|From the Vault: Chess Life Interview with GM Browne
|By Macauley Peterson
|June 26, 2015
Editor's Note: Today we released the full interview with GM Walter Browne (1949-2015) by Macauley Peterson from the December 2014 issue of Chess Life Magazine. Browne talks about Bobby Fischer, his own playing style and the game he invented.
Reading The Stress of Chess and its Infinite Finesse (New in Chess, 2012) can be frustrating at times. The story of Browne’s life and career seems inherently interesting, but it is presented in a rambling mishmash. There’s a lot of ink spent on things like playing conditions and travel minutiae, but not enough reflections on his life experience, or details about the people in his life. It’s a personal, but rote account. However, Browne himself is a fascinating character, and a brilliant attacking player whose annotated games are fantastic and insightful. By his estimation he spent an average of eight hours or more meticulously annotating each game.
Over a series of phone calls, our interview ranged from growing up in New York, attending Brooklyn Tech and then Erasmus (where Bobby Fischer also had studied) high schools, to some of his best wins, recollections of top players, and inventing his own chess-like game called Finesse. He speaks fast, in short energetic phrases.
Walter Browne: The first tournament I played was around September of ’62 ... I joined the Manhattan [Chess Club].
I wasn’t doing that well in school and part of the reason was I was studying chess all day long—even on the subway to school, and in my classes. I guess I wasn’t as applied as I should have been. I actually liked woodworking. What they were teaching me was of some interest to me, but my obsession with chess already was so great that I didn’t spend enough energy on my school work. And certainly if I had work to do—homework—I probably slacked off on that, because usually a lot of times after I finished sometimes I even went to the city and went to the chess club in the evenings. So I didn’t do that well at Brooklyn Tech, and already I told them I’m gonna pursue chess as a career, so they told me OK well we’re gonna have to send you back to a normal high school ... So I ended up going back to Erasmus High School.
Macauley Peterson: And was that a better fit?
Walter Browne: It was OK—you know I wasn’t that involved with school by that time, as I said, I got more and more involved in chess probably between the age of 13 and 16. I studied chess harder than anyone in the world because I consumed whole books within a few days.
I studied one game collection after another, within a few days, I would just rip right through books. Sometimes I started at 10 at night and studied until six in the morning—just you know keep studying. My parents were a bit aggravated with me I guess, staying up so late.
So you weren’t terribly into your classes ...?
I ran at a B average or something. I wasn’t doing fantastically, because I wasn’t that interested in some of the classes, and some of them I didn’t enjoy it that much, and maybe I didn’t do my homework like I should have. And then I started playing cards (poker) when I was 15 and a half, and so I got involved in that. And by the time I was 16 I was making so much money it seemed like a smart move to continue playing poker and chess.
My chess was doing all right but I wasn’t proceeding as much as I might have been had I not played cards as well, but when you’re young you’re usually doing different things, you can’t put all your energy into one game. Right? (He pauses.) Although Fischer did. You see Bobby Fischer never played poker—just chess-chess-chess all the time. That’s how he helped propel himself to the heights, by putting all his energy into one thing.
They had a place where I played which was kind of a seedy area down in the middle of Manhattan—42nd and 8th— they cleaned it up now, but it wasn’t that nice of a place, where they used to have a chess and checkers club, and people used to meet and play down there. And you got all kinds of strange types of people coming down to play. We had one guy named Nick the Wrestler, he was like this Russian wrestler—very big—and he used to play. And there was another guy named Nick. This guy Nick he’d go there—he’d play three or four days straight. He only ate salami sandwiches and he smoked nonstop—one of these guys who would play until he dropped. All different personalities played in that place. People were gambling on the games. They were playing chess there, they were playing bridge, they were playing Scrabble, checkers, there was a lot going on in one club. It used to be called the Flea House, and it had a bad reputation, but it wasn’t that bad.
How’d your parents feel about all that?
Well they weren’t so happy the first few years, but by the time I was 16 and a half they thought it was OK. They realized that they couldn’t change what I was going to do anyway, so they kind of accepted it and they became happier as I was more and more successful, because I was making money with chess and poker, so it seemed like I’d made a good career move.
Can you describe your style?
My style has different ways. I play positional chess, but if any tactics will emerge, or possibilities, I’ll look into them very deeply. I’ll try and win the game tactically if I feel the position is right for it. I don’t try and make unsound sacrifices just because I want to attack, all right? So that’s an important point—I build up my positional advantages, until you get enough positional advantage where you get usually a superior position. Then your chances of tactics working are much better, and then you can grind away to end the game with a main attack or something.
