29 Jun

Walter S. Browne: A Tribute

There was genuine sad news last week with the sudden and unexpected death of Walter S. Browne, one of the true characters of the chess world. The news broke via the Las Vegas Chess Festival, where Walter was a regular guest and had just participated in the 50th edition of the National Open, a tournament he came to regard as “his event”, having won it a record eleven times during his long career. He was 66.


Walter Shawn Browne was born on Jan.10, 1949, in Sydney, Australia. His father was American and his mother, Australian. The family moved though to the U.S. in 1953 - and whereafter, uncannily, his life seemed to parallel that of his hero Bobby Fischer. Like Fischer, he spent his formative years in Brooklyn. Like Fischer, he attended Erasmus High School and, again, like Fischer, he dropped out of school at 16 to pursue a professional career in chess, as he went on to become the most dominant player in the country after the Fischer era.

As a youngster, he won the U.S. Junior Championship in 1966 and thought of as “the next Fischer”. But in his early career, due to his place of birth, he opted instead to represent Australia in competition, winning the 1969 Australian Championship, tying for first at the 1969 Asian Zonal tournament in Singapore, and playing first board at the 1970 and 1972 Olympiads. He did so because it gave him easier access to FIDE zonal and Interzonal tournaments and top board competitions.  But from the mid-1970s onward he would represent the United States.

Walter also subsidised his career by poker, backgammon and even scrabble. “I can beat 97 out of 100 experts in Scrabble, 98 of 100 in backgammon and 99.9 of 100 in poker,” he told Sports Illustrated in 1976. “At hi-lo, table-limit poker, I’m the best in the world.” This competitive drive also gave Walter many chess successes but unfortunately he was never a serious world title challenger, not least because his peak years coincided with Anatoly Karpov.

During the 1970’s and 1980’s, Walter was one of the strongest and combative players not only on the American continent, having won six US championship titles, and scores of open events, but also in the world. He was affectionately known as ‘Mr Six Time’ for his haul of national championships (Fischer and Sammy Reshevsky jointly hold the record, with eight), but he also claimed to have won more Swiss system tournaments than any other player alive, and thus also known as the ‘King of the Swisses'.

But arguably Walter’s best international performances was in winning the Hoogovens tournament (the forerunner of the Tata Steel tournament) in Wijk aan Zee in The Netherlands twice, in 1974 and 1980. His wins were quite impressive: in 1974 he dominated to finish with a powerful +7 performance among a field of formidable GM’s, a full 1.5 points ahead of his nearest rival. Walter and Yasser Seirawan had the same impressive result and margin of victory in 1980, ahead of elite stars Victor Korchnoi and Jan Timman.

And on both occasions, he played two simply stunning games, one of which features today, and the other we’ll see in Wednesday’s column, which will concentrate on Walter’s wonderfully frank and entertaining chess autobiography, The Stress of Chess…and its Infinite Finesse (New in Chess).

Walter Browne - Miguel Quinteros
Hoogovens Wijk aan Zee, 1974
Sicilian Defence, Moscow Variation
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.Bb5+ Bd7 4.Bxd7+ Qxd7 5.c4 The Canal-Sokolsky Attack. 5...Qg4?! A very provocative move indeed! Now Black is attacking two pawns (e4 and g2) - but White has a way to sacrifice pawns for very rapid development. 6.0-0! Qxe4 7.d4 cxd4 8.Re1 Qc6 9.Nxd4 Qxc4 10.Na3 Qc8 11.Bf4 White may well be two pawns down here - but just look at how far ahead he is in development. 11...Qd7 12.Nab5 Again Black gets no chance for development, as now White's attacking d6 - and there's only one way to stop this, and that takes Black down a very dangerous alley. 12...e5 13.Bxe5! dxe5 14.Rxe5+ Be7 The alternative was no better, as 14...Ne7 15.Nf5! Qxd1+ 16.Rxd1 f6 (Otherwise Nc7 is mate!) 17.Nfd6+ Kd7 18.Nf7+ Ke8 (There's a very aesthetic mate after 18...Kc6 19.Rd6#) is hopelessly lost. 15.Rd5!! (See Diagram) Now comes the coup de grace! 15...Qc8 What else? The alternative seems to win easily, after: 15...Qxd5 16.Nc7+ Kf8 17.Nxd5 Nc6 18.Nxc6 bxc6 19.Nxe7 Nxe7 (19...Kxe7 20.Qf3) 20.Qd6 and - Re1 looming - Black will never get the knight out of the pin. 16.Nf5 Kf8 17.Nxe7 Kxe7 18.Re5+ 1-0 Quinteros resigned, as mate is now inevitable: 18...Qe6 19.Qd6+! Kf6 20.Rxe6+ fxe6 21.Re1 Kg6 22.Qd3+ Kf6 23.Qf3+ Ke7 24.Qf5 Nd7 25.Qxe6+ Kf8 26.Nd6 (Threatening Qe8 mate!) 26...Ne5 27.Rxe5 Nh6 28.Rf5+ Nxf5 29.Qf7 mate.

What a wonderfully, imaginative miniature from Walter Browne - and how often at the top level have you seen a grandmaster not getting the chance to get his rooks or knights out? This is a brilliancy that could easily have passed for a classic Paul Morphy game from 1864 rather than from 1974!

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