Stephen Brandwein (1942-2015)

Stephen Brandwein in 2014 (1)

Photo Richard Shorman

Stephen Brandwein died on December 12, 2015, after a brief illness in San Francisco, the city he made his home the last thirty years of his life.

Younger players will likely not have heard of Steve as his days as a tournament player ended almost fifty years ago, but older ones will remember that he was rated around 2300 in the mid-1960s which put him among the top fifty players in the country at the time. Steve soon thereafter gave up tournaments but the following remembrance by Grandmaster Larry Kaufman (interviewed by Jim Eade), who credits Steve with being an early mentor, indicates he was even stronger that.

When I was a college student at M.I.T., Steve lived nearby and we became friends. I was very impressed with his intellect, knowledge, and memory; he was (and presumably still is) a very brilliant man. At the time I was a high Expert while Steve was already retired from regular tournament play with a 2300 rating, which was pretty good back in the mid-1960s. At blitz chess he was much better still, certainly way beyond my level. He taught me a lot about chess (and other things too), but the biggest impact was a twenty game match we played.  Due to the rating disparity we agreed to a 2-1 time handicap; I think Steve took 30′ to my hour.  I thought this would make for a fair match, but I was soon to realize how wrong this was. After 19 games I was still seeking my first win; the score was 10 wins for Steve and 9 draws. Finally by some miracle I won the final game. Just a few weeks later, I was the American Open Champion!! This shows both how much I learned from this match and how strong Steve must have been to score so well against me giving me time odds; my own rating soon hit 2300.

Steve was known for being an exceptionally good blitz player and split a six game match with Miquel Najdorf at the Mechanics’ Institute Chess Club in the early 1980s. A few years earlier Steve roomed with Jim Buff and Bobby Fischer at 521 3rd Avenue in the Richmond District of San Francisco and played the latter several sessions of three minute games scoring 20 percent. Many years later Steve recalled that most games he was White were Polugaevsky (6.Bg5 e6 7.f4 b5) Najdorfs – interesting because this was a line Bobby never played in tournaments.

National Master Robert Haines of Albuquerque captured Steve well in the following remembrance.

  I knew Steve for a little over a decade. Every Thursday the Mechanics Institute would run another round of a double round robin at 40/2 20/1 forever. Ater 5 hours of play the games were adjourned and moves sealed. These were probably the last events of this type ever held and I count myself fortunate to have been able to play in so many of them.

  Many of us would get there early to socialize and Steve was always there as he was every day. Peter Stevens, Tom Stevens, Peter Grey, Max Wilkerson, and a half dozen others. We would discuss history and politics while Steve would do the NY Times crossword at breakneck speed. It was as if he were just filling it out and only rarely did I ever see him pause. All the while Steve would add to the conversation with short pithy comments. I never met anyone smarter than Steve. He was very impressive.

  He seemed to be a chess monk, living in a studio apartment and having only one bowl and a cup. His life seemed to be all about chess although it was very difficult to get him to express an opinion on any position. His humility before the game made a huge impression on me, and it is the one thing I have tried to emulate.

Steve Brandwein was a unique personality who will be impossible to replace. A memorial will be held for him at the Mechanics’ Institute Chess Club on January 24 from 1pm to 5pm and all are welcome. Those who are unable to attend are encouraged to send their remembrances to [email protected], to be shared during the event.



    • I also wondered about Steve the last few years as well as the last many years. I wondered but I saw him every couple of weeks for the past I don’t know how many years…it was more than 30. This was because my late husband, Lester Schonbrun, was a master Scrabble player. He and Steve had known each other in New York and then here in the SF Bay area for many years. There was not a category for “master” in Scrabble, but Lester was one of the best players for many years, and was a contestant in the World Scrabble Championship several times until the owners of the game realized that people who watched just the pros play got irritated because so many of the words were unknown to most humans, and it made them feel inadequate after being lauded by their friends when they beat them all the time.

      The international contests were cancelled and our free rides and hotels in London and Melbourne, etc. were over. Be that as it may,I would estimate that Steve won almost half the games he played with Lester at our kitchen table.

      Steve used to come to our house to play Scrabble and stay for dinner. My greatest contribution to life on earth was that I tricked him into eating green vegetables and other, in his opinion, weird food, for the first time in his life. The secret was cheese, meat and pasta. Chop up some broccoli or spinach in the spaghetti with chicken and cheese. Chop it finely enough that it’s a drag picking it out of the pasta…Insert triumphant eerie laugh MWA HA HA!! here.

