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Reuben Fine

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Reuben Fine: A Comprehensive Record of an American Chess Career, 1929-1951

Reuben Fine’s life followed the model of the American Dream.

The cards dealt to him were unkind. His father deserted the family when Reuben was two years old. He and his mother led a life marked by great poverty. Yet he went on to have not one distinguished career, but two. His later career was as a psychoanalyst, where he both practiced as an analyst and wrote a number of psychoanalytic texts, including the seminal A History of Psychoanalysis (1979). At first, though – and this might strike some as a curious contrast – he achieved outstanding success as a chess player, and it is this period of Fine’s life that is the subject of Aidan Woodger’s fascinating book.

At its heart are Fine’s games and there are just short of 900 here, all told. They reveal a formidable player with a solid and sound style, very much in the mould of Maroczy, Euwe or Karpov. Fine rarely asks more of a position than it can reasonably deliver and is quite often prepared to make a passive or banal move – to, in effect, bide his time – if he believes it is the best move. For he is confident that an opportunity to impose his will will inevitably arise in any game . Consider, as a typical example, game No. 410: Fine plays quiet positional chess, and in effect ‘tends to his garden’; he simplifies the position, because only in that way can he stymie his opponent’s counter play; but when that same opponent (O’Kelly, as it happens) makes a single slight error (38 … Nd7), he pounces and mercilessly exploits it. Fine himself, in point of fact, made very few blunders.

In his notes to one game here, Fine says of his approach to chess that ‘my chief objective was always precision, wherever that would take me’ (p.160); and Euwe elsewhere corroborates this view, observing that, when Fine needed to win, he didn’t ‘take risks in order to avoid the draw and seek critical positions… [instead] … he simply intensified the accuracy and mathematical rhythm of his positional play – and scored win after win with surprising persistence’ (p.119). So, a real cool killer – and it is no surprise to learn that Magnus Carlsen is an admirer. The consequence of all this ‘accuracy’, by the way, is rarely dry, pallid play. More often than not, it is play with many subtle and fine points. Game No. 357 (Fine-Lilienthal, Moscow 1937: a model example of pressure play against weak central squares), in particular, creates a wonderfully aesthetic impression.

Fine’s positional understanding and technical nous accounted for many of his victories, and another great strength was his erudition. He simply knew more about chess than most of his contemporaries. It is surely no accident that he went on to write textbooks on every phase of the game: on the opening, middle game and the endgame (and Basic Chess Endings is, even now, probably the best single-volume work on the endgame in the English language). Also, he revised and wrote most of the 6th edition of Modern Chess Openings, so was well up-to-date on modern opening theory.

Although the games are, naturally, the substance of the book, Woodger also finds space to include an immense amount of other interesting information: tables of all Fine’s tournament and match results; a brief biography; an annotated bibliography of all of Fine’s writings on chess; myriad appreciations of his play from the great and the good; a précis of a paper on blindfold chess (i.e. chess played without sight of the board and pieces) that Fine published in an academic journal in 1965; and much else besides. This is a ‘comprehensive record of an American chess career’, indeed!

The production quality of the book is extremely high, and deserves more than a small mention. A sturdy hardback, bound in dark orange cloth, it measures approximately 8 and a half by 11 and a quarter inches. No dust wrapper accompanies the book, but nor is it needed. For this book will not only last a lifetime, it is likely also to survive one’s grandchildren! Inside, the double-column layout presents the contents clearly, although the text’s font could have benefited by being just a little larger in size. There are a fair number of diagrams throughout, but they are used judicious, only as and when a game warrants it. So while some games have no diagram, game No. 372 (Foltys-Fine, Margate 1937: a titanic struggle throughout all its many phases, with Fine ultimately emerging triumphant) has 4 diagrams and game No. 462 (Fine’s famous victory against Botvinnik in the first round of the A.V.R.O. tournament of 1938; a superb positional achievement) has, in all, 3 diagrams.

All in all, Reuben Fine: A Comprehensive Record of an American Chess Career, 1929-1951 by Aidan Woodger is a fine tribute to a fine chess player, and is highly recommended.

Book Details

Reuben Fine: A Comprehensive Record of an American Chess Career, 1929-1951

By Aidan Woodger

McFarland & Company, 2004

ISBN: 9780786416219

Magnus Carlsen’s affinity with Reuben Fine is the subject of one of Dominic Lawson’s chess columns in STANDPOINT. Read it here.

The publisher’s description of Reuben Fine: A Comprehensive Record of an American Chess Career, 1929-1951 by Aidan Woodger can be read here.


Written by P.P.O. Kane

December 23, 2016 at 12:06 pm

Chess News Websites

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Here is my choice of the best websites for keeping abreast of what is happening in the world of chess.

