Chess icon Bobby Fischer causing a commotion in his new home in Iceland
Every Icelander I
interviewed said that this may be hard
to understand outside of Iceland. Not
everyone in Iceland understands it,
The question is, why did Iceland
grant citizenship to the volatile
- famed these days as much for his
bizarre anti-US and anti-Israel rants as
for his awesome chess prowess - a man
whom the United States would have liked
to put on trial?
By virtue of the citizenship
approval, the former chess world
champion was released from a Japanese
prison in late March and allowed to
travel to Iceland. The authorities had
nabbed Fischer because he was allegedly
travelling with a void passport.
citizenship granted by Iceland
saved Fischer from being extradited
to his native country, the United
States. He has been charged there for
violating sanctions against the former
Yugoslavia. In 1992, Fischer played an
exhibition chess match against
in Belgrade. He is also under
investigation in the U.S. for
Fischer has further infuriated his
former native country with his vocal
hostility towards Jews and Americans
alike. He praised the terrorist attacks
of September 11th and has called Jews
"thieving, lying bastards".
Fischer is known to be an
extremely difficult, even paranoid
individual, who reportedly had the
fillings in his teeth removed out of
fear of radio signals from the Soviets.
He blurts out whatever pops into his
mind, criticises those who help him, and
demands that others gratify his every
whim, by wearing the right brand of
shoes, for example.
In Iceland, Fischer stated his
hatred towards the United States and
Jews immediately at his press
conference. After that he has lived
quietly in a hotel, gone out to swim and
eat, and has avoided reporters.
did Iceland take
Of the politicians, it was
Minister of Foreign Affairs
the former Icelandic Prime Minister, who
began to campaign for Fischer. His
Illugi Gunnarsson explains that
Fischer has a special place in Icelandic
In 1972, American Fischer played
in Reykjavik against Soviet chess great
Boris Spassky for the world
championship. The game, touted as the
"Match of the Century", was also a
symbol of the power struggle between the
world's superpowers during the Cold War.
Fischer was the victor.
The entire world held its breath
watching the duel, which lasted for
several weeks over 21 games. At the same
time, unknown Iceland found its place on
the world map, and the hearts of
Icelanders swelled with pride.
Many Icelanders consider Fischer
to be a friend that the country is, in a
way, indebted to.
Gunnarsson emphasises that
Iceland did not want to interfere in the
internal affairs of Japan or the U.S.
Through the citizenship, Iceland simply
offered the Japanese the possibility to
send the detained Fischer to Iceland.
"It was a sentimental act in a
way", Illugi Gunnarsson observes.
At the outset, Iceland offered
Fischer an alien's passport and
residence permit, but that was not good
enough for Japan, so Iceland wound up
granting him citizenship.
Illugi Gunnarsson stresses that
Icelandic politicians by no means
support Fischer's hostile statements.
"In my opinion, the statements are
wrong, but in a free society people have
the right to express their opinions."
explains that one element that
influenced the decision was the love
Icelanders feel for chess. He recommends
visiting the local schools.
In the Rimaskol school, clatter
can be heard in one of the rooms as
around twenty students move around their
knights and bishops. Well-known chess
Jökulsson says that all of the
pupils in the school know how to play
chess, and some are even Nordic
The traditions regarding chess
have been disappearing among the younger
generation, but now there are plans to
include chess in the curriculum of every
Icelandic school. The revival of the
hobby has been the topic of plenty of
discussion in Iceland. This most likely
contributed to the decision on Fischer.
In the last
vote held in the Icelandic
Althing, no one opposed the
citizenship of Fischer. Many
representatives were absent, however,
and a couple chose to abstain from
That is puzzling, as a later
survey found that a slight majority of
Icelanders opposed granting Fischer
According to political researcher
Tharhallsson, the actions of the
Parliament reflect the power enjoyed by
Foreign Minister David Oddsson. The
minister is a giant in Icelandic
Icelanders believe the United
States are harassing Fischer, and they
feel it is a good thing that he was
released from his cell.
However, it is easier to find
opponents than supporters of his
citizenship from among regular
"I do not understand why he gets
to come to Iceland. Many others would
deserve citizenship much better",
new, extremely tight immigration
legislation. Citizenship is hard to come
by, and it is also difficult to spend
long periods of time in the country.
A foreigner under the age of 24 is
not allowed to stay in the country even
if he or she is married to an Icelandic
The conflict between the special
treatment Fischer has received and
Iceland's immigration policy angers many
people, as do Fischer's often vitriolic
statements. Hrönn Hjalmarsdottir feels
that he should be sued.
"Public racism is not allowed in
Iceland. A man was recently convicted of
writing racist comments about blacks.
Fischer talks about Jews in the same
way", she says.
Human rights organisations have
raised similar concerns.
Even some of
the active chess players who
eagerly saved Fischer from Japanese
custody are now irked by Fischer's
hostile statements about Americans and
Jews. "Fischer has already brought us
shame", laments Hrafn Jökulsson.
Nevertheless, he feels it is good
that Fischer was released from prison.
"Even though he has unpleasant thoughts,
it would not have been right to lock him
up forever. He was a genius - to chess
what Beethoven was to music. And after
all, he was an old friend of Iceland."
Hrafn Jökulsson hopes that Fischer
will not stay in Iceland for a long
time. "He is a very unpleasant
character. His opinions and ways of
expressing things are such that you do
not feel like meeting him."
policeman Saemundur Palsson has
spent time with Fischer daily in
Iceland. He befriended the chess grand
master during the time he spent in
Iceland for the Reykjavik game in the
He is Fischer's only lifelong
friend, and one of his extremely few
The friend reports that he has
tried to get Fischer to stop making
public statements with such bile and
animosity. "I am afraid he will not
stop. He understands it is not for his
own good, but he keeps doing it anyway",
Saemundur Palsson shakes his head.
Fischer is mentally ill. As a man
of Jewish heritage and an American, he
himself is the butt of his own hatred.
Nowadays, he even hates chess.
According to Saemundur Palsson,
besides the angry outbursts, there seems
to be nothing much wrong with Fischer.
When Fischer was jailed in Japan,
he contacted Saemundur Palsson, and it
was Saemundur who suggested that Fischer
ask the Icelandic Foreign Minister for
"I am glad that Bobby is free. I
do not believe that he could have
survived ten years in prison in the
U.S.", Saemundur Palsson says.
"And if you are not a friend in
need, you are no friend at all."