Fine was the only child of Jacob Fine, a businessman, and Bertha Nedner, a homemaker. Of Russian-Jewish parentage, Fine was only two years old when his father abandoned the family. He grew up in poor circumstances in the East Bronx, a sensitive, highly intelligent child with an affinity for mathematics and foreign languages. At the age of eight Fine learned chess from an uncle but did not become seriously interested in the game until his graduation from Townsend Harris High School (a school for gifted students) in 1929, when he joined the Manhattan and Marshall Chess Clubs in Manhattan. In his book Lessons from My Games (1958), Fine described this as the start of his real passion for chess, which, he wrote, would last for eight years.
Fine found his studies at the City College of New York (CCNY) relatively undemanding and he spent much of his spare time playing chess. He advanced rapidly through the ranks of talented young players, winning Marshall Club championships for 1931–1932 and 1932–1933 and also winning the first of his seven United States Open championships in 1932. In 1933 Fine made the first of his three appearances playing for the American team in the international team tournament. In his formative years, family finances forced Fine to play chess for stakes. During this time he became adept at speed chess (ten seconds per move for each player) and blindfold chess (literally, chess without sight of the board or pieces).
Fine graduated from CCNY with a B.S. degree in 1933 and began to publish technical works on chess, starting with his contributions to the Chess Review, which began publication the same year. For several years during the Great Depression he lived the life of a chess professional. Fine made his first trip to Europe in 1935, representing the United States on first board in the international team tournament and gaining his first international success winning the annual Hastings Christmas tournament in 1935–1936. In the United States chess championship tournament in 1936, Fine tied for third place behind Samuel Reshevsky, who would become his chief rival for American chess supremacy. That summer Fine began an extended European tour. From June 1936 until January 1938 Fine played in thirteen tournaments, winning or tying for first place in eight. During this period he competed on equal or better terms with the strongest players of the day.
While living in Amsterdam, Fine met Emma Thea Keesing, a newspaper reporter and daughter of a major Dutch publisher. On 1 September 1937 Keesing became the first of Fine’s five wives. (The first four of his five marriages ended in divorce.) For several months that year Fine served as an assistant to world champion Dr. Max Euwe during Euwe’s world championship match with the former champion Alexander Alekhine.
In January 1938 Fine returned to the United States with his wife. Having tired of the constant grind of top-level competitive chess, he returned to CCNY and obtained an M.S. degree in education in 1939. In 1938 and 1940 he finished second to Reshevsky in U.S. chess championship tournaments. In both events Fine played Reshevsky in the final round, needing a victory to finish first; he could only draw each game, however, despite having a winning advantage in the latter one. He would never succeed in winning the U.S. championship in four attempts.
Fine participated in only one other international tournament. In the fall of 1938, the Dutch radio company AVRO organized a double-round event with the eight strongest players in the world. By this point Fine had lost his earlier passion for chess. His request to the AVRO organizers to release him from his contract to play was refused. Thus obligated to play, he scored five wins and a draw in his first six games. He eventually tied for first with Paul Keres, but World War II intervened before either player could challenge Alekhine to a match for the world’s championship.
In the fall of 1941 Fine began work with the Federal Trade Commission as a translator and editor. After two and one-half years he began research work for the Department of the Navy in May 1944 as part of a team employed to determine likely surfacings of German U-boats and the location of Japanese kamikaze attacks upon American ships. In a final effort to win the U.S. chess championship, he finished second to Arnold Denker in the 1944 event. In 1944 he and his wife Emma were divorced.
Fine played less competitive chess during the late 1940s as he embarked upon a career as a psychoanalyst. He married Sonya Lebeaux in 1946. This marriage produced a son and a daughter, Fine’s only children. Fine moved to California, where he enrolled at the University of Southern California, receiving a Ph.D. in clinical psychology in 1948. When invited to play in a 1947 tournament to determine the world champion, which because of chess politics did not take place until a year a later, Fine declined, stating that he did not wish to take time away from his dissertation research.
