by Ian Rogers
Walter Shawn Browne (pictured), who died late last month at a tournament in Las Vegas aged 66, became famous as a six-time US Champion but was also the first Australian-born player to become an over-the-board Grandmaster.
Browne was born in Sydney but his US father took his family back to New York when Browne was three years old.
Growing up in Bobby Fischer’s old haunts in Brooklyn, Browne became US Junior Champion and one of the US’ brightest hopes.
However when the possibility of being drafted to serve in the Vietnam war threatened, Browne relocated to Australia and began competing for the country of his birth.
Brash, charismatic and supremely self-confident, Browne was a polarising figure in Australia.
The self-proclaimed heir to Fischer drew media attention as well as fans of both genders like a moth to a flame, with his ability to combine serious chess with long nights of socialising a source of wonder.
Browne’s performance at the Lidums Australian Open in 1971 – finishing not far behind winner Lajos Portisch despite apparently going without sleep for much of the tournament thanks to poker, blitz and carousing – was the stuff of legend.
Browne won the 1969/70 Australian Championship and represented Australia at two Olympiads, earning a bronze medal in 1972.
When it was safe to return to the US Browne abandoned Australia, declaring his dislike of the country and his intention never to return, a promise he fulfilled.
Upon his return Browne dominated US tournaments in the 1970s with his fierce will-to-win and sharp style overwhelming any deficits in his technique.
Browne won multiple international GM tournaments – including the Hoogovens tournament in Wijk aan Zee, twice – but his violent style was punished at the highest levels and he failed to reach 50% at three World Championship Interzonals.
Browne was also the first Grandmaster to come unstuck against a computer.
In 1978 Browne accepted a bet with the humans behind Belle, a computer which had been programmed to play the endgame of queen versus rook perfectly. (Such a modest task was a considerable achievement in 1978.)
The programmers bet Browne that he could not win with a queen against the computer’s rook in less than 50 moves. (The endgame was at that time considered an easy win.)
Browne failed to beat the computer but was sportingly given an opportunity to win his money back and, after a week of studying the endgame seriously, Browne showed that even against best defence, the queen must win.
Browne’s high energy playing style, often including crazy time scrambles, presaged a relatively short time at the top and by his mid 30s Browne’s results deteriorated sharply.
In 1988 Browne founded a World Blitz Chess Association and travelled the US promoting the attractions of 5 minute chess. The internet, with its blitz and bullet games accessible at any hour of the day or night, ruined Browne’s hopes for a blitz circuit and the WBCA folded in 2004.
A couple of years ago Browne released his autobiography ‘The Stress of Chess … and it’s Infinite Finesse’. As an annotated game collection the book was excellent but Browne’s life and career were sanitised and fictionalised, becoming a boring (and inaccurate) tournament diary rather than the revealing look back on a life lived to the full that the book could have been.
My first encounter with Browne came in 1983 at the players’ meeting before a televised tournament in Bath. The organisers explained that due to the strict time limit (2 hours for all moves), players were expected to act as gentlemen and and not try to win dead equal positions on time. “Can you define gentleman?” shot back Walter, peeved that his desire to win from any position might be curbed.
Browne, a fighter not a gentleman, had just completed a week of chess and poker in Las Vegas when he died in his sleep.