Searching For Bobby Fischer In Selfoss

Searching For Bobby Fischer In Selfoss

Photos by
Hrefna Björg Gylfadóttir

Within minutes of entering Selfoss, Hrefna and I are lost. “I think we were supposed to take the other exit,” I say, but there are trucks riding our ass and before we know it we’re on the outskirts of town. To people who have only driven through Selfoss to get to more exciting destinations, the prospect of getting lost here might seem absurd, but with a population of over 6,000 people, this dot on the map between Hveragerði and Hella is the largest population centre in the south of Iceland.

Searching For Bobby Fischer

Once we’re back on track, our first stop is Bókakaffið, the local bookstore and café. But it’s closed until noon, so we find ourselves drawn to Sjafnarblóm, a quaint shop across the street whose entrance is loaded with colourful baskets of flowers. The flower shop shares the building with an independent food store and the Bobby Fischer museum—strange bedfellows for a town that’s perhaps most well-known as the location stamped on most Icelandic dairy products (thanks, Mjólkursamsalan monopoly).

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Bobby Fischer’s relationship to Iceland is one of the stranger episodes in the country’s history. The American chess grandmaster played an infamous Cold War-era match against Soviet chess champion Boris Spassky in Reykjavík in 1972, but Bobby’s anti-Semitic comments in the following years shrouded him in controversy. When his American passport was revoked in 2004, Bobby was granted citizenship by Iceland and lived in Reykjavík until his death in 2008, when he was buried at his request in Selfoss. But the museum doesn’t open until 1 p.m. (I’m sensing a trend), so actually seeing any Bobby memorabilia up close will have to wait for another roadtrip.

A Communist Book Collector’s Dream

Back across the street, Bókakaffið is open and there are already people milling through the stacks. Elín Gunnlaugsdóttir, one of the owners, proudly tells us it’s the only book store in Iceland’s south, and she’s carefully cultivated an atmosphere where customers can sip coffee surrounded by floor-to-ceiling shelves of books in Icelandic, English and other languages. The store’s clientele is diverse, Elín tells us, and includes a Chinese book collector who orders Icelandic-language books about communism from their online store.

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Before sending us on our way, Elín recommends that we check out the church, so Hrefna and I follow signs to the nearest kirkjan. Again, we find ourselves lost on a lonely road outside of town. We end up at the diminutive Laugardalur Church, which is surrounded by fields and farmhouses that seem empty except for a few horses. “This can’t be the right one,” one of us eventually says. We’re about to leave when we look down and see that we’re nearly standing on the gravestone of one Robert James Fischer.

Cut From The Same Cloth

Back in town, the Ölfusá River glows aquamarine even under the grey sky. Set against a dramatic mountain complete with some houses built into a hill, it’s the quintessential Icelandic scene. Hrefna comments that many small towns on the island look the same, and if that’s the case, Selfoss might have been the original template.

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Our pitstop in Selfoss ends with a stop at Tryggvaskáli, a restaurant in the oldest building in town. The decor inside is an eclectic mix of memorabilia from the town’s history, which seems fitting given the quirky characters that makes stopping in Selfoss worthwhile. After all, it’s the only place in Iceland where you’ll accidentally stumble across Bobby Fischer’s grave.