Tom Fineberg, long-time Chicago chess coach (1923-2012)

Chess community,

Thomas Fineberg (1923-2012)

I have received some regrettable news from Majorie (Fineberg) Winther that Tom Fineberg died peacefully amongst family and friends on Sunday night, May 27th. He was 89 years old. I had the pleasure of taking up chess at Chicago Vocational High School (CVS) and becoming one of approximately 100 members at the perennial high school chess powerhouse. It was at this school that I was exposed to the passion of “Coach Fineberg” and is where I discovered that I may have some talent for the game. While I am only one of the thousands of his chess players still active, I owe my initial passion, in great part, to the efforts of my coach. We ALL owe him a debt of gratitude for his tireless efforts in the Chicago area.

~ Daaim Shabazz, The Chess Drum


Reflections on Tom Fineberg

I met Tom Fineberg at CVS after attending the chess club once as a freshman. After playing some games with a classmate named Cornelius Plunkett, he suggested that I visit the club and I finally went to sign up in December 1977. In my sophomore year, I became a regular at chess club which was held every day in the chemistry lab. Chess competition was fierce and there were always different players dropping in.

At the time I attended CVS (1976-1980), it was a Class 4A school with more than 4,000 students and dominant in sports and vocational-technical training. Fineberg taught mathematics and ran the chess club. He was quite a tireless organizer and totally dedicated to a life of chess. There were also ways that his intellectual brilliance shined. While we were in the car with him traveling to matches, he would always devise mathematical puzzles on random objects and signs. For example, he would try to determine whether a number on the license plate or billboard was a prime number! Amazing.

Fineberg had devised a club “ladder rating list” and started all new members at 700. The threshold for being a decent player was 1000 and you had to “climb the ladder” so to speak. There were 100 players in the club and we charted our progress on the list that he printed out religiously and displayed in the club. He had developed a computer program for the calculations (using the U.S. Chess Federation formula). Fineberg was proud of CVS and always dropped names of alumni players such as Roger Hickman, Barry Johnson, Marvin Johnson, Marvin Dandridge, Derrick Suddeth, Gene Coleman, Demetrius Hale and a host of other players. It was good to know that we had such a venerable tradition at the school.

Me holding the plaque for the 1980 City Championship with teammate Reginald Williams (5th board) on the right

I ended my senior year at around 1500 (CVS ladder). I was proud of this 800-point improvement until I started playing in open tournaments and realized that 1500 in the U.S. Chess Federation was not considered strong. I always teased Fineberg about prohibiting his players from competing in “professional” tournaments. He cited an Illinois High School Association (IHSA) rule and loss of eligibility if players were winning money. Thus, we were all grossly underrated. We won the 1980 City Championship against all odds and (coming 9th in state). When I left CVS, I was approximately 1300-1400 USCF and less than two years later I had reached 2000. It was good that Fineberg kept us humble.

Thomas Fineberg was featured in a news segment for losing weight during a Weight Watchers program. I remember him eating carrots and apples and counting calories during that time.

As a player, coach never got much above 1800, but he was fond of his Grand Prix attack (1.e4 c5 2.Nc3 d6 3.f4). At the CVS club, he was almost unbeatable to newcomers and would show no pity. He coined the term, “milking” that was used when somebody was beaten badly and thus their rating points were milked from them. He would give you pointers during the game and afterwards, but he snapped your pieces off with glee.

He was an habitual kibitzer (talking during your game) and he had key phrases like “PPMBP” for “passed pawns must be pushed”. He was rather jovial and you would often have to put up with his singing like “backward pawn on a open file” (to Nat King Cole’s tune “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire”). He had a chess jingle that started, “My knight is on queen-six and it can’t be driven away. You’ll have to sack your rook for it or that’s where it will stay.”

Then his chess chant before our team matches…

Knights to the center!
Rooks on the seventh!
Queenside Majority!
Remote Passed Pawn!

Marvin Dandridge was Fineberg’s most celebrated alumnus and the pride of CVS chess.

We kept laughing… and winning. It was an enjoyable environment and competitive. Fineberg brought this infectious spirit to the Tuley Park Chess Club on 91st and King Drive. At this club, we met on Saturdays from 12-5pm. It was there that I met my first extended chess family. I will never forget him lugging countless bags with chess boards and sets and setting up for Tuley Park club. It would be rain, snow or shine and you could set your clock by Fineberg’s chess meetings… 12noon sharp!

