Bobby Fischer Read Here

At the Reykjavik bookstore where the chess great spent his final, hermit-like days.

By

Better times, before the flight to Iceland.
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At his essence, Bobby Fischer was the outlaw biker of the chess world,
a lonely, extraordinarily eccentric, extremely volatile genius —
half-man, half-beast, pure will — whose moves on a chessboard and in
his everyday life were as stubborn and unpredictable as the weather
just outside the Reykjavik apartment where he spent his final three
years.

He was a legendary recluse, an enigma who both captivated, shocked, and
offended the world. Yet for all his innumerable eccentricities,
iron-fisted bull-headedness, and vitriolic assaults against Jews and
his own American government, during his last years, Bobby Fischer,
managed to find some well-deserved solace in a place one might not
expect: sitting in a wooden chair tucked in the back corner of a quiet
bookstore in downtown Reykjavik.

Bókin, or The Book, is essentially a 1950s version of New York’s Strand
Bookstore. Besides the books stacked head-high, under card tables, and
on plywood shelves, the first thing you notice about Bókin is its
smell, decayed and airless. Walking inside the 35-year-old
establishment is like entering a Parisian flea market without the
noise: overwhelming, a paralysis of the senses. But it was here,
between narrow aisles lined with thousands of fraying biographies and
history books, sitting in an ordinary chair whose varnish had worn
thin, where Bobby Fischer could be alone in his thoughts. It was here
where he could contemplate his place in history by poring through
books on outlaws and rebels from Russia, Britain, Libya, and the Soviet
Union with whom he could relate. And it was here, beneath the quiet hum
of the fluorescent lights above, where Bobby Fischer could, for at
least a few hours a day, seem to live a normal life.

“Bobby said he liked this kind of bookshop because it reminded him of
his younger New York years. The mess everywhere, the stacks of books,
the smell,” says owner Bragi Kristjónsson. “He was often sitting here
so long, reading from these shelves, that he fell asleep.”

Born Robert James Fischer on March 9, 1943, the Brooklyn-raised
high-school dropout was the youngest, the best and the smartest. He
started moving rooks at age six. By 14, he had become the U.S.
champion. At 15 he was crowned the world’s youngest grandmaster. But
Fischer’s pinnacle achievement occurred nine years later in 1972, in
Reykjavik, the city where he would eventually die, when he beat Russian
grandmaster Boris Spassky before a crowd of 5,000 to become the world
champion.

Gudmundur Thórarinsson first met Fischer in February 1972 when he was
President of the Icelandic Chess Federation. The federation was
responsible for helping to organize and publicize the match, famously
dubbed the “Match of the Century.” Back then, Iceland was known at best
for its cod and at worst for its archaic language. At the time,
Thórarinsson had doubts the match merited such an audacious title,
thought that perhaps it was a gross exaggeration of the truth. But his
concerns were overruled and “Match of the Century” it would remain.

Rightly so.

There are more than 150 books and at least 40 television shows and
documentaries about the day a chessboard made from marble and mahogany
pitted the Russian great against the young American, East versus West.
Now, 35 years later, Thórarinsson has no doubt the title was correct,
if not an understatement. “The name of the match should be the ‘Match
of all Times,’” says Thórarinsson, who would later become one of only a
handful of people who would fight for Fischer’s political asylum in
Iceland. “The surroundings of this match were so strange. Capitalism
against communism. The two superpowers competing and dividing the world
ideologically into friends and foes. Fischer brought up by a single
mother and trying to learn chess by himself versus the chess foundation
of the Soviet Union. I’m of the opinion that the world will never have
the structure or the possibility to create situations that are anything
similar to what happened there. Nothing like it will never ever be
repeated.”

Fridrik Ólafsson, Iceland’s first grandmaster champion, and Fischer
became friends in 1958, when they met at a tournament in Yugoslavia.
Ólafsson recalls a story from 1972 when Fischer had visited Iceland to
scout out the conditions before the tournament. Fischer had tried
Ólafsson at home, but the latter was away and his daughter answered the
phone instead, saying something to Fischer in Icelandic. The next time
Ólafsson and Fischer met, Fischer recited in Icelandic (without knowing
the language) exactly what his friend’s daughter had said. Though
Fischer didn’t know the words, he had remembered her words exactly.
“This was really incredible. You could see how his faculties, his
brain, worked. He had a very good memory, phenomenal. If he saw or
played a game, he remembered it instantly. And he could instantly
remember the call of the game, the essential factor that ruled the
game. He was very quick.”

