Published March 11, 2005
How Fischer Played his Part in Political Disputes
But not between the countries you think
Getting Bobby Fischer to Iceland has never been easy. Upon arriving in 1972, one of the first things Bobby Fischer said was that the country was inadequate because there was no bowling hall here. He also complained that the view from the hotel was distracting because it was too beautiful.
If he ever makes it back here, then at least the first problem will have been solved. The first bowling hall was opened in Öskjuhlíð in 1984. I’m sure some city planners somewhere are working on having a nice shopping mall erected to take care of the second part of the problem. A committee of Icelandic chess players and media people recently went to Japan to try to bring Fischer back to Iceland. So far, they have not succeeded. But bringing Bobby here for the first also seemed, for a while, bordering on the impossible.
The match was the first since World War II to have non-Soviet Citizen as contender for the world title. Until then, the Soviets were able to pick and choose from host cities as they wished. The 1969 match (world championship matches are held roughly every three years) between Petrosian and Spassky had been held in Moscow.
Now, a gruelling negotiation process commenced between representatives of the rival superpowers. How did they reach the conclusion that Iceland was the best place to be? In fact, Reykjavík was no one’s first choice.
Fischer initially wanted the match to be held in the US and flatly refused to go to the USSR. Spassky, on the other hand, did not want to go to the US, but neither did he insist that it be held in the Soviet Union.
A question of money?
The prize money for the Spassky-Petrosian match totalled 1,400 US dollars. This time, 15 cities were bidding for the match. The city that bid the highest was Belgrade, Yugoslavia, with 152,000 US dollars as prize. Reykjavík was 2nd with 125,000, roughly a dollar per inhabitant. The Icelandic government was responsible for the sum, but the organizers were hoping to recoup the money through television rights and tickets sold. Among other cities bidding were Chicago, Buenos Aires, Amsterdam, Athens and Zurich.
Spassky wanted to hold the entire match in one city, and was also worried about the climate. His first choice was Amsterdam. Friðrik Ólafsson, a leading member of the Iceland Chess Association, went to Moscow to meet him. In an interview with Grapevine, he said, “I told him about the great interest there was in chess here, and that the climate was similar to Leningrad.” Whether it was due to Ólafsson’s visit or not, Reykjavík now became Spassky’s city of choice.
Fischer had other concerns. Ólafsson continues, “Fischer thought conditions here were too primitive. He thought it would be hard to broadcast live from Reykjavík, and that we did not have the technology. A long dispute with his lawyers ensued.”
Bound for Belgrade
Fischer’s first choice was Yugoslavia, partly because of the money, but he also had an affinity for the country, having played there when he was 15. He now insisted that the match be either held in Yugoslavia or the US. Ólafsson says, “Fischer wanted to play in Belgrade. He finally got his wish, which is why he’s in prison now.”
A compromise solution was found, where the first half of the match was to be held in Belgrade, the second half in Reykjavík. The conditions were drawn up by representatives from both countries and everything seemed in order. That is, until Fischer refused to show up unless all proceeds, minus expenses, would go to the players. Guðmundur G. Þórarinsson, the Icelandic organizer, wrote him a letter which simply said: “out of the question.” Upon hearing of the problems surrounding the match, the Yugoslavs demanded a deposit of 35,000 dollars. When turned down, they dropped out. Þórarinsson seized the day and offered to host the entire match. FIDE, the international chess union, agreed. So did Bobby Fischer, but, as he phrased it, “under protest.” The financial issues remained unresolved.
Killing the hen that lays the golden eggs
But Þórarinsson’s troubles were just beginning. The competition was to open on July 1st, with the first match taking place the next day. Spassky and the Soviets arrived, as scheduled, on June 21st, and the Russian chess player settled in at the presidential suite at Hótel Saga. The current financial arrangements were that the two players would split the prize, the winner taking home 78,125 dollars and the loser 46,875 dollars. In addition, they would also share 30% of film and TV rights. Now, just a few days before the scheduled start, Fischer insisted that the players also get 30% of the entrance fee, the estimated total amount of which being 250,000 dollars. This is the money the Icelandic organizers had been counting on to cover their costs.
