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It is amazing. There he was, a child lost in the concrete anonymity of Brooklyn, solitary, restless, different. And then he cultivated a demanding friend: chess. Obsessed, he would stay up half the night replaying the games of the masters, scorning school and withdrawing deeper into himself. Distressed by his isolation, his protective, foreign-born mother introduced him to the famed Manhattan Chess Club where he became renowned for his killer instinct. A sometimes petulant prodigy, he was given to gloating about "destroying the weakies" when he won and scattering the pieces off the board when he lost.
At 16, declaring that "teachers are stupid," he quit Erasmus Hall High School and became a chess vagabond. He toured the world, winning tournament after tournament, complaining about playing conditions and accusing the Russians of conspiring against him. And then, after settling in California, he mounted an all-out assault to wrest the world chess title away from the vaunted Soviet champion.
What's that? You heard it all before? But that is the amazing thing: you have not. Though the stated facts of their careers are exactly the same, the prodigal son of Brooklyn referred to is not Grandmaster Robert James Fischer but Grandmaster Walter Shawn Browne.
Amazing and, yes, perhaps consciously imitative in some respects.
Still, for all the eerie parallels, the differences between the two Erasmus Hall dropouts are just as striking. For one thing, at 26, Browne is far more outgoing than the celebrated bachelor recluse of South Pasadena, overbearing but nonetheless an engaging person. For another, as he proudly notes, "I have some advantages that Bobby Fischer doesn't." Browne has a stabilizing helpmate. His wife Racquel, a clinical psychologist from Argentina, says, "Shawnees a leetle beet crazy, but so am I. So eet works out."
And though he parrots Fischer in saying, "Chess is not like life; chess is life," Browne ventures beyond the tight little world of 64 squares. He pursues the same sports that Bobby does to keep in playing shape ("I can beat four out of five people in Ping-Pong," says Browne, "nine out of 10 in tennis"), but he is also a universal gamesman, the only person ever to compete at the highest levels in chess as well as three other serious tests of man's cerebral skills. "I can beat 97 out of 100 experts in Scrabble," Browne says, "98 of 100 in backgammon and 99.9 of 100 in poker. At hi-lo, table-limit poker, I'm the best in the world." Looking down on that world from the $65,000 mountaintop villa he purchased in Berkeley, Calif, with help from his poker winnings, he adds, "Amarillo Slim is a patzer compared with some of the guys I play with."
And, oh yes, there is one other critical distinction between the Brooklyn wonder boys. Browne has not won the world chess championship—yet. Except for Fischer, whose powers are deemed so transcendental in chess circles as to preclude drawing comparisons, Browne is the U.S.'s strongest threat to win back the world title that Bobby forfeited to Russia's Anatoly Karpov last year.
Of Fischer's refusal to defend his championship because FIDE (Féderation Internationale des Echecs, the game's governing body) would not agree to all of his myriad requests, Browne says, "If Bobby had insisted on 80 of his 100 demands, he'd be all right. If he'd insisted on 90, he'd be unreasonable. But the fact that he insisted on all 100 makes him kind of crazy. When my turn comes, I'll be reasonable."
He has no doubt at all that his turn will come eventually. This summer, in fact, he took a step toward that goal by winning the U.S. championship for the second straight year. That qualified him to compete this summer in the FIDE Interzonals with three dozen world-class players, the next plateau in the three-year playoff cycle for the world championship. If Browne survives that trial, he will then join seven other aspirants in the Candidates' Matches in 1977, a cutthroat series to determine who wins the right to challenge Karpov in 1978.