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.
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.