The Circus Comes to Town
The arrival of Bobby Fischer as an Icelandic citizen on March 24th 2005 was a strange affair. Firstly there were the circumstances of Parliament granting him citizenship. It was passed in a law unanimously; a measure that had never been applied before, nor since. It has been speculated that this act was more a defiant gesture towards the United States government – which demanded that Fischer be extradited from Japan where he was being held on charges of travelling on an invalid passport – rather than an act motivated by humanitarian issues. At the time the Icelandic government was in negotiations with the US regarding the defence of the country and the plans the US had to withdraw its troops from the Keflavík Airport military base. Later, the US did follow through with the plans to withdraw their troops, stationed here since 1951, however that may have related to the Icelandic government’s decision to grant Fischer citizenship.
Fischer was flown to Reykjavik on a private jet, leased by one of the country’s most influential businessmen, Jón Ásgeir Jóhannesson. When the jet landed in the drizzling rain, a curious welcome committee met Bobby. There were a small number of people assembled, huddling together, hoping to catch a glimpse of the chess master. Drunken teenagers, holding chessboards aloft, were proudly represented. After stepping of the plane, Bobby was whisked into an SUV, which promptly sped away. It was surreal to watch. It grew even more surreal a few minutes later when the live broadcast on Channel 1 had ended and the SUV emerged on the tarmac again, this time so Channel 2 reporters could broadcast an exclusive live interview with Fischer. It turned out that the reason Mr. Jóhannesson, the biggest shareholder in Channel 2 TV station, had put up the money for the private plane was so that the Channel 2 reporters could get an exclusive interview with the chess master. Fischer, who had not shaved or cut his hair for months, said little but grunted some. It was by all standards depressing to watch.
The next day the group responsible for getting Fischer to Iceland, the RJF Campaign (RJF stands for Rights – Justice – Freedom, but is also the acronym for Robert J. Fischer), held a press conference with Fischer, broadcast live on TV. Somebody had provided Bobby with a razor and a haircut and for the first half of the two-hour meeting he was talkative, coherent and in a good mood. The international press was well represented and asked various questions about Fischer’s intentions, his past, about a possible match with Kasparov and other things chess related. The Icelandic press asked if Fischer liked herring. Repeatedly. Well into the press conference Fischer delivered an angry speech about the Jewish conspiracy and the “Jewish snakes”. It was a tense moment, everyone held their breath in silence, until an Icelandic reporter asked: “So… are you planning on eating any herring?” The meeting continued with Fischer raving on about crazy Jewish conspiracies against him, citing the Internet if anyone needed proof. Members of the RJF group sat sheepishly by his side, looking confused, if not ashamed. The Bobby Fischer Circus in Iceland was off to a rocky start.
Those who thought Bobby’s presence in Iceland would be high profile were quickly proved wrong. Fischer fell of the media radar quickly, declining to grant interviews and it also seemed the media had taken the stance that Fischer was best left alone. He could sometimes be seen in downtown Reykjavík sitting on a bench reading with his Japanese fiancé, Miyoko Watai, or walking briskly from one place to another. Bobby was just another ordinary Icelandic citizen.
And so the years went by. Around New Year, 2008, word spread in chess circles that Fischer was gravely ill with a kidney disease. Some media reports stated that he was on his way to recovery, but then he passed away on January 17, roughly three years after his arrival in Iceland. The Bobby Fischer Circus, which had lain dormant during that time, was instantly brought back to life, more strange and bizarre than ever before.
Soon after Bobby’s death it was clear that all was not well in the RJF Campaign group. Various members made contradictory statements about the chess master’s estate and the arrangements for his funeral. The wildest ideas called for Fischer to be put to rest at the national cemetery at Þingvellir, a miniscule graveyard once reserved for the most noble Icelanders, but nowadays generally regarded as an arcane, if not an embarrassing, testimony to a class divided society. A full, state paid funeral was called for with live TV coverage and a national day of mourning. While some members of the RJF Campaign debated this in the media, one of them, Garðar Sverrison, arranged for a private funeral in a small graveyard near Selfoss. Apparently Sverrison did not notify anyone but Fischer’s fiancé, Watai, about the arrangements, even the parish priest was caught off guard, showing up for work the next day to find a freshly dug grave in his graveyard. Sverrison got a Catholic priest to conduct the funeral service, with only himself, his parents and Watai in attendance.
This did not go down too well with Sverrison’s fellow RJF group members and at the time it seemed that an all-out mud slinging competition was to break out in the media. But then the United States Chess Federation stepped in. The USCF had revoked Fischer’s membership in 2002, following his remarks in the aftermath of 9/11, when he praised the terrorist act. Now the USCF sent the Icelandic Chess Federation a letter, asking when Fischer’s remains would be sent to the US for a proper burial. Note that it did not say if, but when.
But there was more to come. Fischer left behind a sizeable sum of money, around 140 million ISK, the majority of his prize money from the 1992 rematch with Boris Spassky. His fiancé, Watai, now came forward claiming that she and Bobby in fact were in fact married, rather than engaged. To prove this she produced a photocopy of a Japanese marriage certificate, which the Japanese embassy stated to be insufficient. Bobby’s brother in-law, Russel Targ, hired an Icelandic lawyer to make sure that his sons received a piece of the inheritance if they were entitled to it. This seemed to be a minor dispute, until reports of a child Fischer was supposed to have fathered in the Philippines in 2001 began surfacing. Evidently Bobby had sought the assistance of a friend there to find him a suitable woman to ensure his genes would live on after his death. The name of the friend: Gene. It is impossible to make this stuff up.
A few Icelandic bloggers decided to investigate these rumors, with one of them throwing around the idea that Fischer’s remains should be exhumed to get DNA evidence. Then a Philippine lawyer came forward, claiming to represent Fischer’s daughter, Jinky Ong. The lawyer, Samuel Estimo, sent scans of postcards Bobby was meant to have sent to his daughter to the Icelandic media and claimed that she had visited him in Iceland and that they spoke regularly on the phone. Later he stated that he was working on getting concrete proof of the girl’s fatherhood through a prominent European chess player, who could not, for some reasons, be identified.
And here we are. The matter of Bobby Fischer’s inheritance is still under dispute. It could prove to be a long and ugly mess when those things are finally put to rest. But one thing is certain: there was seldom peace and quiet in the Bobby Fischer Circus. Not even posthumously.