Ólafsson says, “He was very paranoid about money, and he didn’t want anyone to profit at his expense. He almost killed the hen laying the golden eggs that this match was for him.”
An empty seat
On June 27th, Fischer was still in New York, even though he had been scheduled to arrive on the 25th. He was rebooked on a flight on June 28th, but when he saw the swarm of media people gathered at JFK, he ran away from his handlers and fled to the house of a friend in Queens. Some claimed that he was deliberately trying to unnerve Spassky with his failure to show up, to which he uttered the famous line, “I don’t believe in psychology, I believe in good moves.”
Fischer’s absence from the championship made its way to the cover of the New York Times. Meanwhile in Reykjavík, Þórarinsson felt he had no choice but to set the match on the first of July as scheduled, even if only one of the two players had arrived. Prime Minister Ólafur Jóhannesson, President Kristján Eldjárn, the US and Soviet ambassadors, the head of FIDE and Boris Spassky all arrived at the National Theatre. “Things were not looking good,” recollects Ólafsson. “Finally, we had to resort to keeping his seat empty.”
“I’m not a child”
On the following day, when the first game was set to take place, Fischer’s seat was still empty. At this point, Spassky and the Russians could have declared forfeiture and returned home. Spassky would then have faced Petrosian again, the last man Fischer had beaten on his way to become challenger for the title, and whom Spassky had won in 1969. Had he done this, he would most probably have won and kept his title as world champion. So why did he decide to play Fischer anyway? Ólafsson, again, was there. “Spassky thought he had the psychological advantage. He thought that if he returned home he would be missing his chance to be the greatest chess player in the world. I asked him whether the waiting was affecting him and he said, “Friðrik, I’m not a child.” But it seemed to me that it did affect him more than Fischer, who didn’t seem moved by anything.”
One last chance
However, Fischer was given one last chance. Þórðarson was a member of the Progressive Party, as was Prime Minister Ólafur Jóhannesson. “Guðmundur Þórðarson has said he had to push the Americans,” says Ólafsson. Perhaps the Prime Minister of Iceland now turned to the White House. Guðmundur Þórðarson is at the time of writing in Japan and unavailable for comment, but in the event, Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s national security adviser called Fischer and asked him to “go over there and beat the Russians.” At the same time British millionaire James Slater put up an additional 125,000 dollars for prize money and said to Fischer publicly, “Come out, you chicken.” Perhaps it was this that persuaded Fischer, perhaps it was Kissinger call, but at this point, Fischer yet again surprised everyone by suggesting that they get rid of all the prize money, and simply play for the love of the game. Although his lawyers talked him out of this, he finally arrived in Reykjavík on July 4th.
Three days later, Fischer and Spassky finally faced each other in Iceland. Spassky took a black pawn in one hand, a white in the other and held out his closed knuckles. Fischer pointed to one, and drew black. It was Spassky who would start the first game of this most famous chess match in history on July 11th, 1972, nine days behind schedule. Perhaps he would regret not having walked away when he could. Nevertheless, he must take credit not only for the match being held in Reykjavík, but for it being held at all.
“There is no doubt that the match put Iceland on the map more than anything had before,” says Friðrik Ólafsson. But why was the Icelandic government willing to go to all this trouble? Was it national prestige, or the hope of attracting tourists, or was there something else, as the Icelandic phrase goes, hanging on the stick? Was there more to this than met the eye?
Iceland had announced that it would extend the country’s fishing limits from 12 to 50 miles on September 1st, 1972. This was in violation of previous treaties with Great Britain and would no doubt lead to a dispute with Her Majesty’s Government, as indeed it did in the resulting “Cod War.”
Friðrik Ólafsson says, “With all these journalists here, the government certainly used the opportunity to present their views in the fishing limits. In fact, Foreign Minister Einar Ágústson held a press conference just before the extension, and he called me to ask me what a good English phrase for “Endatafl” was. I told him it was “Endgame”, and that’s one end game that Iceland won.”