinnik won the first FIDE playoff for the worldchampionship, chess was the national pastime of the U.S.S.R. Subsidized by thestate, trained since childhood and awarded commendations, apartments, cars,dachas and pensions, the Soviet grandmasters became so dominant that the worldtitle seemed permanently engraved in Cyrillic script.
Played againstthat background, Fischer's rout of Russia's Boris Spassky in Reykjavik, Icelandin 1972 was cataclysmic on several levels. The least obvious, perhaps, was thatit reasserted the old American ethic of rugged individualism. As Fischer haspointed out, "You can only get good if you love the game. I'm not sure theRussians do. They're more interested in what they get out of it, and they don'tdevelop character. Everything has come too easy for them. The Russians haveproduced great players but not natural talents because they never had tostruggle. It takes a certain amount of adversity to develop character."
No matter thatadversity also develops characters. The point is, whatever their tics ortraumas, Fischer, Browne and their forebears demand admiration if only becausethey succeeded in the face of almost insuperable odds and for reasons as cornyas love of the game.
None of whichsays that Browne's card-shark heart was not set aflutter by the $5 millionpurse offered for the aborted Fischer-Karpov showdown in Manila. But Browne isthe product of grubbier times, when the $5,500 pot for the 1969 worldchampionship was considered munificent. Going into Reykjavik, in fact, Fischerwas the only top U.S. player earning anything close to a living wage (up to$10,000 in a good year) solely from playing chess. Today, says Ed Edmondson,director of the U.S. Chess Federation, "There are perhaps a dozen playerswho make a living out of chess, few of whom eat very well. Our goal is to makeit two dozen, all of whom eat very well."
It may not takelong. The one salutary effect of the 1972 Bobby boomlet was that membership inthe U.S. Chess Federation doubled to 58,000 (compared to 3,500,000 registeredplayers in the U.S.S.R.). And while the ranks have since diminished to 50,000,which Edmondson attributes mainly to "the great disappointment in Fischer'srefusal to play," there remains the nucleus of a new generation ofexceptionally talented young players. After being shut out for nearly a decade,the U.S. has produced nine players in the past two years who have earned thetitle of international master. Unable to raise the minimum $50,000 it wouldtake to help train future champions, Edmondson has introduced a FuturityProgram to allow the very best of the young whips to gain more experience athome and abroad. Recent results have Edmondson beaming about the U.S. future onthe international circuit. In short, he says, "We're loaded."
That was nowheremore apparent than at this year's U.S. championship in Oberlin, Ohio. Inaddition to Browne, there were five other players in their 20s who not onlyrated an invitation but registered a seismic shock. They were:
Ken Rogoff, 22,of Rochester, N.Y., a three-time U.S. Junior Champion, who arrived fresh fromgraduation exercises at Yale confessing, "I've not played a serious game ofchess in nearly a year." It did not show. The tournament's youngest entry,he scored its biggest surprise by finishing second to Browne and winning theU.S.'s last available bid to the FIDE Interzonals.
James Tarjan, 23,of Sherman Oaks, Calif., who was inoculated with chess as a child by hisHungarian refugee father, and quit Berkeley in his junior year because "Icouldn't shake the game's magical attraction." Rated a strong candidate tobecome the ninth active grandmaster in the country, he allows that "With atenth of the energy I could make 10 times the money doing something else."So why doesn't he? "Well, I'm crazy."
John Grefe, 28,of Hoboken, N.J., who prepared for a game by sitting at the board with hisshoes off, back straight and eyes staring into the beyond. He is "intomeditation and applying the law of Karma to chess" in an attempt to achieve"a visualization of the pieces moving in the mind's eye." Somethingworks. In 1973 he materialized out of nowhere to become co-champion of theU.S.
Kim Commons, 23,of Lancaster, Calif., who looks more like a UCLA forward than a UCLA grad whoteaches physics on the side. He gave up pool hustling because "I'm verysolicitous of my thumbs." But now he wonders about the rigors of chess,especially since one of his fellow chess gypsies' teeth fell out frommalnutrition. Married to one of the nation's 2,000 registered female chessplayers, he says, "Eventually I'll probably get a real job. I needroots."
