Published September 7, 2012
Bobby Fischer was late as usual. Apart from playing chess rather well and not liking Jews very much, it was probably the trait he was best known for. He arrived a week late for the 1972 World Championship match in Reykjavík. He was late for almost every game of the match, and didn’t even show up for the second game. This time, almost an hour after the scheduled start of the press conference, journalists could be forgiven for wondering whether he would show up at all.
Rumours circulated, as they often do when large numbers of journalists are kept waiting in the same room. He was spotted having breakfast that morning at Reykjavík’s Hotel Loftleiðir, the very same hotel where he stayed in ´72, eating the local delicacy skyr. He had cut his messianic beard.
As Fischer sightings since his disappearance from the public eye after 1972 are considerably less frequent than Elvis sightings, any appearance gives cause for rumour.
Fischer had spent the last nine months in detention in Japan and claimed to have been hijacked there upon arrival. When he landed in Reykjavík, history seemed to be repeating itself. But this time the hijackers in question were not the authorities. Instead, Fischer was whisked into a Range Rover owned by Channel Two. The channel’s owner, supermarket giant Baugur Group, even chartered the private plane that brought him here.
This brief appearance at Reykjavík airport was the culmination of a four-month struggle to bring him back to Iceland, a task that at first seemed to face insurmountable odds.
SENIOR CITIZENS TO THE RESCUE
When Fischer was arrested in Tokyo in July 2004, he seemed to be all out of friends. Having spent much of the Cold War railing against the Soviets, he then changed political allegiance and spent much of the next decade and a half railing against the United States and Israel. He even celebrated the attacks on the USA on September 11 with the words “What goes around comes around.”
But a seven man strong group of senior citizens in Iceland, including individuals who organised the chess match in 1972, still remembered Bobby Fischer as “The World Champion Of Chess That Put Iceland On The Map,” and decided to do something to help. They petitioned the Icelandic Parliament, and on December 15, 2004 he was given a residence permit in Iceland in absentia. This was not enough to secure his release, but the seven old chess enthusiasts did not give up, and on February 22, 2005, Parliament granted him an Icelandic Foreigner’s travel passport. When the Japanese government still failed to let him go, Parliament took the full step on March 21 and gave Fischer Icelandic citizenship. Of the 42 MPs present, 40 voted in favour and two abstained. The entire process took less than thirteen minutes. Two days later, he was released from detainment in Tokyo and put on a plane headed for Copenhagen. He was scheduled to fly from there to Iceland, but due to fog they had to drive to Kristianstad in Sweden from where he flew “home.”
I SEE A PLANE!
“I see a plane,” screamed one of the roughly 200 spectators gathered at Reykjavík airport. AFP, AP, Reuters, Kyoto news and Russian TV were there among a host others, including a group of high school students waving chessboards and cardboard on which they had written “Welcome Bobby,” and more bizarrely, “Bobby, the Builder” and even “We are also people,” which no one seemed likely to disagree with.
The welcoming committee of the six pensioners who had secured his release (the seventh, Sæmundur Pálsson, who got acquainted with Fischer in 1972, was on the plane with him), approached the plane after it had landed and come to a standstill, carrying flowers and a certificate verifying Fischer’s new citizenship. However, as Fischer disembarked, Channel 2 herded him right past them and into the waiting car. It was the newsmen’s money that flew him in and they were not about to share the exclusive story.
GOLDEN DAYS OF A TAXI DRIVER
Along with a group of journalists, I stepped into a taxi. The taxi driver leaned forward with a glimmer in his eye not often seen in the eyes of local taxi drivers since the Reagan-Gorbachev summit in 1986.
“Are they journalists?” he asked me, all but licking his lips.
“Yes,” I conceded.
“Do they need a ride to the airport when they leave?” was the next and perhaps inevitable question. The Reykjavík-Keflavík trip may be one of the most expensive city-to-airport rides in the world. Locals know to avoid it and take the bus, but unsuspecting foreigners are often lured by the seemingly easy comforts of a cab.
Therefore every taxi driver in the city had spent the US-Soviet summit wondering not whether the two leaders would put an end to the Cold War, but how the journalists covering it would get to the airport. Small wonder that they were hoping for a return to those glory days.