You write that your win over [Leonid] Shamkovich in 1977, “epitomized” your style.
What’s fascinating about that game is if you played it over in the computer ... it’s only about equal until you get to near the 40th move. But in fact, in reality, Black has a slight edge much sooner. And that’s what I find very interesting. I find that the game is very instructive because I showed you how you get a minute edge and you just work with it and increase your advantage very slowly over many moves.
Your win over Arthur Bisguier’s Petroff Defense in the U.S. Championship in Chicago, you say this was your best game.
I’m absolutely certain of it. Without a doubt, that’s it. In all phases of the game I think the game was on an extremely high level. Everything just clicked ... I would say if there was a selection of the top 100 games in the century, it should be in the book. That’s my opinion. Other people have theirs.
In 1975, Browne organized a two-month long tour, giving 50 simultaneous exhibitions and lectures nationwide. The Bisguier game was the main game he lectured on, doing so dozens of times, so he knew the game inside out and could even lecture on the game without sight of the board if no demonstration board was available.
I also quite liked your win over Tony Miles in Tilburg, 1978.
Oh yeah, the game where I sacrificed the rook—I had to come up with that over the board. I spent a lot of time deciding whether to sacrifice the rook. And then I didn’t want to win the rook back! I had to keep the pressure. So I could have capped the piece back, but I didn’t want to do it. So for me it was a very creative game, I came up with the best moves pretty much, and a lot of people started playing that line after, by the way. So, my game was a key game for that variation—although if you look in the encyclopedias it might not even mention my game, which is an oversight on their part.
There were a lot of games that came after my game, but they all start from the same move—the same rook sacrifice and so on. And then—you can look it up—and then you’ll see it might not even mention my name. That’s something I don’t like in chess. One person comes up with a whole new variation. OK, you don’t want to name the variation after them, fine, but you can’t completely eradicate them from the the memory of it. And that’s what happened, really.
You quote a Chess Life column from 1982 describing you as a “fighter”. If you’re familiar with Yuri Averbakh archetypes of chess players,1 how do you think of yourself as a fighter?
I would put myself in [two] different categories. I’m definitely an artist, and I’m definitely a fighter. In the openings I knew I’d get to a normal position. I knew what the standard move was, but I would still take some time to come up with a new move if I saw something that could be better than the existing theory. I was always eager to get out of theory and come up with a sharp new move. So that’s why I spent a lot of time in the openings, and why I’d get short of time in a lot of my games.
For an artist, according to Averbakh, it’s not important only to win, but to do so artistically.
Yeah, well that was definitely for me—I would fit into that category. But not always. I would just say that that would be the case many times, but since I played in many Swiss tournaments, I became very machine-like in the sense that I knew I had to win my games quickly so I could have lunch, so I could be rested, so I could play the next game. So every game—it was like a chain of games—when you play in Swisses you want to win as quickly and efficiently as possible, and I wasn’t always trying to win the most artistic way in Swisses. But if I have one game a day and I don’t have to worry about conserving my energy as much, then I’m more in that mode.
Averbakh counts among the hybrid fighters and artists, David Bronstein and Mikhail Tal. Would they be close stylistically?
Well in chess you have people like Tal who had a winning style, he was winning with a sharp attacking style, and people were really intimidated back then. I remember he got a game against [Lajos] Portisch, where Portisch might have had four pieces for the queen, but he still beat him. So those guys were nervous when they played Tal. Tal was attacking. The wind was in his favor—everything was in his favor—everybody was sweating! Even [Pal] Benko wore dark glasses in one tournament because he was worried about the glare from Tal's eyes. I mean it was kind of a joke, but then Tal put on sunglasses to counteract (laughs), as a joke—did you hear about that? I would say we had a lot in common, yeah, between fighting and artists.
One game against Fischer in Zagreb, 1970 you wrote you lost because, “I was too much of an artist.” What did you mean by that?
On the key move, around move 88 or 90 in the game, I saw the winning move and I didn’t play it, because I wanted to win more beautifully. And that cost me the game. He found “a miracle defense” and drew. I wanted to win brilliantly, artistically, but if I’d just made a simple practical move—Rh7 was the move that iced it. You know it’d have been over.
