Steve Brandwein in Berkeley

by NM Andy Sacks

Sam Sloan's article on this site, entitled "Steve Brandwein, Professional Chess Hustler," is a fine introduction to Brandwein for both those who never heard of him as well as those of us who have some familiarity. There is little doubt that Steve is a unique figure in American chess, and the piece is filled with fascinating little-known facts about him. My intent here is certainly not to supplant that article in any sense, but to supplement it with a firsthand California anecdote.

In the late 1960s and early '70s several apartments, duplexes, and rented houses in Berkeley were home to strong chess players, and their residences often served as meeting places and "crash pads" for their fellow competitors. Speed chess was the order of the day-and quite often all night.

On a trip to the Bay Area in one of those early '70s years-you must forgive my temporal uncertainty here, and naturally it is completely unrelated to any illegal drug consumption during that most conservative of periods and places-I found myself with my dear and recently deceased friend Alan Pollard "vacationing" at one of those chess dens. Dennis Fritzinger was present, and, I believe, one of the hosts. In and out, day and night, were the likes of Alan Benson, Frank Thornally, Dennis Waterman, Frank Street and other young Experts and Masters of our generation.

One mid-afternoon the totally unexpected occurred: one of the players brought over Steve Brandwein (whom many of us had always referred to as "Brandywine" for some reason). He was in California somehow (perhaps on chess "business," perhaps not) and, with very little persuasion necessary, was ready to join in the play. We took turns playing him and eagerly spectating. No stakes were involved, and all games were 5/5.

If you have read the Sam Sloan article, and/or have any previous familiarity with the legendary Brandwein, you already know the result. Our group was composed of players whose ratings and actual speed chess strengths ranged from about 2225 to 2375. We were out of our league. No one was able to nick him for even a draw. However, much more interesting than the sporting result, I thought, were the playing demeanor and style of our distinguished visitor.

His bearing was remarkably matter-of-fact while playing, and his moves were made extremely rapidly and with an air of nonchalance, even unconcern. It was rather eerie. Often it seemed as if he had seen all these positions before and was reacting mechanically, from a type of memory that today we associate with chess-playing computer programs. He was always significantly ahead on time after 15 to 20 moves.

And, as Sloan notes, his opening and early middlegame play were anything but aggressive. Quite the contrary. Just solid and sound. Almost defensive. Almost asking to be prematurely or unsoundly attacked. And then, nearly every game went one of two ways: either an ill-advised foray of aggression was summarily refuted by tactical alertness and opportunism, or a rather even position became in practicality hopeless for his opponent when the time differential became something like 30 seconds to about three ½ minutes (these were the days, of course, before the exactitude of digital chess clocks, but the above approximations are, I think, very fair).

It was just no use. Steve Brandwein in his playing left the uncanny impression of his actually being some sort of speed chess automaton, devoid of emotions of any variety, and programmed to play somewhere around 2500 strength but never consume more than two minutes of clock time in any contest.

In retrospect, of course, it was unfortunate that one or two stronger players were not there to test him. In fact, players like IM John Grefe and the fast-developing then-Senior Master Jim Tarjan were all, now and again, familiar faces at these gatherings.

Sloan cites a session in which GM Miguel Najdorf took on Brandwein and put him in his place. I understand. No one, I think, has ever claimed that Steve Brandwein was one of the top ten blitz players on the planet-but if your speed chess playing ability was below 2500, you were wisest and most realistic not to expect to win or even draw a single game with him. And, perhaps, to spend your money elsewhere.

Andy Sacks 2007

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