      I know one thing for sure, it’s a TRAVESTY OF JUSTICE that Lester and Steve ended up NOT living forever. If I believed in God or Buddha or Krishna or the Gohanson, I’d be even more pissed off than I am. Actually, maybe I already am.

      Another sad thing is that I’ll never hear his say “Oh yeah, I read that. It was pretty good.” every time I told him what I was reading. I think there were only a couple of times when he actually had NOT read the book I was reading. . . Aside from cookbooks.

      What luck it was for us to have known them.

      Best, Joan Mocine, Oakland, CA

      • Dear Joan,
        I don’t think I ever met you, but I know that Steve was devastated when Lester died.
        I agree with you that the great humans should catch a break, but it didn’t work out that way.
        I try to stay focused on my good fortune in meeting him when I was so young (’77). I finagled lots of time with him over the years by getting him jobs, although seeing him run down a hill in Humboldt County carrying Hefty bags of our produce while helicopters circled overhead…if only I had a camera!

        Truly the best human I ever knew – I’ll never be able to say goodbye to him.

        • Glad to know you’re still out there, Diana ! Met you in Toledo back in July, 1976—followed your chess career for years afterward.



  1. I met Steve when I lived in the Bay Area around 1988. He was a kind and good person who was always around when there was a blitz going on.
    GM Darcy Lima

  2. I knew Steve in the early 70s at Chess City and the game room in NY when I was a teenager and played hundreds of speed chess games with him. He always gave me 5 to 2. The first 50 games he played me for free, until I got strong enough to make him think, then it was $1 a game. I may have beat him 3 or 4 times, he was so quick!

    Saw him play several five minute games with Petrosian. He lost them all in complex tactical melees as they exchanged pieces in a blizzard of rapidfire moves, but when the dust cleared Petrosian always had one more piece to take something than Steve did.

    Steve was a good ping pong player too, he had quick wrists and good reflexes which surprised me, he looked so innocuous and unassuming.

    Steve was one of the brightest, nicest, most honest people I have ever met. It was an honor and a privilege to know him….

  3. I played hundreds of 5/3 games for 50¢ with Steve. I had the honor of being called “ape” many times. When I got tired of losing I would casually leaf through the numerous history books he was reading, asking random factual questions in them that he had to answer exactly. I always lost my dollar. Likewise with Chess Informant. I would read the moves from any game in any year and he had to identify the players. He always got my dollar.

    Below is part of a story I wrote about 5 years ago. It’s titled “Chess” and it speaks of a Chess playernamed Lumin. Guess who he is. The setting, if anyone remembers, is Higdalo’s Chess house on West 72nd St.

    God bless Steve. I always missed you.
    Your friend, Alan.

    Harpoons, leather battle girdles, broad swords, votive vessels the odds and ends of the prophet’s collection. Each a memento from time’s destroyed aspirations of a human trouble maker. Called genius, some known, some unknown, some on the verge of a stupendous discovery that in the course of history’s unfolding needed squashing. He was good at it, the gun totting hipster of time, the dreadnought terminator, avenger of humility. He guarded eternity and the divine plan.

    Lumin sat still in the corner. He was set still in a narrow wood chair, facing sideways to the stairs. On his lap rested an open book liberally ear marked, yellowed with age, with smaller torn pieces strewn around his chair. He was wearing an over large flannel shirt more like a woodcutter’s middle western garb than what a games men in a New York club would be wearing. Around him were arrayed his acolytes and fans. No one spoke to him yet one could feel the respect they owed him. In his somber quiet way he gently controlled the space around him.

