Willard is not your typical Icelandic name, but until a few decades ago it was a not an uncommon name on the island of Grímsey. Not Sigurður, Haukur, Hilmar, or Þorgeir, but Willard.
The reason is as follows: the American writer, linguist, and chess fanatic Willard Fiske (1831–1904) heard that everyone on Grímsey played chess with the same passion as he played it, so he donated an expensive chess set to every family on the island. What’s more, he bequeathed $12,000 in his will to establish a library on Grímsey, whereupon the grateful islanders began naming their children after him.
During a recent trip to Grímsey, I visited the island’s library which, thanks to the Fiske bequest, has a fine collection of old chess books. “Mr. Fiske was very good to our little island,” the librarian told me. She pronounced Fiske as if it were “Fisk-uh” so as not to confuse it with fisk, the Icelandic word for fish. Fiskur have been very good to Grímsey, too.
In my guesthouse, Basar, I mentioned my interest in playing a game or two (or three) of chess with a local. No sooner said than done. I found myself sitting with a chess set next to the island’s chief attraction, an Arctic Circle sign that indicates the distances to Reykjavík, New York, Moscow, etc, but doesn’t indicate that it’s at the Arctic Circle. My opponent was a fellow from Grímsey named Palli.
Now I consider myself a pretty decent chess player. After all, I once beat Bobby Fischer. Surprised? Well, I played a dozen games with Sæmi Pálsson (aka, Sæmi Rokk), Bobby’s bodyguard during the 1973 Fischer-Spassky tournament in Reykjavík, and I beat him once. Sæmi had beaten Bobby himself once when the latter was half-asleep. Ergo, I beat Bobby Fischer…
Given my so-called chess expertise, I figured that I had a reasonably good chance to trounce Palli. We shook hands and began playing. The first game was a closely fought draw, occasionally interrupted by divebombing Arctic terns. And then my opponent beat me soundly three games in a row. Palli, by the way, happened to be an 11 year old boy…
Was I mortified by these losses? Not at all. For they proved that chess is alive and well on this tiny speck of Iceland bisected by the Arctic Circle.