Coach would even engage in trash-talking and if he scored an upset win, he’d sing “Ta dahhhh!” and pump his fists in the air. Perhaps he picked up some of his trash-talking skills from his most-prized pupil Marvin Dandridge who won a city title with CVS in 1975. It was Dandridge who led Tuley Park with his raucous humour and hearty laughter. Dandridge would sometimes come to visit CVS and give a simul or attend one of our matches. Coach had to be on his toes with Dandridge’s sense of humour. Some of the jokes were mighty off-color, but coach didn’t mind being the butt of his jokes and would always take the jokes in stride.

James Fagan with Thomas Fineberg

Tom Fineberg with one of his Harlan High chess pupils in James Fagan.

While Fineberg continued with his weekly meetings at Tuley Park, he retired from CVS and then began volunteering at Harlan H.S. where he nurtured James Fagan and Sedrick Prude, who both became Experts. He also mentored at Beasley Elementary and there helped to produce National Master Kayin Barclay who would star at Whitney Young Magnet. He also coached at Orr H.S. which saw national success. He played an instrumental role in scholastic chess and along with Tom Larson (now deceased), they made quite an impact in sharing the game of chess to perhaps thousands of students in the Chicago Public Schools. Their efforts were particularly noted in exposing chess to Black youth.

Thomas Fineberg, “Dean of Chicago Chess”

Tom Fineberg at Harper Court in 2003. He lead a protestation movement to have the benches put back. His dedication brought folding tables out so we could play. (see story)

He was also a fixture at Harper Square (53rd and Harper) and regularly played there. When the Harper Court Foundation decided to remove the six concrete chess benches, he led a protest to have them put back. There were all kinds of letters written until they decided on a concession that would allow players to congregate if they used folding tables which were stored in one of the stores. Essentially it was the end of an era, but Fineberg fought until the end.

Tom Fineberg with his lifetime achievment award. Tom Larson, his friend and fellow organizer, can been seen in the background. Larson preceded him in death.

About five years ago, I get an e-mail from William Aramil who was organizing a tribute for Fineberg. Aramil was a big supporter of Fineberg’s tournaments and wanted to do something special. I told him I could not be present, so I sent a statement. That event took place on June 2, 2007 at Tuley Park, 91st King Dr. in Chicago. There were some former players, long-time supporters and fellow chess promoters on hand. Chicago-born, Indiana-bred legend Emory Tate (now International Master) was on hand as well many Chicago area players such as Sam Ford, Patrick Magee, the Cohen brothers Howard and Larry, Kayin Barclay, Issac Braswell (deceased), Tyrone Lee (deceased), William Blackman and many others.

His doting wife Maxine was present and received a bouquet. Words of tribute were read to Fineberg and in my tribute, I mentioned his chess jingles. I understand that he was prompted to sing one of them and he immediately complied with glee. It was a fitting celebration for the Chicago legend, but only a small token for appreciation by Chicago area players. We are all indebted for his decades of chess service. (see tribute)

Thanks Coach for sharing your love of chess!
Your efforts will never be forgotten.

Daaim Shabazz

Dr. Daaim Shabazz is the creator and webmaster of The Chess Drum. He serves as a tenured faculty member of Global Business & Marketing at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, Florida, USA. He holds an MBA in Marketing and a doctorate in International Affairs & Development. He has served the journalist community for more than 30 years and still competes in tournaments occasionally.

20 Comments

  1. Fineberg Memories

    There were some little-known facts about Fineberg that I recall. If you have your own stories, please list here.

    • He lost a lot of weight on Weight Watchers and was featured in a news special for his accomplishment. Fineberg told me some time later… “I gained it all back.”
    • He enjoyed his McDonald’s chocolate shakes.
    • Fineberg enjoyed entertaining at his home and had a beloved beagle named “Dusty”.
    • He had a treasure trove of records dating back to the early days of CVS.
    • Believe it or not, Fineberg loved the song, “Let’s Get Serious” by Jermaine Jackson. He would sing along. 🙂
    • He would sew pockets on his shirts to hold his pens and other items for directing tournaments.
    • Tom Fineberg and his wife attended the 1979 CVS Senior Prom and I was told they were burning up the dance floor doing the “Jitterbug”.
    • He also teamed with his wife for many years in bridge competitions.
    • He used to be fond of his Brach’s candies and would joke about why people paid so much for premium candy when they could still buy so much for so little.
    • Thomas Fineberg loved Brach's candy station

      Fineberg loved his Brach’s candies.

