American Investor Pays ISK 27 Million for Replica Chessboard

fischer spassky iceland 1972

American investor and chess player Noah Siegel paid some ISK 27 million [$195,000; €181,000] for a chessboard he believed to be the original used at the historic 1972 Reykjavík match between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky. According to Vísir, the latest information indicates that the board was instead a replica of the original.

In light of the revelation, Mr. Siegel has sought legal action against the seller, Páll G. Jónsson. In a judgement given by the Reykjavík District Court earlier this month, however, it was decided that Páll had the right to sell the board and that Mr. Siegel could not prove beyond doubt that the seller had knowingly acted in bad faith.

Mr. Siegel and his legal representative in Iceland, Sveinbjörn Claessen, have indicated their intention to appeal the matter.

“He does not have the actual board used in the match in his possession, and its value was based on the assumption that it was the original board used in the match. This is one of the replicas. A reproduction can never be as valuable. It is inherent to the nature of the item,” stated Sveinbjörn to Vísir.

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The misunderstanding seems to arise from the fact that three separate chessboards were constructed for the historic chess match, which is popularly considered the “beginning of the end of the Cold War.”

The three chessboards were constructed based on designs by one Gunnar Magnússon, along with side tables, and a stone board that is now in the possession of the National Museum of Iceland. One of the wooden boards was used in the World Chess Championship, but the other two which were not used were signed by the chess masters.

Tried to sell the chessboards

Further light was shed on the matter in a 2012 Morgunblaðið article, in which Páll recounted the story of the chessboards. There, Páll stated that “in 1974, the Icelandic Chess Federation decided to have two replica versions of the original board made in consultation with Gunnar, exactly the same in every respect and made of the same wood.”

Páll explains that it resulted in him acquiring both boards in 1976, and they have been in his possession since then. They were used for exhibitions and lent for the Horts vs. Spassky match in 1977. According to Páll, he attempted to sell the chessboards and sent one of them for auction to Bruun Rasmussen, an auction house in Copenhagen, in the spring of 2012. However, according to Páll’s assessment, a satisfactory price was not achieved.

Real chessboard at the Fischer Center

Several witnesses testified before the court to determine the chessboard’s authenticity, comparing the image of the board at the Fischer Center with original photographs. Expert carpenters were even called upon to analyse the wood grain.

However, no further witnesses are needed, or so believes Gunnar Björnsson, the current president of the Icelandic Chess Federation, who closely followed the progress of the case and its conclusion.

“The actual board is now at the Fischer Center in Selfoss,” he stated to Vísir. “It is in our possession.”

Gunnar also stated that it was a very interesting case, but that he does not want to express his opinion on the outcome. He did, however, state that the replica must have some value.

From the Archives: The 1972 World Chess Championship in Iceland

fischer spassky iceland 1972

On July 11, 1972, Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky met in Reykjavík for the 1972 World Chess Championship. The match, lasting 6 weeks, took place in Laugardalshöll and was one of the first major chess tournaments to be televised.

It was much more than just a chess match, however. Fischer’s victory over Spassky ended a decades-long monopoly the Soviet Union held over the international chess scene. At a time when the tensions of the Cold War seemed to be lessening, the match represented a reescalation of East v. West chess diplomacy. Fischer was especially notorious for his flamboyant character and personal excesses, even at one point refusing to play because the prize money wasn’t enough. Where the Soviet chess school emphasized their dominance as a victory of their system, Fischer represented Western greed and egotism, but also genius and creativity.

During its close to 60 years of publishing history, Iceland Review has covered major milestones in Icelandic history. Here, we revisit our original coverage of this historic match, written by Gísli Sigurðsson that thrust Iceland onto the world stage. 

“Now began the intermezzo, the real war of nerves. Bobby Fischer failed to arrive in Iceland, and the days slipped by. He had been seen in New York, and it became known that Kissinger himself, Nixon’s righthand man, had been called in to induce Bobby to come to Iceland for the good of the country.”

fischer spassky iceland 1972
The match took place in Laugardalshöll

“Fischer was like a man who does not dare to take the plunge. So somebody had to give him a push. A wealthy chess fan in Britain quite unexpectedly stepped into the breach. He offered to double the prize money, and Fischer could himself decide whether the victor was to receive all of it or to share it. ‘A magnanimous gesture,’ said Fischer, adding that now he had no option but to go to Iceland.”

fischer spassky iceland 1972
Spassky mounts his attack

“When the challenger failed to appear in the afternoon, a press conference was held. Dr. Max Euwe, President of the International Chess Federation, was very depressed. ‘I have two alternatives’, he said, ‘One is to cancel this match here and now. The other is to postpone it for two days’. Dr. Euwe chose the second alternative, to a great extent out of sympathy for the Icelandic Chess Federation, which had been put to much expense and trouble. The atmosphere was dismal; people were convinced that the whole thing was off.”

