Obituary: Reuben Fine

William Hartston
Wednesday 31 March 1993 23:02

Reuben Fine, chess-player and psychoanalyst: born New York City 1914; married four times (one daughter); died New York City 26 March 1993.

WHEN Reuben Fine gave up competitive chess in 1951 in order to concentrate on his profession as a psychoanalyst, a fellow grandmaster wittily described his decision as 'a great loss to chess, and at best a draw for psychoanalysis'. He went on to become a leading writer, editor and finally elder statesman among American Freudians. How far he could have gone in chess will never be known, but he was certainly among the top half-dozen players in the world when he began to contemplate retirement.

After graduating from college at the age of 18, Reuben Fine decided to become a professional chess-player. He was already one of the most feared players in New York, and had achieved a draw in tournament play against the world champion, Alexander Alekhine. Travelling with the American team to Europe, he shared first prize in his first major international at Hastings in 1935-36. Over the next two years, he played in 13 tournaments, winning eight of them.

Fine's greatest success came in the Avro tournament in Holland in 1938. This event, comprising the top eight players in the world, was generally accepted as a contest to decide who had the best credentials to challenge Alekhine for the world championship. Fine shared first place with Paul Keres, ahead of four past, present or future world champions.

On the strength of that result, Fine later described himself as 'World Champion 1946-48' on the grounds that he had best claims to that title between Alekhine's death in 1946 and Botvinnik's accession to the throne in 1948.

When the war came in 1939, international chess effectively ceased and Fine resumed his studies, earning a doctorate in psychology from the University of Southern California in 1941, which enabled him to set up in practice as a lay analyst. At the end of the war, he was faced with a difficult choice between his two careers. In 1948, he was invited to participate in a select six-man event for the world championship. Realising first that the Soviet players had improved greatly since the pre-war years, and secondly that a career in chess offered no financial security, Fine preferred to concentrate on his final examinations in psychoanalysis. After qualifying, he gave a final demonstration of his chess skill, winning a strong tournament in New York at the end of 1948. He came briefly out of obscurity in 1963 to play a series of speed games against Bobby Fischer, which he lost narrowly.

Apart from the Avro victory, Fine will be best remembered for writing one of the most useful books for aspiring players, The Ideas Behind the Chess Openings (1952), one of the most detailed and meticulously researched manuals, Basic Chess Endings (1941), and one of the most justly derided monographs on the personality of the game's practitioners, The Psychology of the Chess-Player (1956).

Drawing heavily on the earlier writings of Freud's biographer Ernest Jones, Fine supported the view that chess is an embodiment of the Oedipus Complex, with the father-figure King ('indispensable, all-important, irreplaceable, yet weak and requiring protection') and powerful mother- figure Queen providing the elements for the player to enact his parricidal fantasies. The pieces, according to Fine, are mostly phallic symbols.

His writings have been widely quoted to explain the dearth of strong women chess-players and the absence of homosexuals at the highest levels of the game.

Despite his Freudian beliefs, Fine was one of the most rational players of his time, combining a confident, attacking style with an ability to steer the game into positions uncongenial to any particular opponent. His death at the age of 78 deprives chess of one of its last links with the pre-war era.

(Photograph omitted)

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments