SI Vault
Roy Blount Jr.
July 10, 1972
The world championship was plunged into check when Bobby Fischer decided that a better game was hide-and-seek
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
July 10, 1972

A Sudden Stalemate In Reykjavik

The world championship was plunged into check when Bobby Fischer decided that a better game was hide-and-seek

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue

The headline in Visir, one of the bemused Icelandic tabloids, proclaimed HVENAER KEMUR HINN DULARFULLI FISCHER? (When Cometh the Mysterious Fischer?). It was the local media's way of trying to cope, in a language that has taken a few strange things in its stride since the days of Eric the Red, with the engima of Robert James Fischer, the unforthcoming American chess genius.

But even an uncorrupted and highly adaptive tongue like Icelandic is not up to the lunatic moves of this world's chess championship. While Boris Spassky came from Russia early and affable, the challenger kept failing to make his plane and sending cryptic word that he was not satisfied with this arrangement or that percentage. Each arriving flight at Iceland's Keflavik International Airport last week was met by the international press corps, which, Fischerless, could only spend its time trading rumors like bubble gum cards.

These included some substantial flights of fancy: Fischer was arriving by Air Force jet, by private jet, by Navy submarine and rubber dinghy. About the only conveyance not mentioned was his own hot-air balloon. It turned out by Sunday to be none of the above, and while press and chess pined in Reykjavik, the eccentric U.S. champion bounced in and out of New York's Kennedy Airport, reporters and photographers in close pursuit. "They are preventing me from catching my flight," he complained at one point, before fleeing to the Queens, N.Y. home of a friend.

One possible explanation for Fischer's curious behavior—apart from the obvious ones of gamesmanship and profit—is a reported fear of physical harm. Last winter, after the victory over Tigran Petrosian that put him into the championship, Fischer told a friend that the Russians had been trying to get at him psychologically for years. He added that while there had been no physical threat, "there might be now." It was an improbable conclusion, absurd even, but strange are the ways of genius. One thing was certain, Fischer had been staying out of sight for weeks.

Also out of Iceland. As of late last Sunday, when play was to begin, Iceland had no snakes, no frogs, no slums, no trains, no armed forces, no illiteracy, almost no trees, no pollution and no Bobby. Fischer—who says that in his own mind he is world champion already—was adamant that he would not play unless his demands for more money, a new referee and various other concessions to his imperious sensibilities were met. The Icelandic Chess Federation was hard put to negotiate those points because no one there could claim, or figure out how, to speak for Fischer.

The patient Spassky, let down after training to a fine edge, agreed on Sunday to a two-day postponement requested at the last minute by Fischer, although the Russian could have claimed the first game by forfeit. But if Fischer continued to emulate Howard Hughes longer than that, he would presumably lose his chance for the world title.

A sudden arrival by Fischer would be apt for Iceland, for the country's history is full of uncommon visitations—pumice clouds, ashfalls, elves (as popular in Iceland as UFO sightings used to be in America) and brand-new volcanic islands arising in flames from the sea. Occasionally a volcano goes off under a glacier, causing a flood of ice water that sweeps whole farms, inhabitants and livestock into the sea.

Yet it may be that nothing has hit Iceland quite so hard as the nonarrival of "Problem Child" Fischer, as one paper called him. Reykjavik seemed from the outset to be an odd place for what might well be the greatest chess match of all time. But Icelanders are avid chess enthusiasts, especially in the winter months when there is little daylight. And even Fischer has conceded that in the summer, when the temperatures stay in the 40s and 50s, Iceland is "a nice place to visit." The country offers good meals of fresh fish and lamb, strange and beautiful terrain to drive or backpack or fish in, swimming pools warmed naturally by hot springs, and every Saturday in Reykjavik a time-honored tradition of whoopee.

On these occasions, great numbers of people eat, dance, fight, get drunk and pair off ebulliently in places like the Hotel Saga, where one American was approached out of the blue by a strange, attractive woman who asked him, "What are your intentions?" That seemed to relegate to second place Iceland's big question of last Saturday night: "What are Fischer's intentions?"

Fischer's strong preference for the match site had been Belgrade, which offered the highest purse, $152,000. The Russians preferred Reykjavik, supposedly because the climate suited Spassky. Fischer claimed that the Russians wanted to find as isolated a place as possible for what Fischer foresaw as Spassky's certain defeat. Reykjavik offered a purse of $125,000, a figure that measures Iceland's interest in chess, for it comes to about half a dollar a head for the whole population. Nor could Fischer sniff at it, since the purse is rather larger than the previous recent top chess prize—$12,000 put up in Buenos Aires last October for the Fischer-Petrosian match. Indeed, Fischer was not sniffing at the total, of which the winner gets five-eighths, but for several months he has been nosing out ways to augment it.

Continue Story
1 2