John Peters, 24,of North Scituate, Mass., who has won the New England Open but has never hadthe funds to venture much beyond Boston for competition. A doctor's son, he issticking with chess because he thinks "there might be a future." Thetwo veteran grandmasters he knocked off in Oberlin can only agree.
In Russi a chessheroes are involved in teaching, but here, says Edmondson, "Ourgrandmasters are not disposed to help a promising young player because theyfeel he'll steal the bread out of their mouths." Rogoff agrees,sardonically noting, "They like to teach you, all right, but only bybeating you." The result, says Commons, was that the 1975 U.S. championshipwas "a case of the young Christians going against the old lions."
Rarely, in fact,have the generational battle lines been so sharply drawn: led by Browne, thesix martyrs (average age: 24) were, in effect, a team pitted against a likenumber of lions (average age: 45), a veritable pride of grandmasters who havebeen the kings of the U.S. chess jungle—always excepting Fischer—for more thana decade.
In a game inwhich players lose more than 15 pounds or even faint dead away in tournaments,endurance is crucial. Says Rogoff, "Chess may start out as an art, butafter nearly a month of hard playing in a tournament it becomes an athleticevent."
That is why thelions tended to follow a familiar game plan: play for quick, energy-conservingdraws against one another and go for the kill against the others. The martyrs,though, had their own survival tactics: play a tactical waiting game until thelion shows the first signs of what Commons calls "the fatigue out," andthen pour it on. Against Grandmaster Lubomir Kavalek, a Czech refugee who hadnot lost a game for eight months before the championship, Rogoff says, "Imessed around for 30 moves until he began to tire and then I crushed him in thenext 10 moves."
By mid-tournamenta startling trend was already in the making. As Grandmaster Robert Byrne aptlyobserved, "The GMs need a Futurity Program, too." With one pointawarded for a win, one-half for a draw, the final results begged for aheadline: MARTYRS DEVOUR LIONS 40½-37½. In the stratified world of chess thatwas roughly the equivalent of the Erasmus Hall High Jayvees defeating thePittsburgh Steelers.
Though clearlythe star of the youthful lineup, Browne is the lonesome end of chess, a playerwho by nature and temperament is out there by himself somewhere. Or, as he oncesummed it up, "If Bobby Fischer is the God of chess, I'm the Devil."Tarjan says, "Browne tries to be a good sport, but basically he's a maniacat the board." "He comes at you like a train," says Rogoff. "Heplays to kill, to smash you. The rest of us aren't interested in karatechopping the board in half, but you can never be sure with Walter." Whatthe players are certain of is the aptness of Browne's nickname. They call himthe Savage.
In thetournament's penultimate round, Browne attacked with everything but a spear.Unshaven, scowling, twitching his Mongol mustache and shaking his long darkmane, he looked like some kind of tribal hit man masquerading in flared jeansand floral shirt. In contrast to the tranquil setting, a subterranean retreaton the Oberlin University campus called the Late Study Area, Browne waswrithing, groaning, shuffling, sighing and drumming his way through a classicendgame struggle with Grandmaster Arthur Bisguier, a defensive Houdini.
As he pondered,Browne shook his right leg to the beat of some inner fury. He hovered hawk-likeover the board, his nose almost touching the pieces. And when he drew back,inhaled deeply and prepared to strike, he looked as if he might just as likelytoss a punch as push a pawn.
At one pointBrowne bolted out of his chair, careened into the hallway, shouldered throughthe men's room, shook down a passerby for a quarter, assaulted a coffee machineand barged back to the board. Then, crash! He slammed his rook down. Bang! Hepounded the button on his time clock. Snap! He shattered the point on hispencil while recording the move. And splash, plop, clatter! He knocked hiscoffee cup, scorepad and several stray pieces to the floor.
Bisguier, serenein the eye of Browne's hurricane, occasionally strolled off, pausing like atourist to inspect some of the other games in progress. During one amble hedrifted into a seat among the spectators (nine in all) and dozed offuntil—crash bang!—it was his turn to move again.
Finally, after 70moves and seven hours of infighting, over two days, Browne rose and directed anobscene gesture at Bisguier, which was his way of saying that he was yieldingto a draw. Then off they went to an adjoining "postmortem room" torehash the game. Chomping on a doughnut, Browne rumbled his reactions in tonesthat are a curious cross of Balkan and Brooklynese, a kind of hyper AkimTamiroff. "Ya gotta find these cute moves," he said, rapidly shiftingthe pieces with both hands like a shell-game operator. "Ah! There was one Imissed."
