The Underrated World Number-One – Chess.com


Ask any chess player to name a grandmaster who deserved to be the world champion but never became one, and you will get a list of the usual suspects.

Bronstein, Korchnoi and Keres will be on the top of the list, and then it becomes very subjective. I’ve even seen Rashid Nezhmetdinov make such a list on Reddit. While Nezhmetdinov is one of my favorite players, it is fair to say that he was never even close to the world title.

One player who really deserves to be on the list but usually cannot be found there is Reuben Fine.

Reuben Fine.
Reuben Fine. Photo: Wikipedia.

I guess his relatively short chess career should take the blame, but one way or another, Fine is one of the most underrated world number-one players (according to Chessmetrics, he had the highest rating in the world on six different occasions).

For a long time, just like most Soviet chess players, I was practically unfamiliar with Fine’s chess heritage. This problem has roots in the 1930s, when the famous and influential Soviet grandmaster Peter Romanovsky coined the term “Flohr-Fine style of play,” referencing Salo Flohr and Reuben Fine. 

According to Romanovsky, it was typical for Flohr and Fine to emphasize the importance of opening theory and to avoid making any weaknesses in their games. They also supposedly stayed away from any sharp positions and sacrifices in favor of pure, technical play. 

Romanovsky called Flohr-Fine style the opposite of the creative style of the Soviet chess school.

Romanovsky was a strong chess player and a good chess writer (his two-volume book on middlegames became a classic). It is difficult to say if he really believed in what he preached, since he couldn’t miss the obvious fact that Salo Flohr and Reuben Fine had different chess styles.

Probably his articles about “Flohr-Fine style” were part of the propaganda typical for the end of 1930s. One way or another, the cliche became quite sticky and the games of Reuben Fine were not available to Soviet chess players, unless Fine was badly beaten.

For example, I’ve seen the following game in most books published in the USSR on the topics of tactics and opening traps.

You can imagine how interesting it was for me to read Reuben Fine’s book A Passion For Chess. This excellent book is not just a typical biography; it is more like a snapshot of that period’s chess life. You should definitely read this book yourself. I promise you will learn something new.

For me, the main eye-opener was that nothing has really changed in chess society in the last 80 years—everything is the same. 

You might know this classical poetry by Alexander Blok:

A night, a street, a lamp, a drugstore

A meaningless and dismal light

A quarter century outpours –

It’s all the same. No chance to flight.

You’d die and rise anew, begotten.

All would repeat as ever might:

The street, the icy rippled water,

The store, the lamp, the lonely night.

Here are a couple of examples from Reuben Fine’s book:

I was already among the three or four best in the country. […] Up to that time I had not read any chess books.

So, it turns out that Hikaru Nakamura was not the first chess player who ignored chess books.

The constant round of tournaments [in Europe] provided a comfortable living, but was quite tiring. Most chess masters like to save their strength for two or three big tournaments per year.

Yes, they do!

Alekhine was a very sadistic individual…Bogoljubov had some of his rivals put in concentration camps.

I guess this is how the infamous exchange between Aronian and Giri would look like before Twitter was invented.

In the 1930s it was still possible to raise funds to send teams abroad; later […] such an attempt often failed…Toward the end of the war the wealthy philanthropist, Maurice Wertheim, took an active interest in chess, and financed the team’s trip to Russia in 1946, and some other events. As a result everybody came to depend on Wertheim’s bounty.

The 2000 U.S. Invitational Championship was almost canceled due to the lack of funds, but fortunately it was saved at the very last moment. Sadly, the 2004 championship was not saved. During the closing ceremony of the 2006 event, the organizers realized that they didn’t have enough money to pay the announced prizes and therefore despite signed contracts, all prizes were reduced by 10 percent!

Enter Rex Sinquefield and the situation changed dramatically. Now U.S. chess is thriving!

I could go on, but I hope that you’ll read the book, so I don’t want to spoil it. The games in the book prove that the “Flohr-Fine style” was just propaganda.

Of course, just like any super-GM, Fine demonstrated fine technique in many of his games. Here is a good example:

There are not many games where Botvinnik was completely outplayed from the start to the end! By the way, talking about “Flohr-Fine style,” I cannot help but show the game played by both protagonists. It was anything but boring!

This is a textbook example of an attack. I especially like Fine’s moves 11 and 12, which helped him to open up the position. As he correctly pointed out in his comment after the move 21. Rxd7!, “by now this is obvious; what was more difficult was the play that led up to it.”

We discussed the principle of bringing up all your pieces for an attack in this article. The following game is a very good illustration:

Reuben Fine’s games show that he was a very versatile player, who had a very good chance to become the world champion had he gotten a shot for the title.


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