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A Poker Life: Walter Browne
by Tim Peters | Published: May 28, 2014
In a mid-sized card room in a down-at-the-heels neighborhood in northern California, the floor person’s voice booms out over the PA system: “ZYX, I have your change to table eight.”
A slim, slight figure of a man raises a thumb to show he’s gotten the message. He racks up his $5 yellow chips and prepares to leave the $15-$30 limit hold’em game to head over to the less rarefied realm of $2-$4 stud — the smallest game at the Oaks Club card room in Emeryville, a small town sandwiched between Oakland and Berkeley and just across the bay from San Francisco.
ZYX is a prop player at the Oaks, but his real name is Walter Browne.
It’s safe to say that the Oaks Club regulars know that Browne is a prop, of course. But few of them are aware of the extent of Browne’s prowess at poker — or at games in general.
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Browne is a true poker professional. Born in 1949 in Australia and raised in New York, Browne never finished high school, didn’t go to college, and didn’t even have a “real job” until he began working as a prop at another Bay Area card room in 1997. He joined the team at the Oaks in 1999, where now, four days a week, he plays virtually all the games, from low-limit stud and hold’em up to $15-$30 limit hold’em and up to $2-$4 spread limit.
He has long made his living as a cash-game player, but his tournament résumé is incredibly impressive. According to the Card Player database, he has earned more than $280,000 on the tournament circuit, with six WSOP cashes and four WSOP final tables — including a second-place finish in the 2007 $2,500 H.O.R.S.E. event for $131,445.
All in all, Walter Browne has carved out a more than respectable career in poker. But here’s the rub: Poker is not even Walter Browne’s best game.
It All Began With Chess
In the world of poker, Browne is accomplished. But in the world of chess, Browne is a legend. Chess was Browne’s earliest game and first love, and still consumes this ferocious competitor today.
“I learned chess when I was seven,” he explained. “And I became obsessed with the game.”
Browne took to chess with the kind of focused determination of any young acolyte. He said he got serious about the game at about age 13, paying his dues at the Manhattan Chess Club (at one time the epicenter of chess in America), and in 1966, at the age of 17, became the U.S. Junior Champion.
Many people today consider poker to be a “mind sport,” which seems an apt description of the game. But chess will always be the mind sport par excellence — and when Browne was growing up, chess commanded a huge amount of interest in the general culture.
This was in the mid-1960s, and by the 1970s, Browne said, “Bobby Fischer was a household name,” referring to the man considered by some to be the greatest chess player who ever lived. “People were mystified by chess players.” (Browne played Fischer when he was just 14 years old.)
Browne may not be a household name, but he is a rock star in the world of chess. And no wonder: In the mid-1960s, Browne became the youngest chess Grandmaster in the United States. He went on to win the U.S. Chess Championship six times (by way of comparison, Bobby Fischer won it eight).
Then, as now, it was hard to carve out a living playing chess, though Browne did win tournaments with cash prizes and traveled around the country to put on chess exhibitions. But even chess legends have to eat. Browne turned his facility with games into a source of income through poker.
“When I was about 15,” he recalled, “another chess player said ‘Let’s play poker.’ At first, we had to use Go stones and Scrabble tiles as chips. It was dealer’s choice and we mostly played split-pot games — no hold’em. In about six months I was a breakeven player and when I was 16, I was making money in home games around New York City.”
“Making money” sounds like he was winning pocket change and subway fare, but a Sports Illustrated (January 12, 1976) feature about Walter Browne the chess star also talked about Walter Browne the poker player, cutting his teeth in the underground games in Manhattan: By the time he left high 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.”
Eventually, poker would turn into his main source of income, as he notes in his engaging book The Stress of Chess…and its Infinite Finesse (published by New In Chess in 2012 and available on Amazon). The book mixes memoir with intricate, detailed analyses of 101 of his thousands of chess matches. But Browne also writes a lot on poker, from his start in New York to an auspicious trip to Las Vegas in 1982: “Playing $10-$20 limit hold’em for almost the first time, I went on a ten-day rush, winning over $10,000!”
The book is filled with anecdotes from a games-playing life, including the time he won a seat to the first $50,000 Players’ Championship, via Party Poker, at the 2006 WSOP. And its many photographs are a testament to Browne’s seriousness of purpose and intensity at the table. At times, his focus on the board is as intimidating as the Phil Ivey stare from across the felt.
Poker writer and two-time WSOP bracelet winner Bill Chen supplies a short introduction — the two played together often at the Oaks Club when Chen was getting his Ph.D. at Berkeley, writing, “I never wanted Walter at my table. His bets and raises came at lightning speed and he would glance at you and start guessing your hand, ‘what you got, ace-queen, a flush draw?’…Sometimes wrong, but often right, and it would be unnerving.”
Chess Paved the Way to Poker
Browne was eager to talk about how his life in chess helped him with his life in poker. “Chess helps you be focused,” he said. “Chess forces you to focus on your opponents, not just your cards, especially when you’re playing no-limit.”
And chess, he insists, is like poker in another way: the need to think strategically as a game or a hand unfolds: “You have to think ahead, and look ahead. ‘If my opponent does this, do I do that?’ You have to be logical, and chess teaches you logical thinking.”
He elaborates on this theme in his book when he notes, “Many of the same skills needed for chess are equally necessary at poker, like patience, pattern recognition, control, vision, intuition, and timely aggression. In poker it is absolutely vital to outguess your adversaries and put yourself in their minds.”
Browne still competes at chess and travels to Las Vegas for a few WSOP events, but he still has his “day job” as a prop player at the Oaks. (As a prop, he’s paid an hourly wage by the club, but is gambling with his own money.)
Money management is obviously important for any player, but it’s crucial for a prop player, who has to play at whatever game, and whatever limits, the club needs him for, often shorthanded. And Browne remembers his role as an employee: “As a prop you are promoting the game and the card room. You have to be on good terms with people.”
As we finish our conversation, the PA system comes to life: “ZYX, I have your change to table 18.” Browne is heading back to the $15-$30 game, back to the daily grind of grinding. But it’s not a grind for this man who has devoted his life to games and mind sports, playing chess, poker, backgammon, Scrabble and probably a dozen other games as well — and playing them at an exceptionally high level. ♠
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