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Browne figures that he was predestined to be an itinerant Jack-of-all-gambits. The fact that he was born in Sydney, Australia on Jan. 10,1949 confirms it, he says. "I'm a Capricorn with Aries rising," Browne says, "which means that I'm both persevering and ambitious, the perfect combination for chess. And since chess is life, what's good for chess is good for life."
His Australian mother had cause to doubt that after the family moved from Sydney, where Browne's American father was in the export-import business, to New York when Walter was four. "We often had to ask ourselves, 'Where is this kid going?' " says Hilda Browne of the eldest of her four children. Anywhere but school, was Walter's answer. "If you have a strong mind you don't need school," he says. "School is for the masses, not for geniuses."
At 13 he was playing 50 games of chess by mail simultaneously and all but memorizing Botvinnik's 100 Best dames while eating, walking and riding the subway. At 14 he became one of the youngest U.S. players to attain the title of master. At 16 he missed his opening game in the U.S. Junior championship by oversleeping, but still managed to win the title. The reason he forfeited that first chess game was because he was recovering from his last poker game.
Browne first began shuffling the two games at Manhattan's notorious "Fleahouse," a chess parlor situated above a porno shop on 42nd Street. Though he went there to hustle pocket money playing blitz (five-minute chess) for 25¢ a pop, he was inevitably and irretrievably drawn to the more alluring stakes in the "backroom game." By the time he quit Erasmus Hall, arguing that "I don't have time for chess, poker and school," he was riding the city's high-roller poker circuit, winning more than $10,000 in less than two years from professional gamblers two and three times his age.
"They were like suckers waiting in a line," says Browne. "We'd play for 20, 30 hours straight or however long it took for the fish to lose their money. At one point when I was 16 I was staying up 48 hours at a stretch, playing two games of chess in a tournament by day and poker all night. But then after one sleepless night I left my queen en prise [exposed to capture] and right then I learned we all have our limits."
His poker partners disagreed. At 17, after Browne won 43 sessions in a row, they barred him from the game. He complains, "They wouldn't even let me sit in if I gave them half my action."
It was never a case of royal flush vs. royal game, Browne says. "Poker was quick money, chess was long-range money, that's all. I never even thought about giving one game up for the other." But when Browne hit the road in his 18th summer, saying, "New York is a great place to visit, but I don't want to breathe there," he soon found out that cashing in on his long-term investment was trickier than drawing a natural straight flush.
Striving to first gain the title of international master and then grandmaster (based on an intricate FIDE point system in which the pace of a player's progress is dependent on the rating of the rivals he plays), Browne rambunctiously tried to find a shortcut around the small-tournament route. He kept challenging higher-rated players to private showdowns, a quest that once found him hitchhiking from New Orleans to Baton Rouge in the rain for a match. But Browne was fighting a familiar stalemate, the Catch-22 of chess: international titles are won by playing in major international tournaments, which are almost exclusively restricted to players with international titles.
Lacking an invitation, Browne decided to crash the party. A few weeks before his 19th birthday he gathered up $3,500 in poker winnings and jetted to a big tournament in Wijk ann Zee, Holland, where he was summarily snubbed.
Vainly he chased after tournaments in England, Sweden, Spain and Hungary. After three depleting months of this he landed in Copenhagen and took stock. Down to $70, subsisting mainly on hard-boiled eggs and bread and with no return ticket to the U.S., he went to the Copenhagen chess club, picked up some quick kroner playing blitz and then ever so nonchalantly drifted over to the poker game in the corner.