US master Steve Brandwein passes away at 73

1/3/2016 – Unless you are intimately familiar with the American chess scene, you will be forgiven for not knowing who Steve Brandwein is. He did not challenge for the world title, nor did he invent an opening. Rather he was one of those memorable characters that one never forgets. A chess monk, as many described him, who had his own encounters with Miguel Najdorf and Bobby Fischer.

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San Francisco master Steve Brandwein passes away at 73

By Joe Rivano Barros

Steve Brandwein had a daily routine: He would leave his spare Mission District apartment and walk downtown to the Mechanics’ Institute Chess Room near Market and Montgomery, where he had been a member for 47 years, play chess with other members or read up on the latest chess goings-on, and return to the Mission after work to visit Adobe Books.

There, he would sit in a chair and read, remembers Andrew McKinley, the founder of the bookstore and Brandwein’s roommate for the past 10 years.

“He visited the bookstore almost every day over the last 26 years,” he said. At both the old location on 16th Street and the new one on 24th Street, Brandwein was a regular, sitting down with a book for a few hours and occasionally engaging with customers perusing the shelves. He added an “academic heft” and his “encyclopedic memory” to the store, McKinley said, and was the most well-read person McKinley and others knew.

“No one visited the store or supported the store more,” said McKinley. “People came to see him, talk to him, argue with him, and he generally aided anyone who worked there and anyone who shopped there.”

Brandwein died two weeks ago on December 12 of metastatic cancer that had spread to his brain and sinuses. He was diagnosed with bladder cancer a few years ago  and underwent treatment then, but decided against it the second time around. “He was ready to die,” said McKinley of the 73-year-old, who was born in 1942 and attended Boston University.

At school, he played chess, debated politics and developed an affinity for socialism and communism, according to his friends. Larry Kauffman, a chess grandmaster, named Brandwein an early influence and a master at blitz chess, a fast-paced game with a lower than normal time limit.

A small memorial to Steve Brandwein at Adobe Books, featuring a photo by Allison Anderson.
(Photo by Joe Rivano Barros/Mission Local)

Brandwein came to San Francisco in the 1970s from Seattle, where he had moved from the East Coast and a “fairly distant” family, according to McKinley. His roommate didn’t know him then, but Paul Whitehead, a long-time member of the Mechanics’ Institute, remembers meeting Brandwein as a young 13-year-old chess player.

“I sensed he was my friend right from the get-go,” said Whitehead, who is now 55. Whitehead and his brother were among the younger members of the club, but “never felt patronized” by Brandwein or others despite their renown.

“Most of the people we met treated us like we were ordinary chess players without treating us like kids, even though we might have acted like kids. It was the chess board that was the important thing,” he said.

Brandwein’s last professional tournament was in 1964, but he played regularly at the Chess Room and kept up with chess happenings worldwide. He even played chess grandmaster Bobby Fischer, purportedly, when the two of them shared a house with other chess players on Third Street.

“He knew Bobby Fischer, and there’s an anecdote about Fischer living there in that house, and Steve went over and played him, and apparently Steve did pretty well. From what I heard, he won about 20 percent of the games,” Whitehead said, a figure repeated in online chess forums.

After living in the chess house, Brandwein bounced around the city and worked odd jobs, continuing his daily routine of reading books and playing chess. He started working as the chess room coordinator in 2000, and in 2005 was evicted from his place in the Lower Haight.

“I immediately found it comfortable to offer him a room in my apartment,” said McKinley. Brandwein “lived like a Buddhist” and had very few possessions, able to comfortably share a one-bedroom apartment with McKinley. He also subsisted on a frugal, if unhealthy, diet.

“He lived very simply and ate a regular diet of Dr. Pepper, cookies, and canned beef stew,” said McKinley. “I learned to take him for granted because he was so easygoing. There was almost never a conflict, and he allowed me to overwhelm his few minor belongings with no complaint.”

Brandwein was also known for his razor sharp humor. Christine Shields, the manager at Adobe Books and a friend of Brandwein, remembers him being a laid-back presence in the store with a great sense of humour.

