Walter Shawn Browne and his “Romantic Interlude”


By Sam Sloan

The chess world has been in shock since the news came yesterday morning that Grandmaster Walter Browne died early yesterday morning. For the last 49 years, I have been holding a small secret which I felt should best not be revealed as long as Browne was alive. I suspect that I am the only person who knows about this or who knows the whole story. However, Browne himself has mentioned this incident in his book The Stress of Chess: My Life, Career and 101 Best Games. Speaking of the US Open Chess Championship in Seattle in 1966, in the book he says, “As a result of a romantic interlude I missed three of the rounds and still got a reasonable score.”

Many chess players have asked about this but until now my lips have been sealed.

Here is what happened:

Walter Shawn Browne was then 17 years old and had recently discovered girls. His great teacher had been International Master Bernard Zuckerman. Zuckerman’s method had been to walk around Manhattan. If he spotted an interesting and attractive girl, he would approach her and say, “Can you tell me how to get to Lexington Avenue and 42nd Street.” Zuckerman would always pick out a place where every New Yorker would know how to get there. Then, as the girl would try to answer his questions, Zuckerman would pepper her with more and more questions about how to get to that place. Finally he would say, “You’re cute. Can I have your telephone number?”

At this point, the girl would realize that all along he had been trying to pick her up. Often the girl would get mad when she realized this. However, Zuckerman did get a lot of girls this way. It was the old story, “If you ask a hundred girls, one of them will say yes.”

Walter Shawn Browne was a student and follower of Bernard Zuckerman. However, Browne did not bother with asking a fake question about some address. He would just approach the girl directly.

So, at the 1966 US Open in Seattle, which was held at the Former Seattle World Fair Grounds, now known as the Seattle Center, Walter Browne was walking around between rounds picking up girls. When he spotted a girl that interested him, he would walk right up to her and say, “I’m Walter Shawn Browne. I am the US Junior Chess Champion. I would like to meet you.”

This direct approach seemed to work as Browne was getting new girls every day. He tried to avoid the situation where a girl would come to the tournament playing hall looking for him, because of the danger that two girls would come looking for him at the same time and there would be a fight. However, after a few rounds, something fantastic took place. It was announced The Beatles were coming. The Beatles descended on the place. The world famous rock band had decided to give a concert in Seattle Center Coliseum on August 25, 1966 and the concert hall was directly across from where the US Open Chess Championship was taking place. Thousands of girls descended on the place. A sea of girls, an ocean of girls, thousands and thousands of girls, girls as far as the eye could see, all descended on the 1966 US Open Chess Championship in Seattle, Washington.

I figured Walter Browne would be overjoyed at this stroke of luck. Instead, he was not happy.

I found Browne standing in the middle of the Seattle World’s Fair Grounds where the US Open was being played. He said, “This is too easy. I do not like this. I want a struggle, something difficult to do. All these thousands of girls are here and I can have any one I want. This is not fun.” Nevertheless, when the time came for round four to be played, Walter Browne did have a new girl with him.

I spoke to her while Walter was playing his game. One thing I especially remember about her. The players in the tournament were all studying and preparing for their next moves. Then one of the players happened to glance up and look at her. Then, after a brief glance, he looked back at the board again and went back to preparing his next move.

“He looked at me!!!” the girl squealed excitedly. She was so excited that a man had looked at her, even though it was only a brief glance and lasted only a second. I could see that this girl was insecure and craved attention.

When Walter Browne finished playing his game, while he won, he left the playing hall with the girl.

The next day, round five, Walter Browne did not show up to play his game in the tournament. His game was declared forfeited. The tournament was being played at one game a day. The day after that, again Walter Browne did not come to play. I then revealed to the other players what I knew, which was that there was a girl involved.

Now the players in the tournament began to realize what might have happened. Walter Browne might be in jail, as this is what often happens to young men when a girl is involved. So, we decided to call the jail. As Browne was 17, we called Juvenile Hall. Juvenile Hall refused to give us any information. They said they could only give information to the parents. We did not want to notify the parents, who were in Brooklyn in New York, as there was nothing they could do about it anyway, and Browne was no longer living with his parents. Finally, Jerry Hanken decided that as he was a juvenile probation officer in Los Angeles, he would go down to Juvenile Hall and see if he could find out information about what had happened Walter Browne.

When Hanken came back, he reported that after showing his credentials as a Juvenile Probation Officer, the officials there had stated that they knew nothing about Walter Browne. They had said that their laws prohibit them from discussing anything involving a juvenile with anybody other than the parents. Thus they could neither admit nor deny whether a juvenile was in their custody. We had assumed that their unwillingness to admit whether or not they had Browne in their custody must mean that they had Browne. However, it turned out that they could not admit nor deny anything about anything, regardless of whether they had Browne or not.

So, where was Browne?

Just as the pairings for the seventh round were being made, the tournament directors received an urgent telephone call from Walter Browne to put him in the pairings, as he was coming to play his game. But he would be arriving late, so let his clock run. He would be arriving just before the one hour was up that required that the game be forfeited.

