Walter Shawn Browne, Fast-Moving Chess Grandmaster, Dies at 66


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Walter Shawn Browne during the 1975 United States Chess Championship, which he won.

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John Kenney/Sports Illustrated, via Getty Images

Walter Shawn Browne, an aggressive, animated chess grandmaster and six-time United States champion who dazzled spectators with his world-class ability at speed chess, died on Wednesday in Las Vegas, where he had been competing in the 50th National Open. He was 66.

He died in his sleep while resting at the home of a friend, according to an announcement on the Las Vegas International Chess Festival’s website. The cause was not yet known. He had tied for ninth in the event, which had concluded on Sunday, held at the Westgate Las Vegas Resort & Casino.

At the board, Mr. Browne was all concentrated energy — scowling, grimacing and grasping his head as he calculated long and complicated variations of moves. Spectators often hovered around his games, attracted by his habit of consuming vast amounts of his allotted time in the early going and then, risking forfeiture, making a flurry of 20 or so moves with only a minute or two left on the clock.

His attacking style of play was especially suited for blitz chess, in which players have to make all their moves in five minutes or less. For decades, Mr. Browne was among the best blitz players in the world and perhaps the best in the United States. In 1988, he founded the World Blitz Chess Association and ran it until it dissolved in 2003.

Mr. Browne was born on Jan. 10, 1949, in Sydney, Australia. His father, Walter Francis Browne, was American; his mother, Hilda, was Australian. The oldest of four children, Walter moved to Brooklyn with his family when he was 4. His father, who was in the export-import business, taught him to play chess when the boy was 8.

Like Bobby Fischer, the former world champion who also spent his formative years in Brooklyn, Mr. Browne became consumed by the game. Like Fischer, he attended Erasmus High School and, again like Fischer, he dropped out at 16 to devote his life to chess.

Mr. Browne could be cocky and dismissive of other players (just as Fischer could be), proclaiming that he was going to beat his opponents, no matter who they were.

In 1980, for example, before the final round of an annual tournament of elite players in the coastal town of Wijk aan Zee, the Netherlands, Mr. Browne was walking with Yasser Seirawan, a four-time United States champion, when Mr. Seirawan remarked that Mr. Browne had a tough game coming up against Viktor Korchnoi, the No. 2-ranked player in the world at the time.

“No,” Mr. Browne replied, “he has a tough game against me.”

Mr. Browne won the game and came in first in the tournament, tied with Mr. Seirawan.

Mr. Browne’s competitiveness extended beyond chess. “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.”

Mr. Browne became so good at poker that he supported himself mostly through his winnings — enough to buy a mountaintop villa in Berkeley, Calif., Sports Illustrated said.

His biggest payday in poker came in 2007, when he was runner-up at a high-stakes H.O.R.S.E. event (the initials refer to the five different games played) at the 38th World Series of Poker in Las Vegas. He left the table with $131,445.

In chess, Mr. Browne won the United States Championship in 1974, 1975, 1977, 1980 (co-champion that year with Larry Evans and Larry Christiansen), 1981 (with Mr. Seirawan), and 1983 (with Mr. Christiansen and Roman Dzindzichashvili). He played in 24 championships, from 1973 to 2007.

Only Fischer and Samuel Reshevsky won more championships, each with eight.

Mr. Browne played in countless American tournaments, winning more than any player in history, according to the United States Chess Federation. Among his victories were three World Opens and two United States Opens.

Mr. Browne also won a number of international tournaments. In addition to tying for first at Wijk aan Zee in 1980, he also won there in 1974, at Venice in 1971, at Reykjavik, Iceland, in 1978, in Chile in 1981 and in Indonesia in 1982.

Mr. Browne, who lived in Berkeley, is survived by his wife, Dr. Racquel Browne, a clinical psychologist, whom he married in 1973.

Despite his successes, Mr. Browne’s aggressive style of play and his time-management problems during games were not suited for world-championship-caliber competition, which required a more balanced approach. He was never a serious contender for the world championship, failing in three tries to advance to the final tournament of the championship cycle. Yet he saw parallels in his early life and that of Fischer, and believed that as a younger man he had the necessary ingredients to duplicate Fischer’s international success, although perhaps by a different path. He told Sports Illustrated, “If Bobby Fischer is the god of chess, I am the devil.”

Correction: June 29, 2015

Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this obituary referred incorrectly to Mr. Browne’s siblings. He had two brothers and a sister and was thus the oldest of four children, not four boys.



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