Bobby Fischer Passes Away Skip to content

Bobby Fischer Passes Away

Robert James Fischer, former world champion in chess, is dead. Bobby Fischer, almost 65, was seriously ill and reportedly died of kidney failure. The chess master was born and raised in <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />New York but became an Icelandic citizen in 2005 where he lived for the remainder of his life. Bobby Fischer became World Chess Champion in Reykjavík Iceland in 1972.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />

Fischer became the US chess champion at only 14, the youngest in history. He became world champion after a victory over Spassky in 1972 following one of the most famous duels in chess. Fischer renounced the title in 1975 and played publicly only once—against Spassky in Yugoslavia—following his win.

Bobby Fischer became the world’s youngest grandmaster in chess in 1959 at the age of 15. Icelandic grandmaster Fridrik Ólafsson said that there was no doubt that Fischer was the greatest chess player who ever lived. The two both played in the final round of the world chess championship in 1959, the Candidate’s tournament. Fisher did not do so well in his first attempts to win the world championship, and claimed that the Soviets, who had dominated the game for more than 40 years, had conspired against him to make sure that he would not finish first in tournaments.

World Champion in Reykjavík 1972

In 1970 to 1972 Fischer dominated the game completely. He won a tournament in Yugoslavia for qualifying for the final eight spots to compete for the right to challenge Russian World Champion Boris Spassky. Fischer won three top chess masters on the way to fighting Boris Spassky. First he won Russian Taimanov 6-0, then Dane Bent Larsen 6-0 and finally former world champion Petrosian 6,5-2,5. This was unique in chess history since all three were among the best ten players in the world.

In 1972 Iceland offered to host the championship between Fischer and Spassky. After a very complicated and exciting row of events Fischer finally agreed to come to play. The two played in a sports hall in Reykjavík and 5.000 people came to watch every game in the best of 24 match. In the first game Fischer finally seemed to have met his match because Spassky won the game after Fischer had taken the now famous “poisoned pawn.” In the second game Fischer did not show up and lost.

It now looked as if the match was over but Fischer finally agreed to play the third game in a back room, a spacious room in the back of the hall but with no spectators allowed. Fischer won the game and after Spassky refused to play again in the back moved back to the stage in the hall. The remainder of the match was played on the stage. But Fischer had returned to his winning mood.

After 10 games Fisher had won five, Spassky only the first two and the games ended in a draw. After Fischer won the 21st game he had 12,5 points against Spassky’s 8,5. The USA had its first world champion in chess.

Most Icelanders probably sided with Fischer even though Spassky was quite popular. Fischer’s fighting spirit and superior talent impressed most young people.

The Years 1972-2005

Even though Fischer seemed to be odd and eccentric in 1972 he was still closer to being normal than sick. He did not seem to have many close friends but formed a friendship with a policeman Saemundur Pálsson, called Saemi Rock in Iceland because of his dancing talents. The two got to know each other in 1972 and kept contact until Fischer died. Fischer did not play chess again for 20 years but finally agreed to play again against Spassky in Yugoslavia in 1992. Fischer won again, now 10-5 in more than 30 games (draws did not count).

American authorities pressed charges against Fischer after he played chess with Boris Spassky in former Yugoslavia while the US was boycotting the country.

Fischer had been on Icelandic television once when he lived in Japan. Everyone who heard the interview understood that the man had serious mental problems and most of all needed help. He did not see it that way and it was not until he had been in jail for months in Japan and faced extradition to the US that he applied for asylum in Iceland. Then foreign minister Davíd Oddsson took up his cause and Althingi, Iceland’s parliament, decided unanimously to grant him Icelandic citizenship for humanitarian reasons. He came to Iceland in March 2005, looking like a hermit and ranting about the US government and Jews.

Fischer in Iceland

Fischer did not give many interviews after he come to Iceland. He claimed that regular chess was no longer interesting but recommended the game called Fischer random in which the back row of the chess pieces was arranged in a random fashion. He claimed this was the only way to keep the game interesting after computers had analyzed the regular game so that no excitement remained.

Fischer was often seen in book stores. He was usually on his own and seemed to look for books about outlaws and rebels. He was in contact with a few people; some of whom had been instrumental in insuring his release from jail. Grandmaster Helgi Ólafsson talked to Fischer regularly and said that he clearly followed chess news up to a point a least. Sometimes chess matches are televised in Iceland and on one such occasion Fischer, in a phone call with Helgi Ólafsson, pointed out a brilliant move that had escaped the attention of all Icelandic experts.

Fridrik Ólafsson, Iceland‘s first grandmaster and one of the players who knew Fischer from the very early days in 1958, kept some contact with Fischer. Ólafsson said that he had suggested that Fischer join him on a trip to Tallinn in Estonia for a chess conference but Fischer would not go, amybe out of fear that the US government would try to have him jailed again.

Boris Spassky came to Iceland in 2005 to play Fridrik Ólafsson in the occasion of the latter becoming 70 years old. At the time a meeting with Fischer was arranged and finally took place after Fischer had shown almost paranoid behavior, insisting that the meeting place be kept secret and all windows sealed and covered. The meeting itself was reportedly friendly.

Fischer was sometimes seen in bars in Reykjavík and was usually not disturbed by the other customers. He was often seen walking alone in Reykjavík, unshaven and looking like a hobo. His Japanese girlfriend visited him often and was with him over the new year’s celebrations. After that she left for Japan.

Bobby Fischer died on January 17 at the Icelandic National Hospital of kidney failure. He had not been well for the last year. According to mbl.is he had not been a believer in Western medicine and was not an easy patient to help.

His friend Saemundur remembers him fondly and says that he is proud to have been part of a teem effort to bring Fischer to Iceland. He believed Fischer had generally been happy to be in the country.

Until his dying day Bobby Fischer remained popular in Iceland. Nobody subscribed to his extreme views but people saw that he was a sick man needing help. The Icelandic people drew the line between Fischer’s mental condition and his brilliance at chess. Like his friend Saemundur said to mbl.is: “Fischer was a brilliant chess player and a good friend. In some other ways he was not so brilliant. But who is brilliant in everything?”

Benedikt Jóhannesson

Click here to read more about Bobby Fischer in Iceland.

Photo Fischer in 2005: Copyright Rax: Ragnar Axelsson

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get news from Iceland, photos, and in-depth stories delivered to your inbox every week!

* indicates required

Subscribe to Iceland Review

In-depth stories and high-quality photography showcasing life in Iceland!

Share article

Facebook
Twitter