Checkmated In Las Vegas

Walter Browne was an American maverick who excelled at more games than one

Dominic Lawson

Walter Browne, who has died at the age of 66, in 1974 (photo: NationaalArchief)

No year ends without at least one of my chess heroes failing to finish it. Usually, they have been long retired. But this was not the case with Walter Shawn Browne. He died in June at the age of 66, at a friend’s home, just three days after he had finished competing in the 50th National Open at Las Vegas, where he had tied for ninth place. In fact neither his sudden death, nor its venue, should have surprised anyone.

For the six-times US chess champion was also a formidable competitor at the poker table, where his winnings were his main source of income: whenever possible he would often play chess and poker tournaments at the same time. And pool, too — also for high stakes — when he was younger. All these pursuits were carried out with ferocious intensity, based on Browne’s conviction that, with enough hard work, he could be the best at any of them.

In recent years, even a stroke did not stop him playing poker for long — although it left his speech somewhat impaired. It was not so surprising that he should have died suddenly. The blessing was that it was in his sleep, although perhaps the amazing Browne, who had the appearance of a Western movie gun-slinger, would have preferred to have expired while engaged in mortal mental combat.

Despite his peripatetic existence — he criss-crossed America countless times, usually on his motorbike, giving simultaneous chess displays, taking on all comers — the narrow-eyed, moustachioed Browne had remained married to the same woman since 1973. But his Argentine-born wife, Dr Raquel Browne, was a clinical psychologist — and she understood him very well.

In a joint interview they did for Sports Illustrated in 1976, she said of her husband: “The energy this guy has is crazy. The other players are so quiet, so passive. But Shawn, the way he walks, plunk, plunk, plunk, nobody can keep up with him. I am like a Japanese woman, chasing behind him. He is very pushy, he talks very loud. He is alive. He says ‘I am here! I am Walter Browne!’ He is a special case.”

Browne himself was certainly convinced of that. He dropped out of New York’s Erasmus high school (the same as that attended by his slightly older chess hero, Bobby Fischer), stating afterwards that “school is for the masses, not the geniuses”. And in that Sports Illustrated interview, he declared: “I’ve got the talent. All I need to do is persevere. And I will, because I’m concentrating all my energies on becoming world champion. I have this drive to win at all costs short of physical violence. I got this aggression that never quits, this feeling of terrific power. I’m not bragging. I really feel as if I can beat anyone at anything.”

This did intimidate his chess opponents. One of them, grandmaster Ken Rogoff, who subsequently quit the game and is now much better known as an economist, said back then: “He comes at you like a train. He plays to kill, to smash you. The rest of us aren’t interested in karate-chopping the board in half, but you can never be sure with Walter.”

The four-times US chess champion Yasser Seirawan said that Browne’s intensity was his greatest strength but also the reason why he never came close to his aim of becoming world champion. In his foreword to Browne’s autobiographical volume, The Stress of Chess, Seirawan observed that his friend’s obsessive need to calculate everything perfectly down to the last detail meant that he would invariably run terribly short of time on the clock — and that this would lead to blunders, with good games being wrecked. So although Browne could beat anyone, he also lost to many players who were not his equal.

But Seirawan has left us with a wonderful picture of Walter Browne at the board (which I can verify, having seen him in action in London in 1980):

Those who have competed against him or merely watched him at the board cannot help but notice the extraordinary amount of energy that he expends. He is a living cauldron of moving, boiling, seething energy. From his facial expressions, with grimaced lips, you can see that he has calculated a particular variation at great length and has found a miracle saving move for his opponent. Frustrated, he shakes his head, pulls himself up to the board, extending his height, and applies himself once more, trying hard, desperately searching for the right move, as well as the right series of moves that will bring him victory. It is a vast understatement to call him a hard worker at the board. He never stops.

Seirawan’s awe of Browne at the board was doubtless influenced by their first encounter, in the US Masters Open of 1979, in which Walter, playing Black, annihilated him in just 18 moves. And here those moves are, in memoriam: 1.c4 e5 2.Nc3 Nc6 3.Nf3 f5 4.d4 e4 5.Ng5 h6 6.Nh3 g5 (Characteristically, Browne goes for the most aggressive possible continuation) 7.f3 exf3 8.exf3 Bg7 9.d5? (Tempting, but premature) Qe7+ 10.Kd2?! (This look most odd, but Seirawan wants to avoid the loss of a pawn and his Bishop pair after 10.Be2 Nd4 11.0-0 Nxe2+ 12. Ne2 Qc5+) Nd4 11.Bd3 Kd8! (getting his King off the e-file before White plays Re1) 12.Ng1 b5!? 13.Nge2?! (Seirawan continues with his plan, but it was better to grab the offered pawn with 13.cxb5) bxc4 14.Bxc4 Qc5 15.Kd3 (This looks insanely risky, but Seirawan is trying to round up Browne’s knight on d4) Rb8 16.Be3? (Seirawan could have baled out with 16.b3! Nxe2 17.Ne2 Bxa1 18.Be3 Qa3 19.Qxa1 when he would have reasonable compensation for the lost exchange.) Qxc4+!! (A memorable Queen sacrifice, which Browne doubtless played with a theatrical thump) 17.Kxc4 Ba6+ 18.Nb5 (Only move, as 18.Kc5 d6 is mate!) Nxb5! Seirwan resigned here, denying Browne the pleasure of 19.Kc5 Na3! 20.bxa3 d6+ 21.Kc6 Bb5 mate. The only way to have continued was 19.Kd3 Nc3+ 20.Kd2 Rxb2+ 21.Qc2 Rxc2+ 22.Kxc2 Bxe2 but Black’s material superiority would then have been overwhelming. And you didn’t mess with Walter Shawn Browne.

An autumn note

“For many, the end of this uneasy year cannot come quickly enough”

An ordinary killing

Ian Cobain’s book uses the killing of Millar McAllister to paint a meticulous portrait of the Troubles

Greater—not wiser

John Mullan elucidates the genius of Charles Dickens