GM Walter Browne, 1949-2015

GM Walter Browne, 1949-2015

| 51 | Chess Players

The chess world is suddenly without one of its most illustrious and longtime stars. GM Walter Shawn Browne, a six-time U.S. champion, died in his sleep Wednesday at the age of 66.

He was perhaps the most dominant U.S. player after the Fischer era, having won his first national championship in 1974 and five more by 1983. He won three consecutive titles twice. Internationally, Browne represented both Australia, the country of his birth, and the U.S., where he moved early in life.

For five decades Browne managed to balance twin careers in chess and as a professional poker player. Recently, he returned more to the chess world, sometimes even playing poker and chess in the same weekend (including his last). He died at the home of lifelong friend and fellow chess player NM Ron Gross.

GM Walter Browne at the 2014 Reykjavik Open

He was active in both careers until his final week. At the Las Vegas International Chess Festival this past weekend, he tied for ninth in the 50th edition of the National Open. He also gave lectures there and played a 25-board simul. The tournament site was the first to report the news and has more details about Browne's final days. He won the tournament 11 times.

A moment of silence was held for him before today's final round of Norway Chess 2015.

He passes as the reigning U.S. senior champion.

Here's some other impressive stats from his career:

  • He played in 24 U.S. championships from 1973-2007, going +85 -68 =114.
  • Only Bobby Fischer and Sammy Reshevsky have won more American titles.
  • Browne also won the U.S. Junior Championship in 1971.
  • He won most of the presitigious Swiss events, including two U.S. Opens, seven American Opens, and three World Opens.
  • According to the USCF, he won more Swiss chess tournaments than any other player.
  • Among his many international successes was winning Wijk aan Zee in 1974 and 1980 (see below for an anecdote on that event).

He won his first U.S. championship game, versus GM Edmar Mednis, and his final game, against NM Michael Aigner. Here is that first win:

His accomplishments earned him an induction to the U.S. Chess Hall of Fame in 2003.

Browne has an opening system named for him, the Browne System in the Najdorf Sicilian. An early ...h6 signifies his namesake. His knowledge of the opening was apparently still feared in last year's Reykjavik Open. Tournament-leading GM Robin van Kampen said after his game against Browne, "I decided not to play the Najdorf, because I heard you're an expert!" The Dutchman won the game, so Browne replied, "Well not anymore!"

Generational chess masters: (Left to right) GM Walter Browne, FM Ingvar Johannesson and GM Robin van Kampen. Browne won the Reykjavik Open 16 years before van Kampen was born!

You can hear Browne discuss the game here:

The grandmaster's knowledge of the opening is still influencing top players today. U.S. top player GM Hikaru Nakamura reminisced on Twitter:

Browne began the World Blitz Chess Association (WBCA) in 1988 and also founded the magazine "Blitz Chess." He was famously in time trouble often, and had one of the most recognizable postures while his clock ran low. He would rock forward and backward repeatedly while invariably working through a complicated variation.

His peers, including GM Yasser Seirawan, lauded his calculation skills: "It is a vast understatement to call him a hard-worker at the board. He never stops."

In 2012 he wrote an autobiography published by New In Chess. In "The Stress of Chess...and its Infinite Finesse" he discussed his life and his 101 best games. 

Seirawan contributed the foreword to the book. He writes:

"Everyone who has played competitive chess for any length of time has at least one rival who, for a certain period, has had their number. The games involved are not so much a well-contested face-off with a dreaded arch-rival; rather, they are akin to being body-slammed from the top rope in a wrestling match. The battles tend to be one-sided. Even in those very rare contests where we manage to mix things up and play decently, at least for a time, we somehow manage to walk into the one true haymaker on the board, allowing yet another brilliant win. In short, we lose yet again...None of my later rivals did I find as frightening as Walter."

Browne at the World Chess Hall of Fame (photo courtesy Austin Fuller).

His accomplishments earned him not one but two nicknames: "Six-time" and "King of the Swiss."

Here's a game from that triumph in Wijk aan Zee. His Sicilian knowledge paved the way for a pretty finish:

On a personal note, earlier this week I showed two of his games in a chess camp. The first was from a blog post on his new website, where he effectively demonstrates the power of knight versus bishop.

The second is an old standby. I like to give a room full of kids 10 guesses to pick out this move from the famous game Browne-Bisguier, 1975 U.S. Championship. Invariably, they are as clueless and as awestruck as I was when my coach first showed it to me.

The move is number 81 on Tim Krabbe's list of the 110 Most Fantastic Moves Ever Played. Browne called it the "novelty of my life" in his book.

In 2012, while touring the Balkans before the Istanbul Olympiad, I toured the Skopje City Museum in Macedonia, where there is a display of memorabilia from the 1972 Chess Olympiad. It was in that year that Browne, playing for Australia for the second time, amassed an astounding 17.5 points in 22 games on board one. He played every round, whereas every other team member took at least seven games off.

