A Fine Chess Player

A Fine Chess Player

DonMcKim
DonMcKim
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A Fine Chess Player

Review of Aidan Woodger, Reuben Fine: A Comprehensive Record of An American Chess Career 1929-1951. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2018 [2004]. 392 pages. Paper. $39.95.

 

Reuben Fine (1914-1993) was a multi-faceted person. He was an International Grandmaster and frequent U.S. Chess Champion—one of the top players in the world from the 1930’s until he retired from chess in 1951. He was also a university professor, psychologist—with a doctorate in psychology from the University of Southern California, and author of a number of chess books.

            This splendid study by Aidan Woodger is a tremendously detailed book on Fine’s life in its many aspects. In addition to his text and narrative, Woodger presents 882 of Fine’s games, with annotations. A number of Appendices provide information on Fine’s career results, information on his opponents, and a listing of Fine’s notebooks on his chess games in the Library of Congress along with a number of other interesting topics. This book is the place to turn for a portrait of Fine and meticulously researched materials on “all things Fine”!

            Fine was born in New York City to a Russian-Jewish family who had come to the United States around the turn of the twentieth-century. He was raised solely by his mother after his father abandoned the family when Fine was two years old. He learned chess moves at eight from an uncle. In high school, he joined the chess club. He became a junior member of the Marshall Chess Club and was introduced to the Manhattan Chess Club. At fifteen, Fine’s passion for chess was ignited. He progressed rapidly in both chess clubs and began to play in tournaments. Fine developed strong skills in blitz chess and eventually became one of the premier blitz players in the world—enjoying great success in this mode against Alekhine, though not so much against Capablanca.

            In 1932, Fine was the Marshall Chess Club champion and played the third board on the United States Chess team. He graduated from City College of New York while still eighteen and decided to become a professional chess player. A number of chess successes followed. In April 1936, Fred Reinfeld wrote:

The favourite, in my opinion is Reuben Fine. Slightly over 21, he has had time to defeat two of the best American players (Dake and Steiner) in match play, to take part in two International Team Tournaments (Folkestone and Warsaw), to win the championship tournament of one of the strongest chess clubs in the world (the Marshall Chess Club: 1931-32, 1932-33, 1933-34), to take four first prizes in the formidable Western Tournaments (St. Paul 1932, Detroit 1933, Chicago 1934 and Milwaukee (1935), and to acquit himself creditably in five International Tournaments (Pasadena 1932, Syracuse 1934, Mexico City 1934-35, Łódź 1935 and Hastings 1935-36)! (89)

Keres and Fine in 1938

Keres and Fine in 1938

 

            In summer 1936, Fine went to Europe where he spent eighteen months. In the strong Nottingham tournament, where a number of potential World Champion candidates were invited, Fine shared the 3-5 spots with 9½ points (with Samuel Reshevsky and Max Euwe), behind Capablanca and Botvinnik who tied for 1-2 honors with 10 points (105). Other strong performances followed, including first place finishes at Leningrad and Moscow (1937). Fine shared first with Paul Keres at Margate (England) in April 1937 where with 7 points they bested Alekhine who had 6½ (151). Then, Fine and Keres tied for first (along with the Swiss player, Henry Grieb) at Ostend in Belgium. Interestingly, Chess reported that “the competitors were given duplicate score-sheets, secured one above the other by means of spring clips, with carbon paper between, apparently an innovation at the time” (157).

Alekhin and Fine at AVRO Tournament--1938

Alekhine and Fine at AVRO Tournament in 1938

 

            In 1938, Fine tied with Keres for the third time in the Dutch, AVRO tournament where they were tied for first place. This was one of the strongest twentieth-century tournaments, organized with the hope the winner would play Alekhine, who had won the World Championship in 1927 against Capablanca. Fine finished ahead of Botvinnik, who would become a World Champion. He defeated Alekhine as well as future champion Mikhail Botvinnik, current champion Alekhine, former world champions Euwe and Capablanca, and ahead of Reshevsky and Salo Flohr. He won both of his games against Alekhine. Fine’s triumph was the culmination of his career in Europe.

Practical Chess Openings--1948

           

           During World War II, chess event opportunities were not plentiful. Fine worked for the Federal Trade Commission as a translator and editor. He also turned to chess writing. In 1939, he published a new (sixth) edition of the classic Modern Chess Openings. Basic Chess Endings (1941) was written in three months with Fine himself constructing many of the positions (362). Other notable books followed, including, Chess the Easy Way (1942), Practical Chess Openings (1948), and The World’s Great Chess Games (1951; revised and expanded, 1976).

            After Alekhine’s death in 1946, the World Chess Federation invited Fine to compete for the World Championship. But Fine declined. He was then working on his doctorate. When he completed it, he played competitive chess until 1951. But by then his interest in psychoanalysis had led to his private practice. His 1967 book was The Psychology of the Chess Player and Fine published a number of books on psychology, including The History of Psychoanalysis (1979). Fine became an internationally known and respected Freudian psychoanalyst. When he withdrew from chess in 1951 at age 36, he was still one of the strongest players in the world.

Reuben Fine in 1961

Reuben Fine in 1961

            Fine lived in Manhatten and continued to write. In his later years, he suffered a series of strokes. In January 1993, a stroke was severe. On March 26, 1993, Reuben Fine died in Saint Luke’s—Roosevelt Medical Center in Manhatten due to complications from pneumonia.

            Fine’s chess record is outstanding. Woodger mentions the findings of Chessmetrics.com from when he was working on this book that Fine was “the number one player in the world 1940-1942, number two in 1937, 1939 and 1949-1951, number three for 1946-1947, and number six for 1938” (358). Fine was inducted into the U.S. Chess Hall of Fame in its initial class in 1986.

            Woodger’s deeply detailed book is a tribute to a “fine” chess player; and one who, while retiring at age 36, provided a wealth of interesting games. What should we expect from Fine’s games? Former World Champion, Max Euwe, said in 1940:

Fine is extremely gifted in the solving of technical problems such as the preservation of a small advantage….More typical is his readiness to go in for ‘chancy’ positions, often enough in the very opening. He is not a combinative player like Alekhine, and his fondness for critical play is not so great as to make him take risks. No, he never takes risks! Such is not his style though his straightforward, downright methods often force him to make moves which appear risky on the surface and give his play a keen edge….Above all, his play is logical (10).  

           Woodger’s thorough study of Reuben Fine gives us an enhanced and deepened acquaintance with this excellent chess player who had a distinguished career, leaving us with a wealth of games to consider, and some outstanding books on chess.