  2. One memory that comes to mind is rather unfortunate, but shows the compassion of Fineberg.

    In 1978, our top board was a sophomore named Daniel Murrah. He was very gifted and played simple, but aggressive chess. He played sparingly in our junior year. In our senior year he still had the highest club rating, but disappeared from the club. I had become the club’s top player, but I would have gladly ceded my position to him for the city and state tournaments. Murrah was going through a personal crisis and Fineberg went to visit him at the hospital and brought him a chess set. I don’t remember the circumstances and who told me this, but I found it touching. He certainly cared about his players.

  3. I am deeply saddened by this loss. Mr. Fineberg, as we used to call him, would visit Beasley week after week along with Mr. Larson. He would host tournaments at Tuley Park and have special training sessions at the Ramada Inn in Hyde Park. Mr. Fineberg was always there to support me and my fellow classmates and we owe some of our success in life to his dedication. He will definitely be missed but will never be forgotten.

    Kayin

  4. Uncle Tommie lived and breathed chess. When we were little, he taught me to play but I was never very good. My mom was his sister. She told us that Tom had worked on the Manhattan Project during WWII which was very secretive. He and Auntie Max used to eat so much ice cream. Max taught first grade in the Chicago Public Schools. They were both vocal advocates for the teachers unions. So many of the family members are now teachers, probably because of their great example. The best thing about Tom and Max was their undying love for each other. It was like they were newlyweds, even into their 80’s.

  5. I have to say that I agree so much with my sister. Uncle Tommy was all about love. He loved chess, he loved his wife, he loved life. I know he had a serious side; he was strongly political and he truly walked the walk of his convictions. However, I never knew him to be anything but full of joy.

    When my children met him at the family reunion in Virginia, they were impressed with how vivacious and full of life he was as he scooted around the campsite on his kick scooter. We all remember his chess songs and how he kept Pi with him on a scrap of paper in his pocket. My daughter Rachel was particularly impressed with his ability to factor license plate numbers.

    (To Carol and Margie: I guess it’s time for me to eat my cantaloupe in honor of my loving and lovable Uncle Tommy.)

  6. I’m so glad relatives are posting comments. I gives us an opportunities to see Coach Fineberg as a family man. I hope chess players appreciate his efforts.

    Ah yes… the scooter. Very practical… no one would ever think of that. He didn’t care what anyone thought either!

    Another memory: I remember after he got hip surgery, he demonstrated his mobility by doing a little dance.

  7. I remember the serious, political side of Tom that Marti mentioned. Once, Tom was visiting us in California and my father was playing guitar, singing folk songs. He asked Tom (whom he had just met) if Tom had any requests. Tom said “Do you know any songs about Wobblies?” (Wobblies is a nickname for “The Industrial Workers of the World”, an international union with very left-leaning politics.)

    Even in his serious side Tom was funny.

  8. Daaim,

    That’s a big plague you was holding in that picture 🙂 . It also looks like you haven’t aged at all. The only difference was the afro 🙂

    My condolences on the loss of Mr. Fineberg.

    1. That was a wall plaque that hangs in the school. Every winner of a city championship gets one for their school. I just posed with it. Couldn’t take it home 🙂

    1. Unfortunately, I cannot be there this weekend since I am in Florida. It would be such a pleasure to see these artifacts. Besides trophies what type of items remained? Were there any historic photos, records and articles?

  9. To the Fineberg Family: I offer my late condolences. Mr. Fineberg was a great coach and inspiration. I remember going to the city tournament where I almost beat the 4th board at Carver (lol a big thing to even challenge a Carver player). I think the last time I saw Mr. Fineberg was at Tuley Park some years ago. It was good seeing him. He didn’t remember me, but he did remember you Daaim. I graduated from CVS in ’81 and have never forgotten Mr. Fineberg.

  10. Great stuff and well appreciated by the Jamaican chess fraternity. May his memory and legacy live on forever!

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