“I’ll emphasize that he was hilarious,” she said, saying his humor was “understated but kind of outrageous, absolutely irreverant.”

Whitehead related a tale in which he was invited on a televised panel to comment on the famed 1972 Fischer-Spassky match in Reykjavik, Iceland, the so-called Match of the Century that pitted the American champion against the Soviet one.

When asked about a particular move of Fischer’s, Brandwein began talking politics instead, revealing his radical positions and calling out Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon for their handling of the Vietnam War.

“Steve apparently turned to the camera and said something about ‘mad-dog Kissinger’ and ‘Nixon the murderer of the Vietnamese people,’” Whitehead said. The camera cut off, and Brandwein was no longer invited on television. But the host of the program, a chess master named Shelby Lyman, remembers Brandwein’s “turning our coverage into a circus” fondly, according to a letter shared by Whitehead.

“The Channel 13 brass have still not recovered from that one,” Lyman wrote.

But despite his renown at reading and chess — as well as his penchant for other games like Scrabble, which landed him in the well-known book about the game “Wordfreaks” — most said they just miss their friend and his daily visits.

“It’s a loss for the store and for the Mission,” McKinley said. “It’s a loss for San Francisco, more than for me.”

There will be a memorial for Brandwein at the Mechanics’ Institute on January 24, and a small memorial with his picture, candles, and a chessboard has been set up at Adobe Books, for those who knew him best for his reading.

First appeared in Mission Local, and republished with kind permission.


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lifemasteraj lifemasteraj 5/6/2016 03:46
Sorry I missed this, I was homeless for three months!

My apologies and condolences to the friends and family of Master Brandwein. I met him several times, we even played once in a five-minute tournament in California ... he destroyed me!

RIP U.S. chess master Steve Brandwein. - A.J. Goldsby I, Pensacola, FL
ChessTalk ChessTalk 1/21/2016 09:39
Poor chess genius, if you won one game, you were hustled.
chess genius chess genius 1/8/2016 12:51
Steve Brandwein never was a Senior Life Master, he never was USCF master, he never was a fide master. I am only 2115 FIDE and I was able to beat Steve in 2 games out of three. Yes, Steve played master level but nowhere close to IM level common guys !
People can speculate all kind of bullshit about 20% of games Steve won against Fischer. Fischer was the best!
Steve there nowhere close to chess elite !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Even Sam Sloan who is 1900 USCF could beat Steve !!!
FoxForceFive FoxForceFive 1/7/2016 01:26
20% against Fischer in blitz is an impressive achievement regardless if you were a titled(GM or IM) player or not.
dysanfel dysanfel 1/6/2016 01:29
Becoming an IM in those days required the money to travel to europe and play in tournaments their. It was difficult for 2400+ players to get a title. I personally know a 2400+ who has beaten IMs and GMs, but never got a title because of this exact problem...too view FIDE tournaments in the US that are too hard to get to. My friend could have been an IM if he had the money to do it when he was young, so he is only a Senior Life Master.
chessforever2015 chessforever2015 1/4/2016 08:34
Steve was nowhere close to Fischer's rank at blitz. Steve never was even IM.
ulyssesganesh ulyssesganesh 1/4/2016 01:36
quite a character.... R.I.P. steve brandwein
KWRegan KWRegan 1/4/2016 02:26
My condolences.

I've wondered if someone would raise the Kissinger/Nixon anecdote; as that day (it was Fischer-Spassky game 7) was my only personal memory of Steve Brandwein I did not wish to do so. Agog as I was as a 12-year-old near-master in the TV room and focusing on the game I actually missed the remark. During a break either immediately or some time afterward I called my parents at home from backstage, and my mother told me something like: "Don't let those grownups crowd you out. Speak up. Talk about chess---talk /only/ about chess. Lots of chess---let them hear how much you know." When the camera came back on I talked a blue streak until Shelby hushed me down. I and Bill Goichberg who had taken me to Albany were back on for the brief adjournment the next day; I don't recall if he was.