After his victory in Iceland, Fischer wouldn’t play chess again until
1992. He agreed to compete against his former nemesis, Spassky, in
Yugoslavia, and won. His purse was $3.5 million, plus an arrest warrant
from the U.S. government for violating sanctions against the Balkan
nation. He literally spat on the indictment at a press conference and
would never step foot on United States soil again. From that time on,
he led a nomadic existence that eventually landed him a nine-month
stint in a Japanese prison in July 2004, where he was accused of trying
to leave Japan — home of his long-time companion Miyoko Watai — with an
invalid passport.

But soon a handful of Icelanders sympathetic to his humanitarian cause,
and still captivated by his 1972 victory, would listen to his appeal
for asylum. One of them, Magnús Skúlason, would eventually watch
Fischer die from his bedside. Iceland’s then-foreign minister, David
Oddsson, championed Fischer’s cause and Althingi, Iceland’s parliament,
voted unanimously to expedite his citizenship.

Bobby Fischer arrived in Iceland in March 2005 looking more hermit than
human. Some people mistook him for a homeless person. But soon after
his arrival he began to lumber into Bókin, sometimes burdened with
grocery bags filled with bottled water, and take his seat in the back —
secluded, just as he preferred, reading about people he believed
suffered fates similar to his. In many ways, Bókin became his
safehaven, his very own Green Zone and even, occasionally, his post
office. Fischer became so paranoid in his final years that he refused
to have his mail delivered to his apartment. Instead, it would be
delivered to his longtime friend and former bodyguard Saemunder
Pálsson. But when Pálsson was abroad, Fischer’s mail was delivered
instead to the bookstore, and owner Bragi Kristjónsson would pass it
along. Fischer didn’t have many close friends, but he was loyal to
those he did have.

The last time Fischer visited Bókin was in early October, before he
became sick. In many ways, Bókin was the deeply rooted giving tree
Fischer so desperately needed, a place where he could either fuel — or
seek shelter from — the storms brewing in his head. He remained
obstinate until his dying day, refusing Western treatment for what
would ultimately lead to kidney failure, a move he could not outsmart
with any amount of intellect or logic. Bobby Fischer may have been able
to defy his opponents but in the end, he couldn’t triumph over his own
tired body.

A few days ago, Magnús Skúlason walked into the bookshop just as
Kristjónsson was about to close up for the night and as I was about to
leave. Kristjónsson introduced the two of us, and after thumbing
through several back issues of Foreign Affairs, Skúlason invited me to
sit down with him. Though he had been an admirer of Fischer for decades
and helped secure his citizenship, Skúlason, a psychiatrist, had never
spoken with Fischer at length until the fall. Whether out of necessity
or loneliness, Fischer took to Skúlason. In a world of few absolutes,
one thing that was certain about Bobby Fischer was that he never liked
to be quizzed. He would share when he felt impelled. And when he
shared, he shared intensely and deeply. Skúlason would not have to prod; Fischer would just tell.

“I think he was terribly misunderstood,” Skulason says slowly and with
care. “I think he was an extremely sensitive and rather tender man on
the inside. He was deeply interested in all kinds of humanistic affairs
and searching for understanding. Unfortunately for him, it’s very
tragic because he was also known as this harsh, angry man.”

“I have a feeling he may have had an unhappy childhood. It’s always
easy to revise afterwards, but he might have needed better help after
he became so famous so young. He did not like his fame. His fame made
him uncomfortable.”

Bobby Fischer’s rise and ultimate fall has been well-documented in the
history books. But his death will probably mean some addendum in
coming years to those that will eventually sit on the shelves of the
very bookstore where the chess great whiled away his final years.

Skúlason was at Bobby Fischer’s bedside when he muttered his final
words and passed away: “Nothing eases suffering like human touch.” • 21 January 2008

   

Sara Blask is a freelance writer based in Hong Kong.
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