As the skullsession wore on for more than two hours, one passing grandmaster after anotherreached in and shuffled the pieces into new variations. Browne interrupted,"Let me show you one I worked out in my sleep. Pawn, check, pawn, pawn,gobble, push, push, gobble, push, bomp, bomp! That's it! Or is it? Who knows,maybe there wasn't a win there."
Like the chessmenhe deploys, Browne moves in confounding patterns. The scenes blur: now he isquietly retiring to his Oberlin Inn room with his chess books and a wastecanfilled with iced beer to prepare for his final game against Commons; now he isfuriously charging across the Oberlin quadrangle, late as usual and roaring,"Can't let this guy get cocky with a time advantage"; now, just 15minutes after drawing with Commons, he is losing to him on the tennis court;now he is checking out of the inn, slapping the newspaper and exclaiming,"Why do they have Rogoff's picture? What did he do?" And now he is off,walking lopsided, with his tennis racket in one hand and a huge bulgingsuitcase in the other, headed for the Cleveland airport and an exhibition inWestfield, N.J.
Pausing for a pitstop at the Excellent Diner in West-field, Browne said, "I remember thisplace. Played backgammon in here once with a guy. Two bucks a point, and I wonmaybe $100. A real gambler is not a gambler at all, you know. If I play, I onlyplay with people I'm going to beat. If not, I leave. But backgammon and pokerare nothing more than something to relax with before you play chess. Chess isan art, a science—it's everything. It's like being on a high plane lookingdown. I feel sorry for people who don't play chess. They're missingsomething."
Standing under anelm tree outside the Westfield YMCA, Browne removed his tan leather jacket,emptied his pockets into his suitcase, delicately removed a fleck of lint fromhis shirt and began bouncing on his toes like a welterweight awaiting the bell."Ya gotta be light as a feather," he rasped, "mean as theweather."
Moments later heburst into a large upstairs room at the Y with a menacing, slit-eyed look thatsaid I can lick any patzer in the joint. "Nice to see your smiling faceagain," said Denis Barry, the exhibition's organizer. Then, pulling Browneaside, he whispered, "Listen, you know some of the other grandmasters madea nice impression here by shaking hands with the players and...""Whaddya mean." Browne interrupted, "I'm very frrriendly."
Positioninghimself next to a large cloth demonstration board hanging from a coat hanger,Brown e announced, "I'm going to lecture on the Game of the Decade in whichI played white against Bisguier's Petrov Defense. Bobby has a Game of theCentury, but it's just a question of taste as to whose is better." Then,muttering "Chomp, chomp, gobble, gobble," he flashed through the first13 moves and declared, "For 40 years nobody has been able to find the rightmove in this position. But I found it. And here it is, the zonker!"
After arapid-fire analysis of the follow-up attack, Browne concluded, "Well, doyou think the Petrov is still viable? I think that line is out of commission. Iremember I spoke to Bobby about it on the phone and he said this move and Isaid that, and then he didn't have much of an answer."
Then Browne wasoff on the first leg of his race around 49 boards arranged in a sprawlingrectangle. As Browne lurched along, Barry said, "I remember when Walter was14 and he came here for a tournament. He kept slipping off to play pool in thebasement, and when he got back for one game we had to call a time fault on him.He threw the clock at somebody, and then smashed the pieces. I made him pickthem up and fined him $5 for a broken bishop."
As the hourswound on and the victims began to mount, Browne started jogging between thewidening gaps. By the sixth hour he was sprinting among the last few hangers-onand, given less and less time to ponder before the hawk was again flutteringthreateningly over them, one after another they began to blunder. Final score,40 wins, five draws, four losses.
"If it's notan excessive amount I'd appreciate cash," Browne said afterward as thechess club treasurer counted out $375. As he left the Y and headed forManhattan, Browne exclaimed, "Whaddya mean there's no depression? Only 49boards! What is this?"
