Monday, September 10, 2012

Walter Browne's Passion for Chess

Walter Browne won six U.S. Chess Championships (1974, 1975, 1977, 1980, 1981, 1983), trailing only Bobby Fischer (eight wins in eight attempts) and Sammy Reshevsky (seven wins in 21 attempts), and he is also a world class poker player who earned $131,445 for finishing second in the 2007 World Series of Poker $2500 H.O.R.S.E. event. Poker is more lucrative than chess but chess is Browne's passion, as he explains in the preface of his 2012 autobiography The Stress of Chess...and its Infinite Finesse: "Chess is a natural cerebral high for me and it surpasses any physical pleasure or material possession...As we are a playful species and chess is the highest form of intellectual combat, it seems only natural to be immersed in it."

Browne believes that chess is life and can teach us much about life. Toward the end of the preface he elaborates about this:

"Adjusting to the environment has always been the quintessential human survival skill, fighting the elements. Perhaps like the struggle of our pre-historical ancestors is the struggle within myself that I project into competing at different games.

Whether it is the preparation, sometimes months prior to an event, or the enormous amount of stamina needed to play, chess requires tons of energy.

On the contrary, poker needs little preparation and requires approximately 5% of the energy of chess."

The January 12, 1976 Sports Illustrated includes a lengthy profile of Browne, who was then 26 years old and near the height of his powers. Browne had recently won his second straight U.S. Chess Championship, finishing just ahead of Ken Rogoff, who would soon abandon his promising chess career to become one of the world's most acclaimed economists. Rogoff noted, "Chess may start out as an art, but after nearly a month of hard playing in a tournament it becomes an athletic event."

Browne's career as a gamesman took off when he dropped out of high school as a 16 year old: "If you have a strong mind you don't need school," Browne explained. "School is for the masses, not for geniuses." The decision to leave school was a simple calculation for Browne, who said that he figured out "I don't have time for chess, poker and school."

Browne acquired quick cash as a young poker player before being banned from several late night haunts in New York but he never lost sight of his true love: chess. At 19, Browne began pursuing the Grandmaster title in earnest and he achieved that goal a little over a year later at a time when there were only a few dozen Grandmasters in the world (there are well over 1000 Grandmasters now).

Browne told SI reporter Ray Kennedy that in addition to his chess prowess, "I can beat 97 out of 100 experts in Scrabble, 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." In the fall of 1975 Browne embarked on an incredible two month, whirlwind tour of the United States during which he visited 50 cities, played more than 2000 chess games in simultaneous exhibitions and pocketed about $15,000 for his tireless efforts. Browne sought to promote both himself and the game: "I don't have time to waste. God didn't give me any. We can't wait for Bobby to help us. He's like a volcano that has gone to rest. We've got to help ourselves. Right now."

Browne faced the legendary Fischer just once in official tournament play, a 98 move epic struggle in 1970 during which Fischer first stood better but then was on the brink of losing before he managed to salvage a draw. That contest took place near the end of Fischer's career--Fischer won the World Championship in 1972 and then did not play in public for 20 years--and very early in Browne's career. Despite Browne's eventual U.S. Championship success and a remarkable string of victories in various big tournaments around the world, he never came close to reaching the ultimate goal that he freely mentioned to Kennedy: winning the World Chess Championship. Browne qualified for three Interzonal events but never advanced to the Candidates round, the stage that ultimately determined who would face the reigning World Champion in a match for the crown.

While that failure undoubtedly disappointed the ambitious Browne, he can take solace in the philosophy that he expressed in the preface to his autobiography: "I firmly believe that by competing you are a winner, no matter the result."

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