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.
By Aidan Woodger
McFarland & Company, 2004
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.