It was aftermidnight when Browne arrived at the May-fair House of Bridge, an exclusivegamesmen's club in a penthouse above Manhattan's East Side. Within moments heworked his way through a group huddled around a backgammon game and declared,"God, this guy needs help if he makes moves like that! C'mon, get the gameover with. What're you afraid of? If they hit you back, they got a double riskinside. Get the four-point prime. Play solidity. Jack it up. Zap 'em. Hey, Igot the next game, right?"
Right he was, andseveral long, loquacious hours later Browne emerged into a gray, drizzly dawn.Still clutching his tennis racket and oversized bag, he teetered down the damp,deserted streets toward Brooklyn, wayworn, forlorn, and $108 richer.
Browne figuresthat he was predestined to be an itinerant Jack-of-all-gambits. The fact thathe was born in Sydney, Australia on Jan. 10,1949 confirms it, he says. "I'ma Capricorn with Aries rising," Browne says, "which means that I'm bothpersevering and ambitious, the perfect combination for chess. And since chessis life, what's good for chess is good for life."
His Australianmother had cause to doubt that after the family moved from Sydney, whereBrowne's American father was in the export-import business, to New York whenWalter was four. "We often had to ask ourselves, 'Where is this kid going?'" says Hilda Browne of the eldest of her four children. Anywhere butschool, was Walter's answer. "If you have a strong mind you don't needschool," he says. "School is for the masses, not for geniuses."
At 13 he wasplaying 50 games of chess by mail simultaneously and all but memorizingBotvinnik's 100 Best dames while eating, walking and riding the subway. At 14he became one of the youngest U.S. players to attain the title of master. At 16he missed his opening game in the U.S. Junior championship by oversleeping, butstill managed to win the title. The reason he forfeited that first chess gamewas because he was recovering from his last poker game.
Browne firstbegan shuffling the two games at Manhattan's notorious "Fleahouse," achess parlor situated above a porno shop on 42nd Street. Though he went thereto hustle pocket money playing blitz (five-minute chess) for 25¢ a pop, he wasinevitably and irretrievably drawn to the more alluring stakes in the"backroom game." By the time he quit Erasmus Hall, arguing that "Idon't have time for chess, poker and school," he was riding the city'shigh-roller poker circuit, winning more than $10,000 in less than two yearsfrom professional gamblers two and three times his age.
"They werelike suckers waiting in a line," says Browne. "We'd play for 20, 30hours straight or however long it took for the fish to lose their money. At onepoint when I was 16 I was staying up 48 hours at a stretch, playing two gamesof chess in a tournament by day and poker all night. But then after onesleepless night I left my queen en prise [exposed to capture] and right then Ilearned we all have our limits."
His pokerpartners disagreed. At 17, after Browne won 43 sessions in a row, they barredhim from the game. He complains, "They wouldn't even let me sit in if Igave them half my action."
It was never acase of royal flush vs. royal game, Browne says. "Poker was quick money,chess was long-range money, that's all. I never even thought about giving onegame up for the other." But when Browne hit the road in his 18th summer,saying, "New York is a great place to visit, but I don't want to breathethere," he soon found out that cashing in on his long-term investment wastrickier than drawing a natural straight flush.
Striving to firstgain the title of international master and then grandmaster (based on anintricate FIDE point system in which the pace of a player's progress isdependent on the rating of the rivals he plays), Browne rambunctiously tried tofind a shortcut around the small-tournament route. He kept challenginghigher-rated players to private showdowns, a quest that once found himhitchhiking from New Orleans to Baton Rouge in the rain for a match. But Brownewas fighting a familiar stalemate, the Catch-22 of chess: international titlesare won by playing in major international tournaments, which are almostexclusively restricted to players with international titles.
Lacking aninvitation, Browne decided to crash the party. A few weeks before his 19thbirthday he gathered up $3,500 in poker winnings and jetted to a big tournamentin Wijk ann Zee, Holland, where he was summarily snubbed.
Vainly he chasedafter tournaments in England, Sweden, Spain and Hungary. After three depletingmonths of this he landed in Copenhagen and took stock. Down to $70, subsistingmainly on hard-boiled eggs and bread and with no return ticket to the U.S., hewent to the Copenhagen chess club, picked up some quick kroner playing blitzand then ever so nonchalantly drifted over to the poker game in the corner.
