Walter Browne’s Stress of Chess breaks the mould for related literature
- The Guardian,
Many chess biographies are anodyne and technical, skirting controversy. The Stress of Chess by six-time US champion Walter Browne (New in Chess, £21.50) is more combative. The blitz specialist who glared at opponents and banged down the pieces in his frequent time pressure often has a gripe about a tournament from long ago, and makes sharp criticisms of some rivals.
Browne in his youth had seemed set for stardom. He worked intensively on chess in his teens, studying master games and openings and honing his skills at blitz. He became a grandmaster at 20, at that time the youngest ever after Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky. Fischer, six years his senior, was his idol who he hoped to follow to the top echelons of the world game.
Their only tournament game, in 1970, was a 98-move draw where both missed wins, and Browne analyses it in obsessive detail. Some years later Fischer stayed the night at the Browne residence, but when Bobby spent six hours using his host’s telephone Browne ventured a mild rebuke which Fischer countered by terminating all contact.
Despite those six US titles, he failed four times in the world championship qualifiers, which were the then hallmarks of a GM’s status. The Russians, he observes, prepared specially hard for him.
So by his thirties Browne had become a tournament junkie, travelling from one event to the next with hardly a break. He finished in the top half of some strong events, but was also prone to drop points in the closing rounds. The book gives the impression that he did not learn enough from defeats. Thus his first meeting with Anatoly Karpov in 1972, where the future world champion opened 1 c4 c5 2 b3 Nf6 3 Bb2 g6 4 Bxf6!? and won a strategic masterpiece, is dismissed in a brief sentence.
He visited England a few times, and there is a gripe for each visit. At Bognor he had suspiciously hard pairings, at Hastings the GM boards were too near the bar, the lighting was poor in London, and in the BBC Master Game he had three blacks in four games.
Despite Browne’s grumbles, The Stress of Chess provides the flavour of the technical and emotional highs and lows of competition, and the 101 annotated games are a lesson in fighting play. The game that Browne liked most was his 1972 victory over the then USSR champion, who replied to Browne’s winning tactic by banging his first on the table before offering a limp handshake.