After 87. ... Kc8
Did you and Fischer socialize?
Yeah, I went out to dinner with him several times ... I wasn’t really in touch with him. I wish I had been more in touch with him, but I wasn’t. And he never called me and—you know he was very reclusive anyway. I could have tried to contact somebody who did know him, to get in touch with him. You know it’s something I should have done, I didn’t do it, and what should I say, I regret that.
Another thing I regret is that I didn’t at least suggest to Fischer that I could have been his second, if not in Reykjavik, which would have been interesting, but at least later on while he was negotiating with Karpov. I could have advised him and tried to get him to mediate or to soften his conditions so that he could continue to play the match with Karpov in 1975, and also to help him as his second for that match. Yes, I regret that one, I wish I had tried to do that.
Do you think you might have been able to persuade him?
I might have been, or at least give him something he could rethink, and think it over, and not be just so hard-headed about it. Because he was really strong in his mind about what he wanted to do, and at least give him something to think about and who knows what could have been.
You also write that you think he probably could have beaten Karpov in ’75.
I think he would have blown him away.
How did you get on with Karpov over the years?
Quite well. I mean I played a lot of tournaments with him, and I think I had black most of the games. In general I had a lot of good positions, and I had some chances. I wish that I’d taken a few more risks to beat him, because I never beat him. Only a few times did I have a position that was maybe slightly better, that I could have pressured him or tried something, but he was a very hard guy to beat, very solid, and he played very quickly—in his early days he didn’t get into time pressure. I was totally shocked when he lost that match to [Nigel] Short where he got into time pressure. He would never get into time pressure in the ’70s and early ’80s that I played with him. I mean he was quite confident and quick. He used to play so fast. I remember a game with [Svetozar] Gligorić when he just zipped off 25 moves or something in a minute. He used to play the opening moves, I mean move on move.
Gligorić you described as, “dapper and personable, a real professional and a gentleman.” What else do you recall about him?
He had tremendous preparation in his openings. He used to play the Ruy Lopez with black and he would just—like a machine—he would just zip the moves out and he didn’t have to think at all. He’d have the first 20 moves or more—I mean he had it really memorized very well, at least in the Lopez. His black side of the Lopez he was very quick in the openings. I don’t remember him getting into time pressure, so he played at a good pace. And he was really a gentleman at the board. A nice fellow. And so, I have nothing bad to say about the guy. I mean I was lucky that I managed to beat him three or four times, and we analyzed the games a little bit, usually. He was a very strong player and a great ambassador for chess from Serbia.
Korchnoi comes up many times in your book. He seems to have been sort of an idol. I was curious about what your relation to him was like, because sometimes it seemed like it was relatively friendly, and other times clearly not. When you beat him in the last round in Wijk aan Zee in ’89, you wrote that he didn’t offer you a handshake.
Well, he didn’t like to lose! He was very, very competitive, and I respect that. It’s just his personality. And even in bridge—I think I wrote about the one time we were playing bridge, and he got upset. So he’s just a really competitive guy, and he’s a serious guy, and he’s easy to talk with I would say. If you analyze and talk about a game he’s not going to be too standoffish, you know what I mean? He’ll discuss it with you. He’s willing to share his thoughts more than some Soviet players like Petrosian or even Karpov—they’re not going to be communicating much what they’re really thinking sometimes, I think.
What about Smyslov? Also someone that you mention several times, playing the same tournaments, noting that he played his moves very slowly and deliberately.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, well he used to kind of twist the pieces in—when he’d make a move he might twist it in at the end—not just move it to a square but at the end kind of twist it into place, which is a habit he had. Another thing he would do if there was a closing ceremony or maybe even an opening ceremony, he would sing at the ceremony, he was a very good singer ... I played him seven or eight games, something like that. I don’t remember having very long postmortems with him. He was the kind of person who would be happy to look at the game with you after, but wouldn’t want to spend a tremendous amount of energy trying to look at every single variation and so on. [He had more of] a general good positional feel for chess, and I don’t think he’s somebody who would want to get into these 10 move variations, you know what I mean?
