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Making All the Right Moves
Ray Kennedy
January 12, 1976
Walter Browne is briefly motionless, not the normal state for this go-go grandmaster who feels he can beat anybody at anything—and the Russians at chess
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January 12, 1976

Making All The Right Moves

Walter Browne is briefly motionless, not the normal state for this go-go grandmaster who feels he can beat anybody at anything—and the Russians at chess

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Browne obviously 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.

Indeed, any 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 admirers.

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.

By contrast, 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 advertising agency."

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.

Played against 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."

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