Bobby Fischer Read Here
At the Reykjavik bookstore where the chess great spent his final, hermit-like days.
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.
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 Reykjavik-based contributing editor for The Smart Set. She is a staff writer for Iceland Review and can be reached at email@example.com.