Reuben Fine

Over the last few months I have "invested" in four rather unique chess books.  What do I mean by "invested" and "unique" you may well ask? The answers are easy, "invested"  because the books are more expensive than the usual run-of-the-mill book and "unique" because these books offer more than the run-of-the-mill chess book.

How did this happen?

Some time ago I became the owner of "Amos Burn" by Richard Foster. My ownership came about in return for services rendered as I would never have considered paying the £55 required to purchase it. The book turned out to be quite extraordinary in that it was clearly deeply researched and was a complete biography of that eminent chessplayer providing a description of his life and games.  In addition the presentation adopted by the publisher McFarland offered clear text, many photographs and diagrams as well as many well annotated games  all of which were contained in an attractively bound hardback library type book.  In fact it was a delightful book to handle and assimilate.  Such an experience lingered on until I could not resist any longer the temptation to enlarge my library with another McFarland product.

A deep search of their publishing list persuaded me that "Reuben Fine.  A comprehensive Record of an American Chess Career 1929-1951" by Aidan Woodger fitted the bill.  I had been a long time admirer of Reuben Fine's output as a player and author.  Two of his books, "The Ideas behind Chess Openings" and "Basic Chess Endings", made a deep impression on me during my chess development. 

This book purports to contain the scores of all the games that Fine was known to have played and recorded.  This amounts to 882 games including offhand and simultaneous games.  Many of these are annotated using published analysis of many different authors which, if necessary, have been supplemented and updated by Woodger.

I was slightly disappointed to find that there were scant references to Fine's private life, but then the book set out to record, as the sub-title infers, his chess career.

Fine's games have a fluency of their own and are easily understood as he sticks to simple but effective themes, much as he describes in his writings.  A simple opening leads into a middlegame which has clear objectives which can then be brought, if required, to a conclusion in the endgame.  If necessary a combination will be executed to decide the outcome of his strategy.  He played many games that have been used to demonstrate classical themes by other authors.  In fact Fine's entire style can be called classical.

Throughout his career he fought many battles in the United States at a time when they were the strongest chess country in the world.  He represented the US in many Olympiads and other team events.  It was only towards the end of his career that the Soviet Union began to exert their all-powerful influence on the chess world. 

Probably the most important tournament he played in was the 1938 AVRO tournament in The Netherlands.  Here he tied for first place with Paul Keres, ahead of Alekhine, Capablanca, Botvinnik, Euwe, Flohr and Reshevsky who were the strongest players in the world at that time.  This was a double round-robin event in which he stormed ahead from the very first round.  In fact he scored 5½ points from the first 6 rounds and attributed his success to the work he had recently completed in revising "Modern Chess Openings".  In fact he surprised Botvinnik by playing 1.e4 against him when it was well known that he was a firm advocate of queen pawn openings.  At the end of the tournament he had beaten Alekhine in both their games and it was only a tie-break that made Keres the tournament winner giving him the right to challenge Alekhine to a match for the World Championship.

This result made Fine a certain "candidate" for the 1948 Match for the World Championship, but he declined to pick up the invitation.  It has been suggested that he secretly doubted the veracity of the Soviet Union participants in much the same fashion as Bobby Fischer was to proclaim openly later.  Larry Evans is reported as saying "Fine told me he didn't want to waste three months of his life watching Russians throw games to each other."  However, it is more probable that at that time he was too active in his second career in psychology to embark on a rather risky and unrewarding venture.

At home he had to battle the likes of Reshevsky, Kashdan, Denker and Marshall and although he never won the US Championship, he was never placed lower than fourth.

Born in 1914 he grew up in poor family circumstances in the East Bronx area of New York and although her had an interest in chess he never took the game seriously until 1929 when he became a junior member of Marshall Chess Club and later the Manhattan Chess Club.  Finding his college studies easy he found plenty of time to pursue his interest in chess.  By 1931 he was winning minor tournaments organised by various New York clubs.  In July of 1935 his talent was recognised by being chosen for the American team and  in fact he took the top board for his country in the 1935 Hamilton-Russell Trophy.  Like many Americans before and after him, he came to Europe to gain more universal acceptance and in fact he played in 17 tournaments during 1936 in The Netherlands, England, Norway, Sweden, Soviet Union, Belgium, Latvia and Austria. Quite an itinerary!  He was one of the strongest players in the world during the 1930's and demonstrated this by his tournament results. 

By 1938 he became rather jaundiced with the game and was considering retirement when he won the AVRO Tournament.  No doubt this was an inspiration to him, but the war years saw his interest wane yet again until his career in psychology took over.  His chess career then took a back seat and he only appeared sporadically in major tournaments. 

In all, his chess career was rather short, although he did make a deep impression by his play and writings.

Fine died on 26th March 1993 aged 79.  His chess career was very short, covering a mere 26 years.  This seems to be a feature of great American players.  One only has to refer to Morphy and Bobby Fischer for examples of short periods of serious play.

His personal life appears to equally spectacular in that he married five times.

As a person it is quite possible that he was somewhat irascible.  Here is how Reinfeld, a contemporary of Fine's, describes his personality:

"........ Fine is not one of those chess masters who are inarticulate about anything but chess.  He is a university graduate, extremely well-read, especially in the fields of philosophy and psychology, and he loves the music of of the great masters.  His reading tastes are perhaps too austere for most people's tastes; he has read Dostoyevsky's works with vigorous thoroughness, but he abhors detective stories.  By temperament he is a pessimist and believes with Bertrand Russell that only a universal knowledge of the principles of formal logic can save the world from its chronic ills.  Of late  he has become interested in politics, and peruses assiduously the rantings of politicians, noting with masochistic relish the logical fallacies in which they abound.  He loves to argue, and he is ruthless in exploiting his adversary's mistakes as he is unscrupulous in employing sophistries for his own side.  He is often impatient with his intellectual inferiors and his impish humour seldom lacks a target.  However, his extensive travels have mellowed him considerably and in view of the traditional attitude of condescension which exists between Englishmen and Americans, I am happy to report that he cherishes a real affection for England, its customs and people."

The book is notable not only for the games and annotations but for the number of indices, appendices and other notes of interest.  For example the Appendices are:

1.  Biographical Details of Fine's Opponents

2  Time Controls and Rates of Play.

3.  Fine's notebooks at the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

4.  Results of the AVRO Participants during the 1930's.

5.  Historical Elo Ratings and USCF Ratings.

6. Fine as author.

7. Further Research Possibilities.

8. Fine on Blindfold play.

Is there anything else that you would like to be made aware of?

As a matter or interest many, of the gamescores have been retrieved from Fine's own notebooks, which have been written in a variety of languages and notations.  Mostly these have been written in English descriptive notation but for some reason others are recorded in German algebriac notation. 

In addition to the Appendices the Indices detail Fine's tournament results, names of opponents, openings (in English descriptive terms and ECO indices and sources of game scores etc.  It is entirely speculative that after a wealth of data, the author makes some suggestions on possible further researches!

I have mentioned the standard of publication but in addition the book is sized 8.5 x 11 ins with the games section and most of the other contents in double column format.  There are 392 pages of high quality paper.

In all, this is a very "fine" book.  A little costly but worth every penny.

What other books did I invest in? 

In the next review I will taking a look at "Aron Nimzowitsch - On the Road to Chess Mastery, 1886-1924" by Per Skjoldager and

A sample of Fine's games taken from "Reuben Fine" can be seen HERE

Bill Frost 2013