Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Bobby Fischer: A grandmaster finds a new home

"The atmosphere was tense at Reykjavik airport. Iceland was awaiting its newest citizen and the press corps was ready. Bobby Fischer had been in jail in Japan for almost eight months and resembled a barbarian when he stepped off the plane. He did not greet the large welcoming committee. Soon enough he appeared at a news conference, however, looking a bit more civilized but ranting about American and Jewish conspiracies. It is unlikely that anyone in the crowd agreed with him. So why on earth would the Icelanders invite somebody like that to be a citizen of their country?
The answer is simple: Chess. It is very popular in Iceland. From ancient times there are stories of people in Iceland playing chess and in 1931, world champion Aljekin was honored with the Order of the Falcon - the nation's highest form of recognition - when he came to Iceland. Fischer was a child prodigy in chess and Icelanders have followed his development since the late fifties. He first came to Iceland in 1960, at the age of 17. He returned in 1972 to beat Boris Spassky in the fight for the world championship. Although Fischer often made demands that seemed unreasonable, he was still very popular in Iceland, as was his competitor.

Since 1972 Fischer has only played one official match, a rematch with Spassky in the former Yugoslavia. Unfortunately for him, the US was enforcing an embargo on "performing any contract in support of a commercial project in Yugoslavia, as well as from exporting services to Yugoslavia." A letter from the government to Fischer read, in part: "The purpose of this letter is to inform you that the performance of your agreement with a corporate sponsor in Yugoslavia to play chess is deemed to be in support of that sponsor's commercial activity.” To most Icelanders this seems far-fetched. At the moment no other individuals are being pursued for a similar violation of this act.

The Washington Post was critical of the Icelandic parliament for granting Fischer citizenship, publishing an editorial citing the “shame of Iceland.” The Post’s criticism focused on Fischer’s statements about the US, Israel and Jews. However, Icelanders take a different view of the issue. Helgi Ágústsson, Icelandic ambassador to the US, wrote to the editor of the Post: “While of course respecting the Post’s right to criticize the decision, the Embassy strongly disagrees with the underlying assumption that granting citizenship to Mr. Fischer somehow reflects Iceland’s support of his statements. On the contrary, Iceland is an old friend of both the US and Israel, and a country with a strong tradition of religious tolerance could not disagree more with his remarks. Humanitarian concern was at the heart of Iceland’s decision to accept Mr. Fischer’s request for citizenship. The Washington Post actually points out that Mr. Fischer can be considered the subject of pity, rather than hatred. This is the essence of his case and his circumstances.” In other words, most Icelanders feel that the greatest chess master of all time should not rot in jail simply for playing chess.

Meanwhile, Fischer seems to be adjusting well to life in Iceland. He frequently goes to an antiquarian bookstore and has been seen sipping beer at local bar. He has not played chess, but he did give a lecture on the world chess championships between Russian masters Kasparov and Karpov, which he claims were fixed. The audience did not embrace those claims, but grandmaster Jóhann Hjartarson, Iceland’s highest rated chess player said that it was interesting to meet the legend and to hear him speak about chess."

No comments:

Post a Comment