A Legendary Chess Zen Master Has Died

A Legendary Chess Zen Master Has Died

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When I was just turning 19, I would go with a friend to Berkeley and visit the Hare Krishna temple.

Were we into them? No, not at all. But every evening they offered free (very tasty!) food, and when you are broke and starving, you are willing to listen to any blather if there’s food at the end of the rainbow.

The friend that came with me was Steve Brandwein, who, after we left the building, would always say, “I came, I ate, and I left.”

Returning to the Haight Ashbury, we would play dozens of blitz games and analyze openings. Then he would rush home and do what he loved the most: read. Steve was the most passionate reader I’ve ever seen. He often knew more about things he wasn’t interested in than people who studied the subject in great depth. His forte, though, was world history.

Chess history, Russian history, Chinese history, the history of the Vikings: he was the go-to guy if you had questions on just about anything. Visiting whatever hovel he happened to be staying at, I was struck by how little he cared about money or possessions. He had a small mattress (surrounded by several piles of books from the library), a few old clothes (but always crisp and clean), and that’s about it.

Steve Brandwein

Steve Brandwein (1942-2015) was a remarkably strong player who understood chess better than many grandmasters I knew (he was an amazing analyst with a deep understanding of every facet of chess, and his comments when we looked at games made me far stronger than I would have been without him), a world-class blitz chess player (he would dominate everyone but a few super GMs at five-minute chess, and even then he drew lots of blood), a master at Scrabble, and (as I mentioned before) he blazed through endless books on just about every possible subject.

One might say, “He’s your friend, so you’re pouring on the praise! Get real and tell us the truth.”

Okay, here are other voices that had the pleasure of meeting and playing Steve.

Sam Sloan

Sam Sloan wrote the following:

It has been an open secret for more than three decades that one of the strongest chess players in the United States is not a tournament player at all. This person is virtually unbeatable in five-minute chess. Even strong masters who have played him hundreds of games have never defeated him even one game of chess. It is not merely that nobody can beat him over the majority of chess games in a session: It is that nobody can beat him even one individual game of chess.

Andy Sacks

NM Andy Sacks said:

In the late 1960s and early ‘70s, several apartments, duplexes, and rented houses in Berkeley were home to strong chess players, and their residences often served as meeting places and "crash pads" for their fellow competitors. Speed chess was the order of the day -- and quite often all night.

On a trip to the Bay Area in one of those early ‘70s years -- you must forgive my temporal uncertainty here, and naturally it is completely unrelated to any illegal drug consumption during that most conservative of periods and places -- I found myself with my dear and recently deceased friend Alan Pollard "vacationing" at one of those chess dens. Dennis Fritzinger was present, and, I believe, one of the hosts. In and out, day and night, were the likes of Alan Benson, Frank Thornally, Dennis Waterman, Frank Street and other young experts and masters of our generation.

One mid-afternoon the totally unexpected occurred: one of the players brought over Steve Brandwein (whom many of us had always referred to as "Brandywine" for some reason). He was in California somehow (perhaps on chess business, perhaps not) and, with very little persuasion necessary, was ready to join in the play. We took turns playing him and eagerly spectating. No stakes were involved, and all games were 5/5.

If you have read the Sam Sloan article, or have any previous familiarity with the legendary Brandwein, you already know the result. Our group was composed of players whose ratings and actual speed chess strengths ranged from about 2225 to 2375. We were out of our league. No one was able to nick him for even a draw. However, much more interesting than the sporting result, I thought, was the playing demeanor and style of our distinguished visitor.

His bearing was remarkably matter-of-fact while playing, and his moves were made extremely rapidly and with an air of nonchalance, even unconcern. It was rather eerie. Often it seemed as if he had seen all these positions before and was reacting mechanically, from a type of memory that today we associate with chess-playing computer programs. He was always significantly ahead on time after 15 to 20 moves.”

Mr. Sacks has hit the nail on the head, and he did so beautifully. Steve would seem bored when he played, and at some point in every game he would stand up (with his clock ticking) and calmly step around and sit on the other side of his chair. We eventually came to call this the “Brandwein shuffle.”

Bored or not, he would reach out and quietly (seemingly slowly!) make one move after another, and then your flag would fall or your position would simply melt into a losing blob.

Larry Kaufman

Grandmaster Larry Kaufman (interviewed by Jim Eade) admitted that Brandwein played an important role in his game:

C.T. Who were your biggest influences?

L.K. Fischer was my biggest influence in my teens, although the book that influenced me the most was Reshevsky’s (“How Chess Games are Won”). On a personal level I would say Steve Brandwein.

C.T. How so?

L.K. When I was a college student at M.I.T., Steve lived nearby and we became friends. I was very impressed with his intellect, knowledge, and memory; he was (and presumably still is) a very brilliant man. At the time I was a high expert while Steve was already retired from regular tournament play with a 2300 rating, which was pretty good back in the mid 1960s. At blitz chess he was much better still, certainly way beyond my level. He taught me a lot about chess (and other things too), but the biggest impact was a 20-game match we played.  Due to the rating disparity we agreed to a 2-1 time handicap; I think Steve took 30 minutes to my hour. I thought this would make for a fair match, but I was soon to realize how wrong this was. After 19 games I was still seeking my first win; the score was 10 wins for Steve and 9 draws. Finally by some miracle I won the final game. Just a few weeks later, I was the American Open champion! This shows both how much I learned from this match and how strong Steve must have been to score so well against me giving me time odds; my own rating soon hit 2300.

I played many other training matches over the years with various masters, but this was the only one I lost. My match victims in these matches included Bill Hook, Mark Diesen, Larry Gilden, and Arnold Denker. There was also a drawn match in my very early days with Frank Street, who soon became the nation’s second Black chess master.

