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Reuben Fine ’29

Reuben Fine (October 11, 1914 – March 26, 1993) was one of the strongest chess players in the world from the early 1930s through the 1940s, an International Grandmaster, psychologist, university professor, and author of many books on both chess and psychology.

Fine won five medals (four gold) in three chess Olympiads. Fine won the U.S. Open Chess Championship all seven times he entered (1932, 1933, 1934, 1935, 1939, 1940, 1941); this is a record for that event. He was the author of several chess books that are still popular today, including important books on the endgame, opening, and middlegame.

He earned a bachelor’s degree from the City College of New York in 1932. After World War II, he earned his doctorate in psychology from the University of Southern California. He served as a university professor, and wrote many successful books on psychology as well.

Although Fine was regarded as a serious contender for the World Chess Championship, he declined his invitation to participate in the six-player 1948 match-tournament, which was organized to determine the World Champion after the 1946 death of reigning champion Alexander Alekhine, and he virtually retired from serious competition around that time.

Teenage master

Fine was born in New York City to a poor Russian-Jewish family. He learned to play chess at age eight, and began tournament-level chess at the famous Marshall Chess Club in New York City, stomping grounds for many famous grandmasters, such as Bobby Fischer later on. At this stage of his career, Fine played a great deal of blitz chess, and he eventually became one of the best blitz players in the world. Even in the early 1930s, he could nearly hold his own in blitz chess against the then world chess champion Alexander Alekhine, although Fine admitted that the few times he played blitz with Alekhine’s predecessor José Raúl Capablanca, the latter beat him “mercilessly”.

Fine’s first significant master-level event was the 1930 New York Young Masters tournament, which was won by Arthur Dake. He narrowly lost a 1931 stakes match to fellow young New York master Arnold Denker.

Fine placed second at the 1931 New York State Championship with 8/11, half a point behind Fred Reinfeld. Fine won the 15th Marshall Chess Club Championship of 1931 with 10.5/13, half a point ahead of Reinfeld. He defeated Herman Steiner by 5.5-4.5 at New York 1932; this was the first of three matches the two players would contest.

U.S. Open Champion

At 17, Fine won his first of seven U.S. Open Chess Championships at Minneapolis 1932 with 9.5/11, half a point ahead of Samuel Reshevsky; this tournament was known as the Western Open at the time. Fine played in his first top-class international tournament at Pasadena 1932, where he shared 7-10th with 5/11; the winner was world chess champion Alexander Alekhine. Fine repeated as champion in the 16th Marshall Club Championship, held from Oct.-Dec. 1932, with 11.5/13, 2.5 points ahead of the runner-up.

Fine graduated from City College of New York in 1932, at age 18; he was a brilliant student there. He captained CCNY to the 1931 National Collegiate team title; a teammate was master Sidney Norman Bernstein. This tournament later evolved into the Pan American Intercollegiate Team Chess Championship. Fine then decided to try the life of a chess professional for a few years.

Olympiad brilliance

Fine won the U.S. Team Selection tournament, New York 1933, with 8/10. This earned him the first of three national team berths for the chess Olympiads. Fine won five medals (including three team golds) representing the United States; his detailed record follows; his totals are (+20 =19 -6), for 65.6 per cent.

  • Folkestone 1933: board three, 9/13 (+6 =6 -1), team gold, board silver;
  • Warsaw 1935: board one, 9/17 (+5 =8 -4), team gold;
  • Stockholm 1937: board two, 11.5/15 (+9 =5 -1), team gold, board gold.

North American successes

Although Fine was active and very successful in U.S. open tournaments, he was never able win the U.S. Championship, usually placing behind his great American rival, Samuel Reshevsky. The U.S. Championship was organized in a round-robin format during that era. When in 1936 Frank Marshall voluntarily gave up the American Championship title he had held since 1909, the result was the first modern U.S. Championship tournament. Fine scored 10.5/15 in the U.S. Championship, New York 1936, a tied 3rd-4th place, as Reshevsky won. In the U.S. Championship, New York 1938, Fine placed 2nd with 12.5/16, with Reshevsky repeating as champion. In the U.S. Championship, New York 1940, Fine again scored 12.5/16 for 2nd, as Reshevsky won for the third straight time. Then in the 1944 U.S. Championship at New York, Fine scored 14.5/17 for 2nd, losing his game to Arnold Denker, as the latter won his only national title.

