Return To Reykjavik

by E. "Doc" Smith on March 28, 2005

Bobby Fischer Arrives in Iceland
They are scenes like we have never seen before, certainly not in the chess world. Bobby Fischer arrived in Iceland to a hero’s welcome from a midnight crowd at Reykjavik Airport. Looking harrowed and gaunt after almost nine months in Japanese detention he took time to speak to TV journalists.

Fischer’s plane landed in Iceland Friday night, and in spite of the rain, a very large crowd had gathered, and had been there for many hours, since the arrival was delayed by fog in Denmark. Icelandic TV Channel 2 Visir even covered the arrival live on national television.

Fischer’s hair and beard were neatly trimmed, but his opinions were still bristling. On his first full day of freedom after nine months’ detention in Japan, Fischer said he was happy to be in Iceland and denounced the United States as “evil,” and in a rambling news conference, he sparred with U.S. journalists who asked about his anti-American tirades.

“They talk about the axis of evil. What about the allies of evil . . . the United States, England, Japan, Australia? These are the evildoers,” Fischer said. He thanked his “wonderful friends” in Iceland, which granted him citizenship after he was held in Japan on a U.S. extradition warrant.

But he also said Iceland’s enthusiasm for chess was misplaced, because the game is “utterly corrupt . . . and has been for many years.” Declaring that he was “finished” with chess, Fischer added: “I don’t play the old chess. But obviously if I did, I would be the best.”

Fischer was freed early Thursday after nine months’ detention for trying to leave Japan using an invalid U.S. passport. Japan agreed to release him after he accepted Iceland’s offer of citizenship.

His fiancee, Miyoko Watai, the head of Japan’s chess association, accompanied him to Iceland. During his long flight from Tokyo to Copenhagen and then by chartered jet from a small airport in southern Sweden, Fischer railed against the governments of Japan and the United States, calling Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi “mentally ill” and a “stooge” of U.S. President George W. Bush.

“This was a kidnapping because the charges that the Japanese charged me with are totally nonsense,” he told Associated Press Television News on the flight. An American chess champion at 14 and a grand master at 15, the enigmatic Fischer has long had a reputation for volatility, and a troubled relationship with the United States.

On Friday, he again declared himself an unrepentant enemy of the “hypocritical and corrupt” United States, which he claims organized his “judicial kidnapping.” “They decided Fischer had to go to prison. He had to be destroyed . . . they decided to cook up whatever charges they cooked up,” he told reporters.

Fischer, now age 62, was wanted by the United States for violating sanctions imposed on the former Yugoslavia by playing an exhibition match against the Soviet Union’s Boris Spassky there in 1992. He had fought deportation since he was detained by Japanese officials last July, and at one point had said he wanted to become a German citizen. After a nine-month tussle between Fischer and Japanese authorities, Iceland’s Parliament stepped in this week to break the standoff by giving Fischer citizenship.

Fischer’s popularity in Iceland, a country with one of the highest numbers of chess players per capita in the world, is mainly due to that fact that it was the site of his most famous match, the1972 world championship victory over Spassky that was the highlight of his career and a world-gripping symbol of Cold War rivalry.

“Even though I don’t know him personally, I have the feeling of knowing him through his biography of chess, his games,” said Magnus Skulason, an Icelandic psychiatrist and chess enthusiast who came to the airport to greet Fischer. “It was hard to think of him going to jail for many years.”

A country of fewer than 300,000 people, Iceland is a staunch U.S. ally, but there is a strong undercurrent of public anger at the government’s support for the U.S.-led Iraq war, which was opposed by four fifths of Icelanders.

Iceland’s ambassador to Japan, Thordur Oskarsson, said Washington sent a “message of disappointment” to the Icelandic government over its decision to grant Fischer a passport. The United States has an extradition treaty with Iceland, and could still try to have Fischer deported.

If convicted of violating U.S. sanctions imposed to punish then-president Slobodan Milosevic, Fischer could face 10 years in prison and a $250,000 US fine. His Icelandic supporters vow that won’t happen. “I think he is safe now,” said Thorstein Matthiasson, 39. “We have more courage than the Japanese.”

No one expects the tragic Fischer to remain quiet in Iceland, and he might even wear out his welcome there. If he does, the U.S. may yet succeed in trying to extradite him.

E. “Doc” Smith is a former Rhode Island Amateur Champion, and has won divisional titles in the U.S. Amateur Team Championships for Brown University as well as the Rhode Island Chess League Championships.

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