fischer spassky iceland 1972
Arranging the match proved quite dramatic

“But Fischer arrived at the eleventh hour, or maybe a little later. He hurried out of the plane into the car, rather like a hijacker expecting a hail of police bullets. The war of nerves was at its height, and Fischer seemed to be a bundle of nerves. He had come to fulfil an old promise — to beat the Russians. Now they had the next move: No match unless Fischer makes a formal apology. Much to everyone’s surprise this was soon forthcoming: ‘Dear Boris. Please accept my heartfelt apologies for my indecent behaviour by not attending the inaugural ceremony.'”

fischer spassky iceland 1972
Fischer deep in thought

“The air was full of tension in the hall on Tuesday, 11th July. The world champion appeared exactly on the minute and played his first move. The clock ran for seven minutes. Then at last Fischer stalked onto the stage. People relaxed. And immediately in this game the challenger’s aggressiveness was revealed; people expected a very complicated position to develop with such chessmasters. But Fischer took all the pieces it was possible to take. However, in the 29th move he bit off more than he could chew. This was Fischer’s most serious slip in the whole match. That move cost him the first game.”

fischer spassky iceland 1972
Spassky preparing his attack

“The world champion maintained his dignity and sat down punctually to the second game. Time passed, and people became restless. The challenger did not appear. Then it became known that he did not intend to do so, and Fridrik Olafsson, Icelandic Grandmaster, tried to save the situation by talking to him in his hotel room, but he was not to be moved. People once more became pessimistic. The match appeared to have reached an impasse, and Fischer had even booked a flight back to America. The arbiters awarded a win to Boris Spassky in the second game.”

fischer spassky iceland 1972
The opponents shake hands

“The difference in the behaviour of the contestants was obvious. Spassky brought to mind an Olympian champion athlete when he walked in; he sat perfectly straight in his seat, always calm, looking relaxed, and he considered the situation from a certain distance. Fischer, on the other hand, shambled onto the stage in great strides; his gait was uneven, and his clothes always seemed to be crumpled.”

fischer spassky iceland 1972
Fischer out on the town after the match

“But the dramatic moment when the world champion laid down his King for the last time never arrived. Instead, Boris Spassky telephoned to the arbiter. He seemed to be very tired. He would surrender the 21 st game, he said.”

fischer spassky iceland 1972
Fischer and Spassky review the match

“Robert James Fischer received this news quietly. While the audience applauded as never before, he signed something for the arbiter, then strode out into the rain where his bodyguard was awaiting the new world champion who had finally beaten the Russians. It was a smiling Bobby Fischer who took a dip in one of Reykjavik’s swimming pools that night with the World Press on his heels. ‘Iceland is a great country, I like it here.'”

Icelandic Chess Championship Featured on London Stage

Spassky vs. Fischer

Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky are the main characters of a new London play that tells the story of their World Chess Championship match, held in Iceland in 1972. Occuring at the height of the Cold War, the match became known as the Match of the Century when the American Fischer broke the Soviet’s 24-year winning streak. Vísir reported first.

The play Ravens: Spassky vs. Fischer, written by Tom Morton-Smith, premiered at London’s Hampstead Theatre at the end of November. The character of Spassky is played by Roman Raftery, while Fischer is played by Robert Emms, whom readers may recognise from films such as Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2018) and War Horse (2011).

Two Icelandic characters, based on real people, are also written into the play. The first is Guðmundur G. Þórarinsson, president of the Icelandic Chess Federation at the time the match took place. Guðmundur is played by English-Icelandic actor Gunnar Cauthery. The other Icelandic character is Fischer’s former bodyguard Sæmundur Pálsson, also known as Sæmi rokk, played by Gary Shelford.

Vísir tracked down the real-life Guðmundur to ask him whether he knew about his feature in the play. “Yes, someone called me. I thought it was a joke. But I doubt that I’m an important character in it.” Guðmundur says he wasn’t invited to the play, but that it “shows how this duel inspires people endlessly. Now it’s almost been 50 years. Fischer dies in 2008. And still people are coming and television networks getting interviews about him and the duel of course.”

Bobby Fischer became a target of the US government after he participated in a match in Yugoslavia in 1992, then under a United Nations embargo. He was eventually granted Icelandic citizenship by a special act of Alþingi, and he lived out his last years in the country. The South Iceland town of Selfoss, near which he is buried, has a museum dedicated to Fischer.

Guðmundur says the Ministry of Culture is working to put up a monument to commemorate the match between Spassky and Fischer near Laugardalshöll, where it took place.