Whereas when I analyze just after the game, I would rattle off eight move, ten move, twelve move variations that I looked at during the game, and a lot of times other people would look at me and say, “well I never even thought ’bout playing that,” so why the hell did I waste all my energy? So anyway, he was a more intuitive, positional guy, and a great, great endgame player. And by the way, any time I want to study my rook endings, I’m going to be studying his book. Smyslov and Levenfish on rook endings—a classic! Oh, by the way to finish about Smyslov, he always wore a suit and a tie at the board when he was competing. People were more formal in earlier years, and I think it slacked off a bit in the ’70s. I had to say it but I’m one of those people who didn’t want to wear a tie when I was playing, so I rarely did wear a tie. I did wear a jacket on many occasions, but I didn’t wear a tie very often. Things changed a bit, I think in the ’70s and ’80s in that regard, and then there was a trend back, somewhat, but I wouldn’t know that well because I haven’t played many national events from the ’90s on.
I was not a professional chess player anymore after 1984. And then I went into a period of [not playing] for a few years, and then I reinvented myself. I worked hard, and I studied hard, and I got back into chess and the level of my game came back up to almost where it was, not as good, but at a pretty good level from 1988 to 1997. I played quite well. I got my FIDE up to 2560, so I was almost as good. I didn’t play that much internationally, I was playing mostly Swisses and I didn’t work hard on my openings as I had when I was younger. So I did fairly well at that time. And then I had financial problems, and I was getting older, and my energy was going down and it was harder to compete in the late ’90s and then there was tremendous competition from European players coming over and competing in Swisses and the competition was very tough. So it was a combination of several different things that led to my decline in the late ’90s. And you know I’ve had some moderate successes in between, but I didn’t play very much since then.
Browne on Browne
Many of GM Walter Browne’s games have appeared in Chess Life over the years, so here he annotates two early games for Chess Life’s readers.
Open Ruy Lopez (C83)
Walter S. Browne (1700)
Larry Borker (1600)
Postal Tourney, 1961, 11.02.1961
1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 a6 4. Ba4 Nf6 5. 0-0 Nxe4 6. d4 b5 7. Bb3 d5 8. dxe5 Be6 9. c3 Be7
The line 9. ... Bc5 10. Nbd2 0-0 11. Bc2 Nxf2 was popular at the time, though if White can weather the storm he emerges with a slight edge.
10. Be3 0-0 11. Nbd2 Nxd2
Another way was 11. ... Qd7 12. Bc2 f5 13. exf6 e.p. Nxf6 was a viable option with ... Bf5 to follow.
12. Qxd2 Na5 13. Bc2 Nc4 14. Qd3 g6 15. Bh6 Re8
My last move was a semi-bluff as 15. ... Nxb2 16. Qe2 Re8 17. Bxg6 hxg6 18. Qxb2 was fine with equality.
Offering another pawn while increasing the tension.
16. ... Nxe5 17. Nxe6! Qd6!?
Taking on d3 just loses a piece while 17. ... fxe6 18. Qg3 Bf6 19. h4 (threatening h5) with two bishops and an attack was certainly worth a pawn.
A forcing move which leaves only one good response and he found it! Less effective is 18. Qg3 Qxe6 19. Rae1 Bc5 when Black keeps the attack at bay and has a slight edge.
18. ... Bf6!! 19. Ng5!
An ultra-sharp move sacrificing a whole queen!! 19. Nxc7 Qxc7 (The alternative 19. ... Nf3+? 20. gxf3 Bxd4 21. Nxe8 Rxe8 22. cxd4 obviously favors White.) 20. Qf4 looked favorable then as now though Houdini says =!.
19. ... Nf3+
I was happy to force this as three pieces versus queen plus pawn will favor the active pieces if the pawns are static.
20. Nxf3 Bxd4 21. cxd4 f6
The line 21. ... Rac8 22. Be3 Kg7 23. Ne1 Re7 24. Nd3 a5 25. Rac1 looks promising with pressure on the c-file whereas Black seems stymied.
22. Bd2 a5 23. a3
Slightly better was 23. Rac1 c6 24. Bd3 followed by doubling on the c-file was more thematic.
23. ... Kf7 24. g3 c6 25. b4! a4
After this his extra pawn is almost void. Perhaps exchanging was better.
26. h4 Qd7 27. Kg2 h5 28. Bd3 Rg8 29. Ne1!
Setting a trap, yet also fine was ... 29. Rac1 Rac8 30. Rc5 Qb7 31. Rfc1 Rgd8 32. Ng1 and my knight heads to f4 putting pressure on e6, g6 and d5.
29. ... g5?!
A fatal weakening of the e5-square!
30. hxg5 fxg5 31. Nf3
Now his position crumbles.
