The Fine Art of Precision

Remembering Reuben Fine, Magnus Carlsen’s greatest role model

Chess History
Precision and logic: Magnus Carlsen is an admirer of Reuben Fine

Magnus Carlsen enjoys surprising his interviewers almost as much as he does his over-the-board opponents. He succeeded in this just before his current defence of his world title against India’s Vishwanathan Anand, when in answer to the question, “In whose tradition do you see yourself?” he named the American Reuben Fine — a man who never won the world championship and who abandoned the game to become a psychiatrist. Yet  Carlsen went on to explain: “It strikes me that what he was doing in chess is similar to what I was doing.”

Reuben Fine, the centenary of whose birth falls this year, was one of the great what-ifs of chess history. At the age of 24 he tied for first place in a 1938 tournament designed to find a challenger for the then world champion Alexander Alekhine — and beat Alekhine in both their individual games. But the player who tied for first, Paul Keres, had the edge over Fine in their own encounters — with a draw and a win — so it was the Estonian who entered ultimately futile negotiations for a world title match with Alekhine.

Then the Second World War — and Alekhine’s death — intervened; it wasn’t until 1948 that the world championship was eventually decided in an all-play-all tournament split between The Hague and Moscow. But Fine refused to take part, and Mikhail Botvinnik won the tournament, becoming the first in a long line of Soviet champions — a line not broken until another American, Bobby Fischer, won the title against Boris Spassky.

In an interview for the November 1948 edition of Chess Review Fine gave his reason for not playing: “I was working on my doctoral dissertation. I did not care to interrupt my research.” Ten years later he advanced a similar argument: “I was absorbed in another profession, psychology, and no longer cared to participate.” Yet in 1989 Fine wrote to Chess Life: “I did not play because of the expense involved and because I considered the tournament, as it was arranged, to be illegal. TASS [the Soviet news agency] fabricated a story that I had to desist because of career pressures. The TASS story was a total fraud.”

It is a mystery why Fine accused the Soviets of “fabrication” when it was merely reprinting the reasons he had given at the time. Nor could this be put down to a 75-year-old-four years before his death — becoming confused. I interviewed Fine that year (about his work for the US Navy during the war) and he was still extremely sharp. The unfortunate reality is that Fine tended to be not so much economical with the truth as an inflator of it.

So, for example, when promoting his book on the Fischer-Spassky match on the US Today Show in 1972, he solemnly described himself as a “former world champion”. He based this claim on his victory in that 1938 tournament: but even though all the greatest players of the day took part in it, he was — as noted — neither the outright winner, let alone the victor of any actual match for the title.

And although Fine had gone on to achieve a certain respectability in his chosen second profession, writing more than 100 papers and some 20 books on psychoanalysis, his efforts in that field nowadays would seem more like hocus-pocus. A hack Freudian, he wrote a bizarre work on the psychology of the chess player in which he declared: “The profuse phallic symbolism of chess provides some fantasy gratification of the homosexual wish, particularly the desire for mutual masturbation.”

Not without reason did a fellow grandmaster describe Fine’s decision to quit the game as “a great loss for chess and at best a draw for psychoanalysis”. The 13-year-old Bobby Fischer showed (unusual) good judgment in fleeing from his mother’s apartment when in 1956 Fine, on the pretext of playing some games against the chess prodigy, started asking him personal questions.

Still, Fine’s opportunistic character should not detract in any way from his qualities as a chess player. Had he been a Soviet citizen — which might well have been the case, as he was from a Russian-Jewish emigrant family — Fine would quite possibly have become world champion. In the USSR, unlike America, the best chess players were fully supported by the state and thus had no need to take up a more conventional profession in order to support wives (Fine had four) and children.

But what is it that Carlsen recognised of himself in Fine the chess player? The best insight lies in Fine’s description of his own methods: “My chief objective was precision, wherever that would take me.” This is very much Carlsen’s approach: he takes pride in observing that what principally distinguishes him from rivals is that he makes the fewest mistakes. It is hardly dramatic, still less romantic. But if you want to be the best in the world, it is the most logical approach.

By way of illustration, here is Fine’s most impressive game from that career-defining tournament of 1938: his annihilation of Mikhail Botvinnik, the man who spearheaded the Soviets’ domination of the chess world championship. The Russian master-strategist can never have been so comprehensively outplayed, as he generously acknowledged after the game; but the notes that follow the moves below are Fine’s own. 1.e4 (“Before this tournament I was known as a d4 player, hence my first move must have come as a surprise to Botvinnik”) e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.e5 c5 5.dxc5 (“This is the prepared move”) Ne7 6. Nf3 Nbc6 7. Bd3 d4 (“He accepts the complication. On 7…Bc5 8.0-0 White’s game is freer”) 8.a3 Ba5 9.b4 Nxb4 10.axb4 Bxb4 11.Bb5+ Nc6? (“The fatal error. Necessary was 11…Bd7”) 12.Bxc6+ bxc6 13.Ra4 Bxc3+ 14.Bd2 (“Suddenly Black discovers that he is lost. The Bishop is hopelessly shut in and it is only a matter of time before White’s superior development makes itself felt”) 14…f6 15.0-0 0-0 16.Bxc3 dxc3 17.Qe1 a5 18.Qxc3 Ba6 19.Rfa1 Bb5 20.Rd4! (“Black was hoping for 20.Rxa5 which would bring some freedom to his pieces”) 20…Qe7 21.Rd6 a4 22.Qe3! (“Threatens to win a pawn, but not in an obvious way”) 22…Ra7 23.Nd2! (“The point: the poor Bishop will be driven away”) 23…a3 24.c4 Ba4 25.exf6 Qxf6 26.Rxa3 Re8 27.h3 (“After this quiet move Black might as well resign”) 27…Raa8 28.Nf3 Qb2 29.Ne5 Qb1+ 30.Kh2 Qf6 31.Qg3 (“Too many threats. Black can’t guard the 7th rank”). Botvinnik’s own verdict: “A combination of splendid strategic ideas with tactical subtleties.” A pretty good description of Magnus Carlsen’s style, isn’t it?