does not. But why the big rush, why this compulsion to subject a nice quiet
pastime to new land-speed and endurance trials? "It's toward the common
goal," says Browne, "the promotion of chess and the promotion of me. I
don't have time to waste. God didn't give me any. We can't wait for Bobby to
help us. He's like a volcano that has gone to rest. We've got to help
ourselves. Right now."
Right now, as has
long been the lamentable case, selling chess in the U.S. is like trying to
peddle New York City bonds. Forget the mania touched off by Fischer four
summers ago; it was a fad that faded almost as rapidly as it began. In fact, if
Browne errs on the side of stridency, it is only the echo of frustrations born
long, long before the Age of Ali.
understanding of Browne or what he represents can only be gained by viewing him
as the descendant of a fabled if forgotten American tradition. More even than
Fischer, he reflects an era that began with Paul Morphy, the Flashing Meteor
from New Orleans, who was the unofficial world champion (1858-59) and the
darling of the Continent at age 21. After one feat of simultaneous play at the
Café de la Régence in Paris, a legendary chess hotbed where Napoleon tried to
outflank his opponents by illegally moving his knights like a cavalry unit,
Morphy was paraded through the streets on the shoulders of his ecstatic
At the turn of
the century Harry Nelson Pillsbury of Somerville, Mass., another dazzling young
prince of the royal game, sought acclaim by performing such prodigious stunts
as playing 12 games of chess, six games of checkers and a game of duplicate
whist at the same time—blindfolded.
And then came the
intoxicating time when New York City was the chess capital of the world. Led by
such luminaries as Reuben Fine, Frank Marshall, I. A. Horowitz, Isaac Kashdan
and Sammy Reshevsky, the U.S. team won the biennial Chess Olympiad four
consecutive times during the 1930s. But those gifted players were children of
the great Depression, brilliant minds turned to the most stimulating free
occupation available, and as the nation recovered, the game relapsed.
while the U.S. was putting a chicken in every pot, the U.S.S.R. was thrusting a
chess set into the hands of every worker. "The modern Marxian line,"
decreed the Daily Worker, "considers chess an important intellectual factor
in the social program of mankind." To Lenin, a skilled player in his own
right, chess was "the gymnasium of the mind." To author Raymond
Chandler, voicing the opinion of a New Deal America that still endures, it was
"the biggest waste of human intelligence you can find outside of an
By 1948, when
Russia's Mikhail Botvinnik won the first FIDE playoff for the world
championship, chess was the national pastime of the U.S.S.R. Subsidized by the
state, trained since childhood and awarded commendations, apartments, cars,
dachas and pensions, the Soviet grandmasters became so dominant that the world
title seemed permanently engraved in Cyrillic script.
that background, Fischer's rout of Russia's Boris Spassky in Reykjavik, Iceland
in 1972 was cataclysmic on several levels. The least obvious, perhaps, was that
it reasserted the old American ethic of rugged individualism. As Fischer has
pointed out, "You can only get good if you love the game. I'm not sure the
Russians do. They're more interested in what they get out of it, and they don't
develop character. Everything has come too easy for them. The Russians have
produced great players but not natural talents because they never had to
struggle. It takes a certain amount of adversity to develop character."
No matter that
adversity also develops characters. The point is, whatever their tics or
traumas, Fischer, Browne and their forebears demand admiration if only because
they succeeded in the face of almost insuperable odds and for reasons as corny
as love of the game.
None of which
says that Browne's card-shark heart was not set aflutter by the $5 million
purse offered for the aborted Fischer-Karpov showdown in Manila. But Browne is
the product of grubbier times, when the $5,500 pot for the 1969 world
championship was considered munificent. Going into Reykjavik, in fact, Fischer
was the only top U.S. player earning anything close to a living wage (up to
$10,000 in a good year) solely from playing chess. Today, says Ed Edmondson,
director of the U.S. Chess Federation, "There are perhaps a dozen players
who make a living out of chess, few of whom eat very well. Our goal is to make
it two dozen, all of whom eat very well."