    Just beyond was a table with chess board placed conspicuously and exactly in the middle. Pieces were placed on colored tiles delineating the most recent moves in an undecipherable game. From time to time some one would dash in and ask Lumin off handily if he would be interested in a game of chess. He shrugged and politely declined. More than a look of regret would appear on the intruders face. Then unexpectedly, one could hear from the general bustle that a visiting master, a very strong international celebrity was looking for a game with our strongest opponent-a blood match of brains. Action! Of course everyone present was aware of Lumin’s uncanny and unerring power over the chess board. Here was a man who never picked up a piece unless he was playing, had no official chess rating and was virtually unknown to only those selected few who visited this game house and knew the game. The visiting players were willing to play for very high stakes with whomever our champion would be. Lumin listened quietly, not stirring or communicating any preference one way or another. It had been a chilly, quiet day and perhaps he was bored. He shuffled slightly, his legs crossed in his chair, reached out his arm to adjust a book more carefully and slowly raised himself. All present stared in silence; he lifted his loose, pale frame near the stairs leading to the parlor below. All the players could feel his unhurried descent down the stairs. Step-by-step he came passing the overhead lights casting a long shadow on the playing board. The challenger was in a jovial mood, short, plump, confident. He had just won an inter-zonal competition from a country full of grand masters, he was in top form and brimming with confidence; losing to an unrated player was inconceivable. He stretched out his porky hand in mock respect and nodded to the near board and placed five hundred dollars, all hundreds on the table. Immediately, on all fronts everyone present took a piece of the action. In a frenzy, money, tatterred, hustle-worn and hard earned fell like large angry snow flakes to the scuffed table. The typically self-absorbed backgammon players; the auto-diadactic Scrabble players, common street hustlers, looming shylocks and cynical bookies, stopped dead with slacken faces, staring in Lumin’s direction—all knew something exciting was about to happen. The master of masters, the grandmaster of phantom moves was about to skin a mere mortal. Lumin just plucked himself down on the narrow wooden chair that creaked with his weight. He furled the scarf form his neck and stared intently at his opponent. The smug new comer reached out his hands for Lumin to choose -who would play white conferring an advantage. Lumin had already picked the black pieces and said that choosing was unnecessary. The new comer was flustered and exhorted him to play white. Lumin stood his ground either playing a mind game looking for an edge or genuinely believing it wasn’t necessary. The clock was set for five minutes apiece and at once the clock was punched with a resounding metallic click and the white pieces made the first move. The game proceeded along normal lines. Lumin made smooth, unhurried moves non-descript, innocuous, not sharp moves nor sacrifices but just simple moves like a lush green garden on a sunny, summer day. Lumin, with casual insouciance was able to extract limitless time on the clock, punching the clock with lightning speed almost simultaneously with his opponent’s moves as though he had played this game before in another time. Whatever move was make was pre-determined, pre-ordained and it was proof positive that Lumin knew in advance what move his opponent would make. His ability to win was infallible and inevitable. He won before his opponent could lose. It was uncanny, no sacrifice, no gambit nothing except the holiest, scaramental zugzwang imaginable on a board full of pieces. The new comer was totally exasperated. Seeing that he lost was too much for him to digest, the three minor house geniuses Steve, Nathan and Asa just shrugged, watched and hastily reached for the money amid a rising buzz of blood lust satisfied. More games; more money! One of their proud, mystery warriors had won! The inscrutable all powerful, indomitable sphinx of the chess board. The miraculous had happened like a A man with no discernible chess record had just beaten the second strongest rated player in the world in a mere twenty-two moves without breaking sweat. It was no contest and the new comer stood mute despairing, his ego crushed. With his indomitable arrogance smothered; he would never be the same again. Ultimately, he lost he championship.

    Human history is a zig -zag of fits and starts and it was Lumin’s duty, his job to lay roadblocks, hinder seeming progress. Lumin was beset by many problems not the least of which was the rising tide of probable outcomes that could just drive him mad. Fortunately after all these years he was able to turn most of it off. Not was never a problem. it only became a problem if he had to intercept a recent development or to set up obstacles to that. The inevitability of man’s actions were not always certain. Time had to be nudged and leaks had to be fixed. Lumin sat mulling over his unclear fate and mankind’s destiny.

  4. Larry Kaufman told me that Steve’s score against Bobby ( during the Buff Manor days), was actually 30%!
    Steve taught me everything I know. Because of his voracious reading, he saw the whole world and it’s history – not the pablum that was fed to average Western students.
    Steve made out reading lists for me, and helped me to realize that most things are not as simple as they seem.
    I miss him so much, but he was so strong in spirit that I feel like I will never lose him.

  5. I played in the 1961 New England Championship. Steve was there but not really engaged. He drew six games and won one, to finish 4-3.
    He drew a lot of games during that stage, before his rating increased above the 2000 mark he held then. He told us about his tournament game against Jeffrey Goldstein: “I offered him 70 draws in 70 moves, after which he finally accepted.”
    He participated in a 1961 Ivy League Ten-Second Tournament and did very well.
    Thanks for writing, Bill Gould

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