Fine tallied 50/64 in his four U.S. title attempts, for 78.1 per cent, but was never champion. Not being national champion seriously hurt Fine’s prospects for making a career from chess.

International triumphs

However, Fine’s international tournament record in the 1930s was superior to Reshevsky’s.[11] Fine did play many more top-class international events than Reshevsky during that period, and was usually near the top of the table. By the end of 1937, Fine had won a string of strong European international tournaments, and was one of the most successful players in the world. Fine won at Oslo 1936 with 6.5/7, half a point ahead of Flohr. Fine captured Zandvoort 1936 with 8.5/11, ahead of World Champion Max Euwe, Savielly Tartakower, and Paul Keres. Fine shared 3rd-5th places at the elite Nottingham 1936 event with 9.5/14, half a point behind winners José Raúl Capablanca and Mikhail Botvinnik. Fine shared 1st-2nd places at Amsterdam 1936 on 5/7 with Euwe, half a point ahead of Alekhine. Fine placed 2nd at Hastings 1936-37 with 7.5/9, as Alekhine won.

The year 1937 would be Fine’s most successful. He won at Leningrad 1937 with 4/5, ahead of Grigory Levenfish, who would share first in that year’s Soviet Championship. Fine won at Moscow 1937 with 5/7. Those two victories make Fine one of a very select group of foreigners to win on Russian soil. Fine shared 1st-2nd places at Margate 1937 with Paul Keres on 7.5/9, 1.5 points ahead of Alekhine. Fine shared 1st-3rd places at Ostend 1937 with Paul Keres and Henry Grob on 6/9. At Stockholm 1937, Fine won with 8/9, 1.5 points ahead of Gideon Stahlberg. Fine then defeated Stahlberg by 5-3 in a match held at Goteborg 1937. Fine placed 2nd at the elite Semmering/Baden 1937 tournament with 8/14, behind Paul Keres. At Kemeri, Latvia 1937, Fine had a rare relatively weak result, with just 9/17 for 8th place, as the title was shared by Reshevsky, Flohr, and Vladimirs Petrovs. Fine shared 4-5th places at Hastings 1937-38 with 6/9 as Reshevsky won.

AVRO showdown

In 1938, Fine tied for first place with Paul Keres in the prestigious AVRO tournament in the Netherlands, on 8.5/14, with Keres placed first on tiebreak. This was one of the most famous tournaments of the 20th century, and some believe to this day that it is the strongest tournament ever staged, since it had the world’s eight strongest players. It was organized with the hope that the winner of AVRO, a double round-robin tournament, would be the next challenger to world champion Alexander Alekhine. Since Alekhine won the title in 1927, he had been avoiding a rematch with his predecessor, Capablanca, whom many considered the strongest possible challenger. Fine finished ahead of future champion Mikhail Botvinnik, current champion Alekhine, former world champions Max Euwe and Capablanca, and Grandmasters Samuel Reshevsky and Salo Flohr. Fine won both of his games against Alekhine. Fine got out to a tremendous start, scoring five wins and a draw in his first six games, but then lost in round seven to Keres.

Wartime years

As World War II interrupted any prospects for a world championship match, Fine turned to chess writing. In 1939, Fine became the first grandmaster-class player to edit the classic opening guide Modern Chess Openings. His work on the sixth edition of the book led to a significant increase in sales. In 1941 he wrote Basic Chess Endings, a compendium of endgame analysis which, some 70 years later, is still considered one of the best works on this subject. His book was the most comprehensive on the subject written to that time, included significant original work by Fine, and received worldwide acclaim. His The Ideas Behind the Chess Openings, though now out of date, is still useful for grasping the underlying ideas of many standard chess openings; it was revised in 1989.

