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Saturday, March 24, 2012

Psychology of a Chessplayer

       Years ago I read a book of that title by grandmaster, world champion candidate and well known psychologist, Dr. Reuben Fine.  Fine gave up chess at the height of his powers and founded the Creative Living Center in New York City.
       As a psychologist Fine wrote extensively on the psychology of chess. To him, chess was a combination of homosexual and hostile elements. The King on the chess board is "indispensable, all-important, irreplaceable, yet weak and requiring protection."  The Queen "of course, is the woman-figure. . . . The chess board as a whole may symbolize the family situation." He went on to discuss the phallic symbolism of chess and concluded that the game is an outlet for hostile feelings in which a player sees his opponent's King as his own absent or weak father and tries to kill him by checkmate’
       I’m not schooled in the field of psychology, but I personally consider that claptrap.  Add to the fact that according to Fine’s obituary in the New York Times he was married at the time of his death in 1993 and had four previous marriages that ended in divorce, it seems to me Fine was not a person I’d want to ask for advice on anything except maybe how to play chess. Fine also wrote a book on the 1972 Spassky-Fischer return match that critics called awful; Fine called it ‘the most serious’ of the match books; more of his self-deception.

       In this book on the return match Fine analyzed the games, did a psychoanalytic study of the two players, especially of Fischer, and in a self-aggrandizing fashion, attempted to correct the historical
record from 1938 to 1948 and the controversies associated with the deaths of Alekhine and several other top grandmasters. Fine thought he had a claim on being called the World Champion.
In 2001 Arnold Denker wrote regarding Fine:
‘... as a young man he was terribly mixed up and a horrible liar. That is one of the reasons my wife and I both allowed him plenty of space. He had a screwed-up youth and never really overcame his strong feelings of inferiority. Thus the bragging. My fondness for him was more a feeling of sadness.’
      Fine wrote at least nine books on psychology. He received his Ph.D in 1948 at the University of Southern California, where he was a teaching fellow. Eventually he entered private practice of psychoanalysis in New York, associated with the Elmhurst General Hospital and the Metropolitan Center for Mental Health. He also taught psychoanalysis at eight universities and was Vice-President of the National Psychological Association for Psychoanalysis, the Visiting Professor of the College of the City of New York and a Fellow of the American Psychological Association. In 1961 he was Visiting Professor of Psychology at the University of Amsterdam.
      Fine tried to categorize and understand the combination of characteristics that make up a chess champion.
       He played in a few tournaments after World War II, but not many and was invited to play in the 1948 World Championship tournament, but he declined to play. At different times, Fine gave different reasons for his refusal to play.  One explanation was he was studying for his PhD in psychology at the time and did not wish to take a year off to study, prepare for and play.  He also said he did not wish to play in a tournament where he had to watch the Soviet players throw games to each other to keep outsiders (namely, Fine and Reshevsky) from scoring well.
       Fine actually thought the was the best player in the world. He also claimed in private that everything that was known about the endgames was in his book, Basic Chess Endings.  After the 1938 AVRO tournament, he liked to call himself the unofficial world chess champion because he had defeated the official World Champion Alexander Alekhine 2-0 in the two games they played. Was Fine joking or did he really believe he was the ‘real’ world champion and there was nothing new to be discovered in endgame analysis?
       His last tournament was the Wertheim Memorial in 1951 where did not do too badly considering that he had not played a tournament game in three years. The results were 1.Reshevsky 2-3. Najdorf and Euwe with Fine finishing fourth.  He drew with Reshevksy and lost to Euwe and Najdorf.  Other players were: Evans, Horowitz, Robert Byrne, Guimard, O’Kelly, Bisguier, George Kramer and Shainswit.
       According to one source, Fine's clients in the psychoanalytic field included a lot of chess players. In the 1970s a lot of rich kids who were young chess masters and their parents were paying big bucks to have Reuben Fine psychoanalyze them.
       Fine theories were those of another psychoanalyst, Earnest Jones who wrote:
“Quite obviously chess is a play substitute for the art of war. The unconscious motive actuating the players is not the mere love of pugnacity characteristic of all competitive games, but the grimmer one of father-murder. The mathematical quality of the game gives chess a peculiar anal-sadistic quality. The sense of overwhelming mastery on the one side matches that of inescapable helplessness on the other. It is this anal-sadistic feature that makes the game so well adapted to gratify at the same time both the homosexual and the antagonistic aspects of the father-son contest. All agree that a combination of homosexual and hostile impulses are sublimated in chess.”
       Fine claimed there was a problem with this in that homosexuality is virtually non-existent among chess players.  Surely he knew, or at least suspected, that his contemporary fellow chess players, Weaver Adams and Anthony Santasiere were homosexuals.  He wrote,  “Observation indicates that overt homosexuality is almost unknown among chess players. Among the chess masters of the present century I have heard of only one case. This is all the more striking in that artists, with whom chess masters like to compare themselves, are so frequently homosexual.”


  1. The writing on chess that Fine did in his later years makes for some very unpleasant reading. Envy, spite, and conceit just ooze of the page. His envy of Fischer, in particular, is sickening.

    But the younger Fine did have plenty to brag about. That "unofficial World Champion" title was pure nonsense, of course, but He certainly was one of the top three or four players in the world in the 1938-1942 period, and if he privately thought of himself as the best, he wasn't the only top player who thought of himself that way. And he had more than enough wins over the top players to bolster his case.And his "Basic Chess Endings" was by far the greatest endgame manual in English for many years.As a youngster, I remember thinking that his book "The Middlegame in Chess" and his autobiographical "A Passion for Chess" were also both really good books.

    It's a shame that Fine was never able to take pride in his many, very real, successes. Instead, he seemed tortured by feelings of resentment and inferiority.

  2. I think chess affects on the mentality of an individual as well.