  • The Week in Chess. Mark Crowther’s site provides fresh content each day and a weekly digest, including thousands of games, for download. There is full coverage of even the most obscure national championship. John Watson’s book reviews are infrequent but always worthwhile.
  • chess24. I use this site mainly for watching tournament and match games in real time. Yasser Seirawan and Jennifer Shahade, together with the ebullient Maurice Ashley, are my favourite commentary team.  You can play chess here as well as watching games and reading tournament reports.
  • Chessbase: Chess News. There are round-by-round reports of major tournaments featuring games, often annotated, that you can play over online. There are interviews (a recent one with the late, great Mark Dvoretsky) and features (e.g. Jon Speelman’s Agony Column). Chessbase are usually fairly keen to push their products as well – nothing wrong with that, of course, and they are generally good products. A valuable resource.

Can you add to this list?

Carlsen-Karjakin: final thoughts

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In the end, then, Carlsen kept his crown, edging out Karjakin in the tie-break.

I followed the dying throes at The Guardian website, which had a widget showing each game in real time. The champion’s final move, a spectacular queen sacrifice leading to checkmate next move, was striking but overall it was a mediocre match. It should be emphasised that in classical chess the honours were even and, incidentally, since separate rapid and blitz world chess championships exist, why create a tie-breaker using these formats?

Comparisons were made in some quarters with the Spassky-Fischer match in 1972, but really there is no contest. That match produced a fair few classic games, above all the sixth and thirteenth, whereas Carlsen-Karjakin produced none.

Still, the best player won.

Written by P.P.O. Kane

December 16, 2016 at 11:56 am

Sveshnikov vs. the Anti-Sicilians

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 Sveshnikov vs. the Anti-Sicilians: A Complete Repertoire for Black

A very useful book for players who employ the Sicilian Defence as Black, though not quite as complete as the subtitle claims.

The book examines in considerable detail every good, reasonable and halfway decent second move for White except  2.Nf3 (following 1.e4 c5). To be clear, then, neither the Rossolimo Variation (2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5), nor the Moscow Variation (2.Nf3 d6 3.Bb5+), nor for that matter the Wing Gambit in the form of 2.Nf3 d6 3.b4 (probably its optimal form, since Black cannot go …d7-d5 in one move, whereas after 2.b4 cxb4 3,a3 d5! is a good response) are covered. These systems (which are all anti-Sicilians, of course) may be the subject of a later volume; or so Sveshnikov suggests in the conclusion of this one.

Most attention is given over to the Closed Variation (2.Nc3), though the Grand Prix Attack (2.f4), the Morra Gambit (2.d4 cxd4 3.c3) and Sveshnikov’s own specialism (Alapin’s 2.c3) are allocated a fair amount of space. The outstanding feature of the book – and here the claim to completeness is justified – is that all White’s second moves are covered in a serious, that is to say in a principled and thorough, manner. This is true even of such oddball moves as 2.a3 Nc6 3.b4 (a kind of deferred Wing Gambit; 2.b4 is covered as well, of course), 2.c4 (a pet line of Normunds Miezis’, apparently: I was unaware of the existence of either the move or the player before reading this book) and the non-descript (how else to describe it?) 2.d3.

Sveshnikov shows no great love for Zviagintsev’s 2.Na3, because it moves the knight away from the centre and deprives the e4 pawn of its natural defender – the knight belongs on c3, he believes – but even in this case he devotes some care to working out Black’s best response. The move is not simply dismissed.

There are traps and tricks in many of these lines. Here is one that is both beautiful and well-hidden: 1.e4 c5 2.Nc3 Nc6 3.Bb5 Nd4 4.Bc4 e6 5.Nge2 Nf6 6.O-O and now the principled advance 6…d5 looks straightforward and strong. What could be wrong with it? Well, it allows 7.exd5 exd5 8.Nxd5! winning at least a pawn. For after 8…Nxd5 9.Nxd4 cxd4 10.Qh5! Be6 (else White crashes through on f7 with a decisive attack) 11.Rel White wins back the piece. If 11…g6 12.Qxd5. If 11…Kd7 12.Bxd5. If 11…Be7 12.Rxe6 Nf6 13.Rxf6 exf6 14.Qxf7+ Kd7 15.d3 with a fatal encirclement: the Black king is too exposed after (say) Bf4 and Rel.

There are 75 theoretically significant games, many featuring Sveshnikov on either the White and Black side of the board. At the end, there are 36 exercises requiring positional and strategic nous as well as tactical vision, with very detailed solutions following. Apart from one chapter – there are far better ways to meet the Morra than to adopt the remedy given here by the great man – I found Sveshnikov’s analyses impressive.

Overall, Sveshnikov vs. the Anti-Sicilians is a high-quality opening repertoire book.

Book Details

Sveshnikov vs. the Anti-Sicilians: A Complete Repertoire for Black

By Evgeny Sveshnikov

New in Chess , 2014

ISBN: 9789056915452

There is an interesting interview with Evgeny Sveshnikov at the Chessdom website, here.

The publisher’s description of Sveshnikov vs. the Anti-Sicilians: A Complete Repertoire for Black by Evgeny Sveshnikov can be read here.

Written by P.P.O. Kane

December 5, 2016 at 2:11 pm