Sure enough, just slightly less than one hour after round seven had officially started, Walter Browne came rushing into the playing hall, sat down at his board, and played the game, winning easily. After the game was over, I accompanied Browne back to his hotel room. His hotel room had been provided by the USCF as one of his prizes for winning the US Junior Championship.

In his hotel room, Browne said he would tell me the story as to what had happened, provided that I promise not to tell anybody. This is a promise I have kept ever since until now.

After the game in round four had been over, Browne had taken the girl back to his hotel room. He had spent the night in bed with the girl. They had slept in the same bed together, but they had not had intercourse, Browne insisted.

When morning came, they had decided to go to New York where Browne lived.

At this time, there was an airline strike going on. There were no flights from New York to the West Coast. There were a lot of New York chess players in the US Open Chess Championship in Seattle. To get to Seattle, they had all taken a bus from New York to Toronto or Montreal. There, they had flown by Air Canada to Vancouver and then had taken a bus from Vancouver to Seattle.

So, after Browne and the girl had decided to go to New York and live together, Browne had naturally decided that they should go back the way he had came, so they took a bus to the Canadian border intending to cross into Canada and fly from Vancouver to Toronto.

Being still a kid, Walter Browne had not realized that crossing an international border with a 14-year-old girl might create legal difficulties. They had taken a bus to Bellingham, Washington and from there to the Canadian border. There, they had tried to cross into Canada, but the girl had been stopped at the border because she did not have legal documents.

So, they had walked away from the boarder and were standing there trying to decide what to do when a police car drove up and a policeman got out and started asking them questions. The result was that both Walter Browne and the girl were thrown into a juvenile detention facility in Bellingham, Washington.

As it turned out, Walter Browne had been lucky. The juvenile officials told him that had he been just a few weeks older than he actually was, he would have been in jail for a long time. This was because under the law of Washington State, “A person is guilty of rape of a child in the third degree when the person has sexual intercourse with another who is at least fourteen years old but less than sixteen years old and not married to the perpetrator and the perpetrator is at least forty-eight months older than the victim.”

So, apparently Walter Browne was less than 48 months older than the girl and for that reason he had escaped a jail sentence. Both Walter Browne and the girl had to spend two nights in the juvenile detention facility. Turned out the girl was from Los Angeles. Her parents had driven her up from Los Angeles to watch the Beatles play. However, when informed that their daughter had been arrested and was in jail, they had decided not to go pick her up immediately. They had let her spend two nights in jail “to teach her a lesson.” This indicated something about why the girl would want to leave her home.

After two days, the parents had driven up to Bellingham, Washington and gotten the girl released and taken her back. Then Walter Browne had been released from jail too and that was why he had called anxiously from Bellingham, Washington asking to have his name placed back in the pairings so he could play his games.

As I was sitting in his hotel room and he was telling this story, I asked him if he was staying in touch with the girl and was planning to resume their relationship. Browne replied, “Oh I have her name, address and telephone number right here and I will look her up when I get to Los Angeles.” Browne pulled a piece of paper out of his pocket, but when he unfolded it he found that the paper was black. He had put his genes in the laundry without thinking that the paper containing this information was in his pocket. All the ink had been washed away and the information lost.

The chess tournament was a 13-round event, the longest US Open Chess Championship ever played. I had a fairly good tournament but bombed out at the end, earning a barely plus score. Walter Browne after forfeiting two games won or drew all the rest of his games and got a respectable score although he did not win a prize. Walter Browne became a recognized chess grandmaster three years later.

After the tournament was over, Ron Gross offered me and several other chess players a ride back to civilization. I had spent that summer working as a roulette croupier for Lincoln Fitzgerald in the Nevada Club in Reno, Nevada. I had left that job to come to Seattle to play in the US Open Championship. Ron Gross had a camper that he could use to drive around to chess tournaments. He would play in the tournaments and sleep in the camper so he did not have to pay for a hotel room. So he gave myself, future Grandmaster James Tarjan and Expert Prize Winner Troaj Saidi (not to be confused with International Master Anthony Saidy) a ride to California. I got off in Berkeley California as I was a student at the University of California at Berkeley. The others went on to Los Angeles.

Forty-Six years later, on October 28, 2012, I was playing at the 2012 US National Game-in-60 Championship in Pleasanton, California. Walter Browne was playing there too. I had my car with me. Walter Browne asked me to give him a ride to his home in the Berkeley Hills. He has just come out with his new book The Stress of Chess: My Life, Career and 101 Best Games. I had bought the book. The first thing I looked for was to see if this stressful experience at the 1966 US Open Championship was mentioned. Indeed, it was, as it mentions a “Romantic Interlude” at that event. I think that I and only I knew what had happened during this “Romantic Interlude.”

By then, Walter Browne had been happily married for many years to a psychologist from Argentina. He no longer chased girls around at chess tournaments. So, while driving him home, with my wife and daughter in the car, I popped the question. I reminded him that I had been around and somewhat involved and that I had even spoken to the girl. “Did he ever see that girl again? Did they resume their relationship?” I asked.

Browne replied that no, he had never seen that girl again.

Browne was an easily findable person. Even if she did not remember his name, she must have remembered that he was the US Junior Chess Champion. Even if she did not remember his name she could have found him, so I suppose she chose not to.

Published with permission of the author.

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