During World War II, Fine worked for the U.S. Navy, analyzing the probability of German U-boats surfacing at certain points in the Atlantic Ocean. Fine also worked as a translator.

Fine was unable to compete in Europe during the war, since it was cut off from the Americas by the German Nazi naval blockade. However, Fine did play a few serious American events during World War II, and continued his successes with dominant scores, but there was little prize money available, even for winning. He won the U.S. Open at New York 1939 with 10.5/11, half a point ahead of Reshevsky. In the 23rd Marshall Club Championship of 1939, Fine won with 14/16. He won the 1940 U.S. Open at Dallas with a perfect 8/8 in the finals, three points ahead of Herman Steiner. Fine won the New York State Championship, Hamilton 1941, with 8/10, a point ahead of Reshevsky, Denker, and Isaac Kashdan. Fine won the 1941 Marshall Club Championship with 14/15, ahead of Frank Marshall. Fine won the 1941 U.S. Open at St. Louis, with 4/5 in the preliminaries, and 8/9 in the finals. Fine won the 1942 Washington, D.C. Chess Divan title with a perfect 7/7. He defeated Herman Steiner in match play for the second time by 3.5-0.5 at Washington 1944. Fine won the U.S. Speed Championships of both 1944 (10/11) and 1945 (10/11). In the Pan-American Championship, Hollywood 1945, Fine placed 2nd with 9/12 behind Reshevsky. He played in the famous 1945 USA vs USSR Radio team match, scoring 0.5/2 on board three against Isaac Boleslavsky. Then Fine travelled to Europe one last time to compete, in the 1946 Moscow team match against the USSR, scoring 0.5/2 on board three against Paul Keres.

Declines to enter 1948 World Championship

As the World War ended in early September 1945, Fine was just 30 years of age, and working on his doctorate in psychology. After World Champion Alekhine died in March 1946, FIDE (the World Chess Federation) organized a World Chess Championship tournament to determine the new champion. Alekhine was the first champion to die as title-holder, creating an unprecedented problem. As co-winner in the AVRO tournament, Fine was invited to participate, but he declined, for reasons that are the subject of speculation even today. Fine had played a third match against Herman Steiner at Los Angeles 1947, winning 5-1; this match was training for his potential world championship appearance.

Publicly, Fine stated that he could not interrupt work on his doctoral dissertation in psychology. Negotiations over the tournament had been protracted, and for a long time it was unclear whether this World Championship event would in fact take place. Fine wrote that he didn’t want to spend many months preparing and then see the tournament cancelled. However, it has also been suggested that Fine declined to play because he suspected there would be collaboration among the three Soviet participants to ensure that one of them won the championship. In the August 2004 issue of Chess Life, for example, GM Larry Evans gave his recollection that “Fine told me he didn’t want to waste three months of his life watching Russians throw games to each other.” Fine’s 1951 written statement on the matter in his book “The World’s Greatest Chess Games” was:

“Unfortunately for the Western masters the Soviet political organization was stronger than that of the West. The U.S. Chess Federation was a meaningless paper organization, generally antagonistic to the needs of its masters. The Dutch Chess Federation did not choose to act. The FIDE was impotent. The result was a rescheduling of the tournament for the following year, with the vital difference that now half was to be played in Holland, half in the U.S.S.R. Dissatisfied with this arrangement and the general tenor of the event, I withdrew.” Edward Winter discusses the evidence further in a 2007 Chessbase column.

Final competitive appearances

Once Fine completed his doctorate, he did play some more competitive chess. He won at New York 1948 with 8/9, ahead of Miguel Najdorf, Max Euwe, and Herman Pilnik. Fine drew a match against Najdorf at 4-4 at New York 1949. He participated for the U.S. in the 1950 radio match against Yugoslavia, drawing his only game. Fine was named an International Grandmaster by FIDE in 1950, on its inaugural list. Fine’s final top-class event was the Maurice Wertheim Memorial, New York 1951, where he scored 7/11 for 4th, as Reshevsky won.

