A review of Reuben Fine by Aidan Woodger

Reviewed by Paul Kane

Reuben Fine: A Comprehensive Record of an American Chess Career, 1929-1951
By Aidan Woodger
McFarland & Company
July 2004, ISBN-10: 0786416211, Hardcover, 392 pages

Reuben Fine’s life was a long one (1914-1993) and it followed, to a great extent, the model of the American Dream. Although the cards dealt to him were not kind –his father deserted the family when Reuben was just 2 and, raised by his mother alone, his early life was marked by great poverty – he went on to have not one distinguished career, but two. His later career was as a psychoanalyst: he both practiced as an analyst and wrote a number of psychoanalytic texts, such as the seminal A History of Psychoanalysis (1979). At first, though – and this might strike some as offering a curious contrast – he achieved outstanding success as a chess player, and it is this first period of Fine’s life that is the subject of Aidan Woodger’s constantly interesting and substantial book.

At its heart are Fine’s games and there are just under 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. Rarely does Fine ask more of a position than it can reasonably deliver; he is quite prepared to make a passive or ordinary move – and to, in effect, bide his time – if he believes it is best or forced; for he is confident that an opportunity to impose his will on any game will inevitably arise. Consider, as a typical example, game No. 410: Fine plays quiet positional chess, and in effect “tends 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 error (38 … Nd7), he pounces and mercilessly exploits it. Fine himself, incidentally, 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 cool customer and, in essence, Fine’s style of play will appeal very much to the chess connoisseur. 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) here, in particular, creates a wonderfully aesthetic impression.

Fine’s positional understanding and technical nous accounted for many of his victories, and another of his great strengths was his erudition. He simply knew more about chess than most of his contemporaries. It was 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 meat 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, but the text’s font would certainly 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 superb tribute to a superb chess player, and is highly recommended.

About the reviewer: Paul Kane lives and works in Manchester, England. He welcomes responses to his reviews and can be contacted at pkane853@yahoo.co.uk