That kept himgoing for a few more weeks until—everybody put their hands on the table—theDanes banned the Brooklyn Kid. Undaunted, Browne challenged the country's topfour international chess masters to a series of matches. They all accepted,says Browne, because they could not resist the old surefire Flea-house come-on:"I kept telling everybody I was the best. They kept saying the kid's got abig mouth. And I'd say, oh yeah, prove it."
Browne won allfour matches and flew back to the States in the summer of 1968 to plan a newassault. He recalls, "I finally decided that the bloody quickest way Icould get ahead was to go down and win the Australian championship." Whichhe did, taking advantage of the fact that he enjoyed dual citizenship in theU.S. and Australia until age 21. That victory won him a bid to the Asian Zonalsin the summer of 1969 in Manila where, after replenishing side trips toBangkok, Singapore and all the way back to Copenhagen ("I needed the easymoney," he says), Browne tied for first and earned his international mastertitle.
Then 20, Brownewas beginning to despair that his quest for grandmaster would be realized"too late in life." Like Fischer, who used his winnings on TV's What'sMy Line in 1958 to pay the fare to the international match that at 15 made himthe youngest grandmaster ever, Browne needed a nice timely act ofprovidence.
He got it at 5:31p.m. Thursday, Oct. 9, 1969. That was the moment the phone call from PuertoRico got through to Browne in Manhattan. It was a friend who told him that theyneeded someone to fill in for a grandmaster who had dropped out of a majortournament that was opening the next day in San Juan, and if he hurried....
The last flightto San Juan was at 7 p.m. from Kennedy International, which at rush hour wasabout as accessible as Bangkok. But through a succession of small miracles,including a cabbie who proved to be the A. J. Foyt of the Manhattan fleet,Browne not only made the plane but tied for second in the tournament behindworld champion Spassky.
"I hadSpassky dead beaten," says Browne, "but he escaped with a draw. Evenso, I made him work so hard that he couldn't eat his supper that night."And Browne did not have to eat any more hard-boiled eggs; his brilliantperformance in San Juan earned him the grandmaster mantle and, he says,"From then on I was off to all the big tournaments."
Among Browne'smany victories since, the sweetest occurred in 1974 when, like the mail boy whoreturns to buy the company, he triumphed at Wijk ann Zee, the scene of hisfirst snubbing. In fact, his overall performance that year qualified him as oneof the world's top 10 players, a distinction that no other U.S. player exceptFischer and Robert Byrne has achieved since the International Association ofthe Chess Press began publishing the list in 1968. And this summer he was incontention until the last round in a tournament in Milan that featured a dozenof the world's top players, including world champion Karpov, with whom he drew."He is certainly a great player," Browne says, "well prepared, buthe invents little during a match. If I'd had the help he did in coming up I'dbe better than he is. I mean, the Russians take their chess bloodyseriously."
For Browne,however, the most memorable encounter occurred in 1972 in Mar del Plata,Argentina, where he lost a tournament and won Racquel. They were married in NewYork a year later on March 9, Fischer's birthday, and celebrated by flying toLas Vegas where Walter won the National Open. "From here on out," hedecreed, "Las Vegas is my tournament." And his kind of town; last yearhe scouted the casinos without great success, but he vows, "Next time I hitVegas I'm going to destroy 'em at blackjack. I know the system but I gotta makea lot fast and move out before they bar me. I could go back in a wig but theydon't take kindly to that. They break knuckles, you know."
It may be thealtitude, but Browne is given to a lot of adventurous talk when he is securelyperched in his Berkeley aerie. He and Racquel share their house with her16-year-old son by a previous marriage, a Hawaiian Siamese cat named LonnieHuani Browne and a huge blowup of Walter glowering over the fireplace. There isalso an equally outsized portrait of Freud in the game room, but it is placedin a dark corner, slightly crumpled, like an inferiority complex. "Shawn,he break my Freud when he ees moving eet," Racquel explains."Sorry," says Walter, "it was a Freudian slip."
Relaxed, smilingeasily away from the board, Walter is a doting host. Racquel a gourmet cook.Whenever he feels the need to escape chess, Browne dials the letters JAG PROWon the telephone. That is Lester Schonbrun's line, and what better way to whileaway a California afternoon than by matching tiles with the self-described U.S.Scrabble champion? For a slight token wager, of course.