31. ... Kf6 32. Rh1 h4 33. Bxg5+! Rxg5 34. Nxg5 Kxg5 35. Rxh4
At only 12-years-old I realized that his king will be too exposed. In fact he is lost.
35. ... Rg8 36. Rah1
Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide! Rh6 is a killer threat which will create a mating web and ... Qg7 loses the queen.
36. ... Kf6 37. Rh6+ Kf7 38. Rh7+ Rg7 39. Rxg7+ Kxg7 40. Rh7+, Black resigned.
Closed Ruy Lopez,
Chigorin Defense (C97)
Sal Matera (2100)
Walter S. Browne (2175)
Manhattan Chess Club Championship, 1964
1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 a6 4. Ba4 Nf6 5. 0-0 Be7 6. Re1 b5 7. Bb3 d6 8. c3 0-0 9. h3 Na5 10. Bc2 c5 11. d4 Qc7 12. dxe5 dxe5 13. Nbd2 h6 14. Nf1 Be6
A balanced position where White aims for kingside expansion while I take control of the d-file and pressure the queenside with ... b4.
15. Ng3 b4 16. Nh4 Rfd8 17. Qe2 c4 18. Nhf5 Bf8 19. Nh5?
Now I take the initiative! 19. Qf3 Ne8 20. Qg4 Kh8 21. Qh4 with some threats was best.
19. ... Nxh5 20. Qxh5 b3! 21. axb3 cxb3?!
These days I’d prefer 21. ... Nxb3 which will eliminate one of his bishops and let’s me gain control of d2 or d3.
22. Bd1 Kh7?! 23. Qh4?!
Missing 23. Ne3! g6 24. Qh4 Nb7 25. Bg4 Rd6 26. Bxe6 Rxe6 27. Nd5 Qc6 28. Bg5 with a clear edge controlling f6 and d8, plus a dominant knight.
23. ... Nb7
Both sides have chances after 24. Be2 Nc5 25. Be3 Nd3 26. Reb1.
24. ... Nd6
Black also has 24. ... Nc5 25. g5 Nd3 26. Rf1 Nxc1 27. Rxc1 Rd2 with a clear edge as a capture on h6 is rebuffed by ... g7-g6.
25. Nxd6 Qxd6 26. Bg5
The continuation 26. g5 Be7 (26. ... g6 27. gxh6 Be7 28. Qg3) 27. Qh5 allows an aesthetic pawn sacrifice 27. ... g6! 28. Qxh6+ Kg8 29. Bg4 a5 30. Bxe6 Qxe6 31. Qh4 and Black’s structure on the queenside outweighs the extra pawn. 31. ... a4.
26. ... Rdc8 27. Be3 a5! 28. Be2 a4
With ... a4-a3 looming Matera implodes! 29. Red1 improves yet 29. ... Qe7! 30. Qg3 Qc7 31. f4 a3 32. f5 Bc4 33. Bxc4 Qxc4 34. Qxe5 Qe2 35. Re1 Qxb2 wins.
29. ... exf4 30. e5
30. ... Qxe5 31. Bd3+ Kg8 32. Bd4 Qc7 33. Be4 Ra5 34. Qf2 Bc5 35. Bf5 Bxf5 36. gxf5 Bxd4 37. cxd4 Rxf5 38. Rxa4 Rg5+ 39. Kf1 Qd7, White resigned.
“Finesse is not chess”
Walter Browne has invented his own game that is similar to chess, which he calls Finesse. See
This is more than a variant. Yasser [Seirawan] came up with a version of chess called S-chess. His is probably one light year away from chess, mine is a hundred, if not more. I have five pieces in my game that nobody ever used before. However it’s used on a chessboard, the same board. Same idea—it’s not the king you’re going after, right now it’s a pyramid, but it could be something else. It’s not the most important thing in a game, whether it works, is the chemistry of the pieces, if they work together. Otherwise you have nothing.
I may change to another name at a certain point, this is only temporary. It’s not chess. It’s a board game on 64 squares, but it’s much more dynamic than chess. It’s much quicker paced. It’s not boring. You don’t have to know any theory like in chess, you just come and play. It’s an intellectual combat, definitely a game of the mind. I think it’s 50 percent harder than chess. It’s not more difficult to learn, it’s just one extra piece—I have seven pieces on my game and chess has six.
Look for more on GM Walter Browne in future issues of Chess Life Magazine.