Fine established a private practice as a psychologist and psychoanalyst in Los Angeles between 1945 and 1948 before returning to New York City, where he was a clinical psychologist for the Veterans Administration and taught at CCNY. He established a private practice in New York and became an internationally respected Freudian psychoanalyst and prolific author, writing twenty books on psychoanalysis, including A History of Psychoanalysis (1979), the standard work on the subject. With Theodore Reik, Fine helped organize the National Psychological Association of Psychoanalysis. He was a leading force in the New York Center for Psychoanalytic Training, supervising the training of psychoanalytic candidates. His other psychoanalytic works include Freud: A Critical Re-evaluation of His Theories (1962), The Healing of the Mind: The Technique of Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy (1971), The Psychoanalytic Vision (1981), and The Meaning of Love in Human Experience (1985).
A man of strong views and definitive conclusions, Fine’s unshaken emphasis on Freudian interpretations extended into his own controversial observations of the struggle manifested on the chessboard. To Fine, chess represented a play substitute for the art of war, underscored by the father-son conflict in which the opponent’s king is the target of one’s hostile aggression. His monograph on the subject, The Psychology of the Chess Player (1967), remains the definitive statement for a Freudian analysis of chess, which Fine applied exhaustively in his assessment of the games of the 1972 world championship match between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky. More highly regarded were Fine’s many and varied technical writings on chess, which helped to popularize the game and make it accessible to millions. One of the best and most prolific writers on chess from the 1930s to the 1980s, Fine’s works include Basic Chess Endings (1941), Chess the Easy Way (1942), Practical Chess Openings (1948), The World’s Great Chess Games (1952), and The Middle Game in Chess (1953).
By the 1970s Fine was living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan; subsequently, he moved to Manhattan’s Upper East Side. With an IQ somewhere between 180 and 200, he had many and varied interests, including art, music, history, and mathematics. He also spoke six languages fluently. In the final years of his life Fine was physically limited by a series of strokes, but he continued to write. In January 1993 he suffered a severe stroke and entered Saint Luke’s-Roosevelt Medical Center in Manhattan, where he died from complications of pneumonia on 26 March 1993.
Fine was that rare individual who achieved professional distinction in two different fields. A dogmatic and contentious man who had little patience for diverging opinions, his frustration and bitterness in failing to attain the pinnacle in chess cast a sour pall on his relations with officials of the U.S. and international chess federations. Yet his deep passion for chess never truly deserted him. He continued to follow the game, critique it, and occasionally participate in speed chess competitions and exhibition games until the final years of his life. Fine had the ability to convey technical information in clear, dynamic prose that reflected his profound understanding for the game. His passionate belief in the virtues of Freudian analysis and his enormous capacity for literary endeavor led to a prolific output of books, monographs, and articles in psychiatry. He was instrumental in the organization of the Divisions of Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy within the American Psychological Association, serving as founding president of both divisions. Coming from a modest background, Fine sought to democratize the profession of psychoanalysis by opening access to deserving candidates and improving training facilities for psychologists.
Fine’s chess notebooks are in the Library of Congress. His Chess Marches On! (1945) has some autobiographical information. Fine describes his chess career through the 1940s in Lessons From My Games: A Passion for Chess (1958). His unsuccessful attempts to become the U.S. chess champion are detailed in Gene H. McCormick and Andy Soltis, The U.S. Chess Championship, 1845–1985 (rev. ed., 1997). Bruce Pandolfini, “Reuben Fine: The Man Who Might Have Been King,” Chess Life (Oct. 1984), contains an interview with Fine emphasizing his chess career and his impressions of his fellow chess masters. Obituaries are in the New York Times (28 Mar. 1993), Chess Life (June 1993), and The American Psychologist 50, no. 1 (Jan. 1995): 38.
Edward J. Tassinari
"Fine, Reuben." The Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 24, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/fine-reuben
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