Browne says,"I know every two-, three-, four-and most five-letter words in Funk &Wagnalls. And I know a lot of tricky words, too, like ouistiti. It's a form ofmonkey. But my alltime favorite is rotl. I don't know what it means— you don'thave to, you know—but the beauty is that the plural of rotl is artal. Isn'tthat great?"
Great, too, ishis concern about the future. Not the winning but the wearing. "People sayI'm too tense, that I won't be able to keep up the pace," says Browne,"but that's not true. The reason a lot of players have trouble with theirdigestion and so on is because they keep the tension inside. Well, I let itout. Yes, the toll of the role of No. 1 will be great. It is going to take alot of energy to get through the serious strain of it all, but I think I can doit."
"Energy!"exclaims Racquel. "Poof! The energy thees guy has, eet ees crazy. The otherplayers are so quiet, so passive. But Shawn, the way he walks, plunk, plunk,plunk! Nobody can keep up weeth heem. I am like Japanese woman all the time,chasing behind heem. He ees very pushy. He talks very loud. He always shut upeverybody. He has drive. He has chareesma. He ees alive. He says, 'I am here! Iam Walter Browne!' He is a special case, no?"
Yes, indeed.Still, what will be the toll of the role? Browne is all too aware that PaulMorphy became a recluse, suffered from acute paranoia and abandoned competitivechess forever at age 22. He knows, too, that the mental strains caused by HarryNelson Pillsbury's feats of simultaneous play were said to have contributed tohis premature death at 33. He has read about the erratic behavior of worldchampions Wilhelm Steinitz (1886-94) and Alexander Alekhine (1927-35) and howboth died in poverty. And he has heard the sad lament of world champion EmanuelLasker (1894-1921), "In life we are all duffers."
And that is whyBrowne is bent on maintaining "a very healthy attitude toward life."Racquel, who specialized in treating schizophrenics in Argentina, insists onit, saying, "The American chess players are the most crazy because theyhave to do eet all themselves. That ees why Bobby Fishair cannot handlesuccess. He has got conflicts. He needs love, Bobby Fishair. I must get heemLatin girl friend." As for Walter, her therapy is strictly shock. "Eefyou get paranoid, Shawn," she warns, "I weel cut off yourhead!"
Late one autumnnight, while sipping a glass of vintage red from his amply stocked wine cellar,Browne observed, "For me it's not a question of do I want to be worldchampion or do I want to be happy? I will be both. I realized all the dangerslong ago. It's like taking a voyage from which you may never return. Think ofColumbus. Everyone warned him about sea monsters and all that, but he succeededand he came back. And so will I, because I have a heightened sense ofawareness, the ability to zero in without being narrow. With Fischer, on theother hand, it is all chess. Diversification may be his downfall."
Then, steppingonto his terrace and surveying the twinkling expanse of San Francisco Bay,Browne said, "People think Bobby is untouchable, but I can touch him. Ithink it's possible to beat him. When the time and the money are right—it willtake a million, maybe a million five up front—I'm going to challenge Bobby to amatch and smoke him out. The one time we played I had him beaten, but then onthe 98th move I tried to win too artistically, and he lucked out with adraw." He laughed. "Now they call him Lucky Bobby."
Browne continued,"Think about asking a Little Leaguer if he could be as good as Babe Ruth.That's what it is like to be a chess player with someone like Bobby around. Butin this case I think I can beat him, I really do. Look, everybody has alwaysbeen putting me down. All those school counselors kept saying that 99% of thetime when a kid drops out of school it doesn't work. They said I wasn't thatone in 100. Well, the kid made it and now I can laugh back."
Growing moreanimated, he said, "The most important thing in life is to do what you wantto do. I love chess. And I'm good enough to make a living at it. How manypeople can say they do exactly what they want and get paid for it, too?
"I'm going tocultivate my own school of learning. I could be another Leonardo da Vinci. Iwant to do everything. I'm reading a lot now. Books like The Rise and Fall ofthe Third Reich. I want to find out about everything that was bad and great. Iwant the straight stuff. I'm going to buy musical instruments. Drums! I'm goingto play the drums! I'm going to do everything in my life. I feel I've got athousand, a million lives inside me. I'm gonna be a lot more than a chesschampion. When I'm 70 I'm gonna look back and say, whatever else I was, I wasreally alive!"