You can see the whole interview here.

Keep in mind that 2300 in the early '60s would be 2500 now.

Brandwein is mentioned in the Stefan Fatsis book, WORD FREAK, and was referenced in a USA Today review of that book as follows:

“Midway through his quest to master Scrabble, author Stefan Fatsis meets ‘game-room legend’ Steve Brandwein, a well-read bookie and expert at Scrabble and chess who refuses to play in tournaments. He’s the epitome, Fatsis writes, ‘of the game-playing mind and character: brilliant, unconventional, and unapologetic.’”

Looking at some forums (which happened to mention Brandwein), I noted that some ignorant folk viewed Steve as a hustler. This is completely false. A hustler pretends he’s not very good in the hope of fleecing you of your money. Steve only played if you approached him and insisted on a game, and if you were lucky enough to get a “yes” from him you would know beforehand that you had absolutely no chance to win.

In effect, you were paying him for a lesson.

Born in Boston, Brandwein (some called him Brandywine) made his way to New York in the mid-'60s and finally found himself (more or less permanently) in San Francisco. San Francisco in the '60s and '70s was the perfect place for a Zen-like chess god, and as his legend grew, people sought him out in the hope of playing one single game with him or getting lessons. I remember one young man that kept following him around begging for chess lessons.

Steve said “no” and the guy would ask again -- day after day, week after week, month after month. Finally Steve said yes and the young man sat down with his chess hero. Steve cleared the chessboard and said, “If you want to truly understand chess, you have to create a relationship with the board. Once you understand the board, moving the pieces to their best squares will be easy. I want you to look at the board for one hour and then we’ll take it from there.”

The young man did as he was told, putting his heart and soul into glaring at the board, demanding it to share its secrets. Then, after the hour was up, he looked for his teacher, but Steve had left the building a few minutes after the lesson started.

In one way, Steve was the ultimate Jewish intellectual – a man that lived, ate, and breathed knowledge. He was a man that didn’t care for wealth or fame or detailed relationships or anything to do with ego. He simply glided in and out of the Haight or the Mechanics Institute (the oldest chess club in the United States), and then vanished (in most cases rushing back to his beloved books).

In my early Haight years, a man named Jim Buff (a friend of Fischer’s, now deceased) was renting a San Francisco flat in the Avenues -- 521 Third, to be precise. A whole book could be written about 521 Third and the comings and goings of famous players and the eye-popping super fun insanity that was the norm rather than the exception. A lot of people (many with very high ratings) moved in and out (I also lived there for a time), and in 1981 the highest rating of all moved in –- Bobby Fischer!

Brandwein was also living there and they played dozens of blitz games. Fischer won 80 percent of the games, but that 20 percent kept Bobby interested. By the way, 20 percent is far better than many grandmasters made against Fischer.

The following was kindly sent to the Mechanics Institute by longtime Boston Globe columnist Harold Dondis. The column, the third of Dondis’ career, appeared in October 11, 1964.



Stephen Brandwein, winner of the James Burgess trophy, is the highest placed Massachusetts player in the U.S. Open. He has favored us with a game annotated by him from that event. Brandwein is a unique figure in chess circles. He plays with airy unconcern, being apparently more taken with getting the game over with than winning. He plays at amazing speed and will upon the vaguest pretense of equilibrium, either offer or accept a draw. He has not lost a game for longer than we can remember.

Against John Collins in the U.S. Open, Brandwein accepted a draw with a superior position and with almost an hour ahead on his clock! He has an enormous knowledge of the openings, gained not so much from study but from genuine interest in other peoples’ games. Either there is method in his casualness or Brandwein is one of the more gifted players in the United States.

In the game below Brandwein makes a succession of three bad moves out of five, leaves a pawn en prise, saddles himself with a backward pawn but of course wins the game.”

Before showing the game, allow me (Silman) to add something. Only three or four Brandwein games exist (hopefully some of his opponents from the early '60s will share some with us). My guess is that he simply tore up the scoresheet after the game ended. This would be a very typical Brandwein act.

What makes the following game particularly interesting is that he actually wrote a few comments. All of these comments were negative: “Crushes me” and “I didn’t see the pawn was en prise.”

Glancing at the written score, I saw Steve’s comments and was quite sad. Why is he annotating a bad game? It was only after I looked at the game that I realized that Steve was doing what Steve always did; he was putting himself down and thus minimizing his complete domination over his hapless foe. Remember: Steve didn’t like praise, and he didn’t like people fawning over him. He was, in many ways, a man without an ego. 

A fantastic game by Black, and a very instructive illustration of the power of active pieces working together.

Steve Brandwein, 1964

Since most of Steven’s games have vanished, I’ll give the following game for history’s sake:

Steve and I hung out a lot, and we must have played several hundred blitz games over the years. I remember asking him why he didn’t play in tournaments anymore (he played a bit of tournament chess between 1961-1968, and then he quit), or become a history professor, or...well, you get the idea. He looked at me with absolutely no emotion and quietly said, “I’m a bum, I’ve always been a bum, and I’ll always be a bum.”

Steve died on December 12, 2015. He was one of a kind -- gentle, unbelievably well educated, a master of many games, deeply philosophical, and incredibly intelligent. Such men are extremely rare, and I’ll certainly miss him.

Rest in peace, my friend.


Steve as a child. "A little aardvark: short and stout" (Steve's words).


For those that would like to read a bit about the young Brandwein, please let Mr. Steve Kellerman take the podium. Mr. Kellerman, in 2012, discussed Steve’s early life in a forum.

Kellerman on the left sporting islands and trees, Steve on the right.

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