Top ten for eight years

Although FIDE, the World Chess Federation, did not formally introduce chess ratings for international play until 1970, it is nevertheless possible to retrospectively rate players’ performances from before that time. The site, which specializes in historical ratings throughout chess history, ranks Fine in the world’s top ten players for more than eight years, from March 1936 until October 1942, and then again from January 1949 until December 1950. Between those two periods, he was less active as a player, so his ranking dropped. Fine was #1 in the world from October 1940 until March 1941, was in the top three from December 1938 until June 1942, and reached his peak rating of 2762 in July 1941. However, is missing several of Fine’s major events from its database. Fine was inducted into the U.S. Chess Hall of Fame. He continued his successful chess writing career for many years after he retired from competition.


After receiving his doctorate in psychology from the University of Southern California, Fine abandoned professional chess to concentrate on his new profession. Fine continued playing chess casually throughout his life (including several friendly games played in 1963 against Bobby Fischer, one of which is included in Fischer’s My 60 Memorable Games). In 1956 he wrote an article, “Psychoanalytic Observations on Chess and Chess Masters”, for a psychological journal. Later, Fine turned the article into a book, The Psychology of the Chess Player, in which he provided insights steeped in Freudian theory. Fine is not the first person to examine the mind as it relates to chess—Alfred Binet, the inventor of the IQ test, had studied the mental functionality of good chess players, and found that they often had enhanced mental traits, such as a good memory. He went on to publish A History of Psychoanalysis (1979) and a number of other books on psychology. As did many psychoanalysts of his day, Fine believed that homosexuality could be “cured” (through conversion therapy), and his opinions on the subject were cited in legal battles over homosexuality, including the legislative battle over same-sex marriage in Hawaii. Fine served as a visiting professor at CCNY, the University of Amsterdam, the Lowell Institute of Technology, and the University of Florence. Fine founded the Creative Living Center in New York City.

Books by Reuben Fine

On chess:

  • Dr. Lasker’s Chess Career, by Reuben Fine and Fred Reinfeld, 1935.
  • Modern Chess Openings, sixth edition, by Reuben Fine, 1939.
  • Basic Chess Endings, by Reuben Fine, 1941, McKay. Revised in 2003 by Pal Benko. ISBN 0-8129-3493-8.
  • Chess the Easy Way, by Reuben Fine, 1942. 1986 Paperback re-issue. ISBN 0-6716-2427-X.
  • The Ideas Behind the Chess Openings, by Reuben Fine, 1943. Revised in 1989. McKay, ISBN 0-8129-1756-1.
  • The Middlegame in Chess, by Reuben Fine. ISBN 0-8129-3484-9.
  • Chess Marches On, by Reuben Fine, 1946.
  • Practical Chess Openings, by Reuben Fine, 1948.
  • Lessons From My Games, by Reuben Fine, 1958.
  • The Psychology of the Chess Player, by Reuben Fine, 1967.
  • Bobby Fischer’s Conquest of the World’s Chess Championship: The Psychology and Tactics of the Title Match, by Reuben Fine, 1973. ISBN 0923891471
  • The World’s Great Chess Games, by Reuben Fine, Dover, 1983. ISBN 0-486-24512-8.

On psychology:

  • Freud: a Critical Re-evaluation of his Theories, by Reuben Fine (1962).
  • The Healing of the Mind, by Reuben Fine (1971).
  • The Development of Freud’s Thought, by Reuben Fine (1973).
  • Psychoanalytic Psychology, by Reuben Fine (1975).
  • The History of Psychoanalysis, by Reuben Fine (1979).
  • The Psychoanalytic Vision, by Reuben Fine (1981).
  • The Logic of Psychology, by Reuben Fine (1985).
  • The Meaning of Love in Human Experience, by Reuben Fine (1985).
  • Narcissism, the Self, and Society, by Reuben Fine (1986).
  • The Forgotten Man: Understanding the Male Psyche, by Reuben Fine (1987).