Browne took an individual bronze (even though he had 2.5 more points than the gold medalist; calculations back then were based on percentage), much like the one on display in the museum:

The grandmaster also played on the American squad four times from 1974-1984, winning four team bronzes in becoming one of the most decorated national team members of all time.

For more on his poker career, you can read this interview from Card Player, where we learn that he never finished high school and didn't go to college (he "found" poker as a teenager). Even the writer admits that his exploits at the card table will never come close to his status as a chess legend.

Here are some remembrances by other friends and top players. We will add to this as more come in.

Three-time U.S. champion GM Larry Christiansen:

"I first encountered Walter Browne at the Riverside Open in 1968. He was quite a character then. He drove his Yamaha (or was it a Triumph?) 500 motorcycle to the tournament from L.A. and his intensity amazed me. He won the tournament over a drizzly cold weekend."

Christiansen said Browne loved sports, especially soccer, softball and tennis: "Walter's tennis game improved over the years and resembled his chess style. Active and forceful."

Browne and GM Leonid Shamkovich on the cover of the December, 1977 issue of "Chess Life and Review" (image courtesy U.S. Chess Federation).

At a tournament in Buenos Aires in 1981, Christiansen remembered Browne saving the day.

"After a wine-drenched steak feast hosted by Miguel Najdorf, Walter Browne and Yasser Seirawan walked (stumbled rather) back to our hotel without carrying IDs and encountered heavily armed soldiers demanding ID in Spanish. Walter's pigeon Spanish somehow got us through the checkpoint without too much trouble."

He also contributed this story from Lone Pine, 1980:

"In the kibitzer's room, a young Seirawan was playing blitz with Tigran Petrosian. Running commentary by Viktors Pupols and many others. Pupols recited a 'Chess Life' article by Pal Benko about Yasser that featured the line 'He [Yasser] looked like a girl, and not a very good looking girl at that!' Walter did not skip a beat and chimed in, 'Yeah, but he was still interested!' which just about broke down the house."

Interview courtesy World Chess Hall of Fame.

American GM Jesse Kraai:

"One of the many things that amazed me about Walter Browne was that even after his stroke, even after he was losing to experts, he still just wanted to play. I admire that."

American GM Ben Finegold:

"Most people have never had the result of a game changed after the fact. Well, I played Walter twice after results of his games were changed!!

"In 1987, Walter lost to [Lev] Alburt in the U.S. Open. He played the game under protest since it gave him three consecutive black pieces. The rules, at the time, forbade this. I drew Walter in the last round, and, subsequently, Walter was given 3/4 of a point for his Alburt game for prize purposes!!! Later, in another event, Walter had rook and knight versus rook and pawn against a 2300. His opponent claimed a draw, and the director agreed. The following morning, [Bill] Goichberg awoke, was told of the ruling, and said it was incorrect, found Walter's opponent, and asked that he continue. They did, and Walter won. The following round, the last round, Walter crushed me!"

Famous instructor NM Bruce Pandolfini:

"Walter was a truly remarkable chess player and a great game player in general. He could play any game well if he put his mind to it. Scrabble, backgammon, poker, you name it. I remember the first time I ever saw him. He was just starting to make his mark on the New York chess scene. I didn't know who he was, but here was this 14-year-old phenom destroying a local 2400 player at speed chess with such assuredness and composure, I wondered who the heck is that kid. I soon found out. Walter certainly put his permanent stamp on the history of the game we all love. What a talent."

Our own IM Danny Rensch:

"Walter was one of the first GMs who truly intimidated me as a young player. I saw him at many West Coast chess events as an up-and-comer and his presence at the board was always so focused and strong...he always left you wondering if you were working hard enough!

"He was also one of the first GMs to ‘yell at me’ at the board for being obnoxious. He was right of course. Taught me etiquette right then...I beat him later on at the Reno Western Class Championships and in the Blitz too. I was thrilled...and he wasn't :) Which was an honor. But again, what matters is he really left an impression on me, again with his spirit, focus, energy. His presence. Thank you Walter. RIP."

American GM Melik Khachiyan:

"I had a chance to play and talk with Walter several times, and it's always been a pleasure to play such a great fighter. He always loved to propose to analyze the game more deeply right after, no matter how's it finished.

"Once, I remember, after a last-round draw in Santa Clara, which gave me a tie for first place and cost him almost nothing, we spent almost 30 minutes to talk about the game, even in presence of his wife and complaints from her for it being late.

Walter loved chess. It was all about chess. Every time since we become more close (from about 2012), we talked a lot. When I had finally beat Walter last year in Reno, I told him, OMG Walter, how hard it was to beat you, and I'm so impressed by the way how resistant you are. I told him that I'm considering to retire from chess. Walter responded, 'There is no such a thing, retiring from chess. If you love chess, it will be always with you. You will be dreaming about chess; you can't retire from chess.'

