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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.
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