If there is one player in chess history whose strength vastly outpaced his fame, that player might well be Reuben Fine. One of the world's best chess players for well over a decade in the 1930s and 1940s, Fine was a legitimate contender for the World Chess Championship. However, while he once had the opportunity to play for the title, he passed on the opportunity, and is thus regarded as something of a footnote to many chess fans - at least outside of the United States.
Reuben Fine was born in New York City on October 11, 1914. Learning chess when he was just eight years old, Fine quickly began playing serious chess at the Marshall Chess Club. By the time he was 15, he was playing in serious chess events in the city, playing against other American legends like Arnold Denker and Herman Steiner. In 1931, Fine won his first Marshall Chess Club Championship with an impressive 10.5/13 score.
1932 would prove to be a breakthrough year for Fine. He took first place in the U.S. Open (then known as the Western Open) ahead of Samuel Reshevsky, beginning a rivalry that would last throughout their careers. Although Fine was only 17, this would also be the year he began playing in international events, as he finished tied for 7th in Pasadena 1932 (won by World Champion Alexander Alekhine).
Becoming a Professional
In 1933, Fine began scoring more high profile wins in North America. He would win the U.S. Open again in 1933 and share first in that event in 1934. After sharing first in a Mexico City tournament that same year, he would go on to win the U.S. Open for the 4th straight year in 1935.
That was enough to convince Fine to try to expand his play in Europe. In 1935, he finished second at Lodz, just behind Savielly Tartakower. He bettered that result in Hastings 1935-36, when he scored 7.5/9 to take clear first a point ahead of Salo Flohr. His international career truly took off with a string of wins in the next two years: Oslo 1936, Zandvoort 1936, Amsterdam 1936, Leningrad 1937, Moscow 1937 and further wins in Margate, Ostend, and Stockholm.
These results made it clear that Fine had a legitimate claim to being one of the strongest players in the world, a true contender for the title of World Champion. That earned the American an invitation to the AVRO tournament of 1938: a tournament that is widely considered to be one of the strongest ever staged. In a double round-robin format that featured who were likely the eight strongest players in the world, Fine jumped out to an early lead and looked to have a good chance of winning the tournament outright. A victory in the tournament would also set up the winner as the likely challenger for Alekhine’s title.
As the tournament moved on, Fine began to falter, losing three games against his six wins. Still, that let him with 8.5 points – enough to tie for first with Paul Keres. However, Keres had won the head-to-head battle with Fine 1.5-0.5, giving Keres first place on tiebreak.
As it happened, the AVRO tournament failed to produce a challenger, as World War II interrupted the international chess scene. Fine would spend much of the wartime years working for the U.S. Navy as a translator and analyst. During this time he also managed to play in some American tournaments, winning three more U.S. Open titles.
After the War
Fine’s chess career waned after World War II. While working on his doctorate in psychology, Fine was invited to participate in the 1948 World Chess Championship tournament that would determine who would become World Champion after the death of Alekhine. Fine declined, either because he wanted to focus on his dissertation or because he was worried about whether the tournament would even take place. Others have suggested that Fine was worried that the Russian participants in the tournament would collude to ensure one of them emerged as the winner.
Although Fine would play in a few more events – notably winning New York 1948 ahead of Max Euwe and Miguel Najdorf – the majority of his career was over after World War II. However, there was one more important moment in Fine’s career to take place at this late date: in 1950, he was listed as an International Grandmaster on FIDE’s initial list of titled players, an honor granted to only 27 players. Fine’s final major tournament came in 1951 at the Maurice Wertheim Memorial in New York, where he finished 4th.
The U.S. Championship and Olympiad Appearances
Two of the more interesting aspects to Fine’s career have to do with his records at the U.S. Championships and in the three Olympiads in which he took part.
It was clear that Fine was, along with Reshevsky, one of the two strongest American players of his era. Internationally, Fine actually outperformed Reshevsky, but their record at home was somewhat different. For Fine to seriously state that he was the best player in the United States, many believed he would have to win a U.S. Championship.
But Reshevsky was stubborn about surrendering this title. Fine tried four times to win the U.S. Championship, and came very close on three occasions. He finished tied for 3rd in 1936, then would finish second three straight times, being Reshevsky twice and Arnold Denker once. Overall, Fine had an incredible score of 50/64 over his four U.S. Championships, yet was never able to win the title for himself.
On the other hand, Fine was a great warrior for the United States when it came to the Chess Olympiad. He only made three appearances for the team, but was extremely successful, helping the Americans win team gold in 1933, 1935 and 1937. He also won two individual medals: a silver on board three in 1933, and a gold on board two in 1937. He also represented his country in several matches, including the famous 1945 USA-USSR radio match.