We lost a legend, so sad. Walter will be missed, his passion will be missing. RIP Walter, my friend and mentor. I learned a lot from you, and will try to pass your vision and passion to chess, to all my students."

More from GM Yasser Seirawan:

"I knew Walter in the early 1970s and we played a lot. I would say that I was one of Walter's very best customers. Most often we would find ourselves playing in the last round and...he won! Walter was an extraordinarily competitive person. Whatever he did, whether he played snooker, ping pong, tennis, chess, he was playing for victory. He taught me not only a lot about chess, what it is to be a good player, but his fighting spirit. You don't go to tournaments to compete, you go to tournaments to win. That was it, end of story. I was really impressed by such an attitude. The same attitude was exemplified by Bent Larsen.

"He had that killer instinct at the chess board, but was oftentimes kind of a wall, he was very limiting, his colleagues couldn't get passed that facade. But if you did penetrate past that facade, you discovered that he was a very kind person, a very knowledgable person and a person who had a great sense of humor. I remember many, many incidents that we laughed so hard that our tummies would hurt at a certain moment.

"One anecdote I'd like to share: I was actually having a breakthrough result in 1980 in Wijk aan Zee. I was playing in the top group among top grandmasters, including Walter Browne. I was often with Walter; we'd take walks together, we'd be talking about the tournament. We were quite close.

"Going into the last round I said, 'Well, you got a big game tomorrow, Walter, you're White with Viktor Korchnoi!' Walter turned it immediately and said, 'No! He's the one who's got a big game!' Viktor Korchnoi was the number-two [GM] in the world at the time, behind Anatoly Karpov. It was this kind of combativeness that I'll always remember."

On Facebook, GM Emil Sutovsky wrote:

"I met him first in 1993, when he was well past his prime but still Browne was really strong -- and although some high-rated colleagues may have joked about Walter's eternal bravado and time-trouble habits, they would never underestimate him as a player. A player -- exactly what he was. He excelled in chess, but not only. Card games always were an important part of his life, and in the second half of his life Walter was getting more and more into [the] poker world, where he was quite successful. And there were more games -- in 1976 Browne was quoted as saying, “I can beat four out of five people in ping pong and nine out of 10 in tennis. I can beat 97 out of 100 experts in Scrabble, 98 of 100 in backgammon, and 99.9 of 100 in poker.” You can read more about it all in Browne's excellent autobiography book "The Stress of Chess...and its Infinite Finesse," published just three years ago.

"He will be missed. One of the most colorful personalities in the history of modern chess, a great player and passionate person. RIP." 

American GM Maurice Ashley:

"I did not know Walter very well, but I do remember the one game we played when I was a youngster coming up he beat me in 11 moves! He was extremely passionate about chess, and he will certainly be missed. It is the passing of a true American legend."

Two-time U.S. Champion GM Roman Dzindzichashvili:

"He was just one of the dear persons that I always liked and was close to. I've known him since the 1970s. We've been at each others throats but friendly and competitively. We were never on bad terms.

He was a 100 percent genuine person. He is what you're going to see. He will tell you what he thinks and feels. He doesn't have to be politically right. He doesn't have to be diplomatic. That's why I liked him so much.

There was a practical joke I did with him the first time I met him in Wijk aan Zee. In his life he hasn't played any other move on 1. e4 except 1...c5. Walter was always late for a few minutes and we glued his pawn on c7. He swore the f-word."

Dzindzichashvili lived in California's Bay Area for several years, where Browne played poker. Roman would sometimes play in the same club.

"He was really missing talking to a chess player on his level. He was like in seventh heaven.

He was playing for wins against any player on the planet with any color. We played about 15 times with only one or two draws."

Dzindzichashvili will be contributing more stories and best chess moments of Browne's career in an upcoming video.

Walter Browne is survived by his wife and his stepson.

FM Mike Klein

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Mike Klein began playing chess at the age of four in Charlotte, NC. In 1986, he lost to Josh Waitzkin at the National Championship featured in the movie "Searching for Bobby Fischer." A year later, Mike became the youngest member of the very first All-America Chess Team, and was on the team a total of eight times. In 1988, he won the K-3 National Championship, and eventually became North Carolina's youngest-ever master. In 1996, he won clear first for under-2250 players in the top section of the World Open. Mike has taught chess full-time for a dozen years in New York City and Charlotte, with his students and teams winning many national championships. He now works at as a Senior Journalist and at as the Chief Chess Officer. In 2012, 2015, and 2018, he was awarded Chess Journalist of the Year by the Chess Journalists of America. He has also previously won other awards from the CJA such as Best Tournament Report, and also several writing awards for mainstream newspapers. His chess writing and personal travels have now brought him to more than 85 countries.

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