The driver gave me all of twenty seconds to contemplate his question before turning his attention to my fellow passengers.
“Do you need a ride to the airport when you leave?” he asked and the road ahead no longer seemed to have any claim on his attention. “Journalists killed in car crash,” rang a headline in my head, but I was not sure who would write it. Somehow, we made it back to the hotel alive. No one was allowed to leave without the cab driver’s business card. Other than that, we returned empty handed. Later that evening, Bobby Fischer gave an exclusive interview to Channel Two.
AN IMBECILE WITHOUT BRAINS
The following day after we gathered again at Hótel Loftleiðir, still waiting for Bobby Fischer. Fifty minutes after schedule, he walked in, wearing the same baseball cap, his beard noticeably shorter than the day before. He was with his friend, former police officer Sæmundur Pálsson.
“So who here is from Russia?” he said after sitting down, noticing a microphone in front of him with Cyrillic inscription. A couple of journalists in the front row admitted to being Russian. Whether this was a good or a bad thing in the mind of Bobby Fischer went unresolved, as he did not pursue his query further. Finally the press conference began. As it turned out, it seemed more like several press conferences being held at the same time.
The Russians wanted to know what he thought of Kasparov’s bid for the Russian presidency. “An imbecile without brains,” was Fischer’s verdict. The Russian reporters attempted to change the conversation by telling him that there’s a city in Russia called Chess and whether he had been there.
Bobby Fischer said he hadn’t and the conversation came grinding to a halt. A member of the Icelandic media jumped in with the inevitable “How do you like Iceland?” Fischer told us he had had skyr that morning, to the great joy of local media.
A lone British journalist seemed to be interested in chess. Bobby Fischer, however, wasn’t. “Their enthusiasm for chess is misplaced,” he said about young players today. “My only interest in chess is to expose the prearrangements.”
The Americans are most interested in his political opinions, probably hoping to get one of his trademark over-the-top quotes that were partially responsible for landing him in all this trouble to begin with. They were not disappointed. “The United States is evil,” he said at one point. “The United States is Jew controlled,” he said at another. “Israel has no right to exist.” If they were deliberately out to bait him, he was making their job all too easy, despite Sæmundur’s preconference attempts to get him to refrain from speaking about Jews.
TACKLING BOBBY FISCHER
Many of the journalists present seem embarrassed about Fischer’s rampant anti-Semitism, and their attempts to clarify what exactly he had against the Jews apart from his allegations that a Jew-owned furniture company in the US stole his belongings came to naught.
One man, however, seemed to be pursuing a more personal agenda. He had been last seen the previous night, shouting through the window of Fischer’s car that Fischer knew his father. His name was Jeremy Schaap, and today, Fischer admitted to indeed having known his father. “His father befriended me, he became a sort of father figure, and like a typical Jewish snake he betrayed me,” the chess legend said. Jeremy’s father, Dick Schaap, was a sports legend in his own right as a journalist for sports channel ESPN and most recently as radio host for “This Sporting Life” where his son worked with him, before he died in 2001.
“He wrote that I did not have a single sane bone in my body,” Fischer said of the elder Schaap.
“I know my father wrote that,” Jeremy replied, “and I don’t think anything you’ve said today proves him wrong,” he added, before storming off.
CHESS AND MONEY
Bobby Fischer sat silently for a while before one of the Icelandic journalists broke the proverbial ice by asking another question about Iceland and how he liked it. “I was crazy to leave here in the first place,” Fischer said. Crazy he may well have been, but he certainly wasn’t crazy about coming to Iceland in the first place.
He had initially wanted the match to be held in Yugoslavia. When I asked him about this he said a CIA agent discouraged him from accepting the Reykjavík bid. We moved on to his detention in Japan where he got into a scuffle with prison guards a number of times. He said they held him down at one point, telling him they would let him go if he would do as he was told. “They released me, and I punched the guy in the face,” Fischer said, punching the air to demonstrate his fighting style. The table in front of him rattled.
CHESS AND MADNESS
The conference dragged on for an hour, much of the media already packing up before it concluded. Asked whether he was perhaps the greatest chess player of all time, He said, “I’m not sure, but I’m obviously partial to myself.”
Only one thing was certain. For the three years he stayed here until his death, he was most certainly the greatest chess player Iceland ever had.