February 24, 2020

Searching for Bobby Fischer — Again

Bobby Fischer, left, playing Tigran Vartanovich Petrosian at the 1971 chess championship. Photob by Keystone/Getty Images

I went to the tiny town of Laugarvatn in southern Iceland to spend a month at an artists’ colony to write a novel. Little did I know I was about to become re-obsessed with Bobby Fischer.

I initially became obsessed with Bobby Fischer in the early 1970s, when he dominated the chess world like George Balanchine dominated dance and Babe Ruth dominated baseball. Fischer became the world champion when he won the most famous chess match in history, in Reykjavik, Iceland, in 1972. He was one of the most brilliant human beings of the 20th century. His chess games were “Mona Lisas.”

I became re-obsessed with Fischer in the early 2000s, when his anti-Semitism reached virulent new heights — “Jews are a filthy, dirty, disgusting, vile, criminal people,” he said in one interview. His anti-Americanism led him to proclaim the 9/11 attacks were “wonderful news. It’s time to finish off the U.S. once and for all.” How had this man, this genius, turned into such an evil idiot? How had this American, born to a Jewish woman, developed such self-loathing? Seeing him speak back then, I wanted to shake him. “You’re Jewish, for God’s sake. Pull yourself together,” I wanted to yell.

But eventually, because no better explanation for his behavior was ever forthcoming, I just said to myself, “he’s crazy” and forgot about him. He went into hiding in Asia for a few years because he’d broken a United Nations embargo against Yugoslavia. The law caught up with him. Pictures surfaced of Fischer in a Japanese jail, with a scummy beard and an old gray ball cap. Underneath it, you could see those brilliant eyes, but something was wrong with them. They were unfocused and way too intense.

He was crazy.

He had renounced his American citizenship, so he was without any place to go. Seven elderly men from Reykjavik, who had met Fischer in 1972, petitioned the Icelandic Parliament to declare him a citizen of Iceland and give him a home. The parliament agreed. Fischer flew to Iceland and spent the last three years of his life there, before dying in 2008.

“I became re-obsessed with Fischer in the early 2000s, when his anti-Semitism reached virulent new heights.”

I had forgotten this last portion of Fischer’s life, then I arrived in Laugarvatn and learned Bobby Fischer was buried only about 25 miles away, in the small town of Selfoss. There is a museum dedicated to his memory: the Bobby Fischer Center, open from 1 to 4 p.m. every day.

And that’s when I became re-obsessed. The great Bobby Fischer, the horrible Bobby Fischer, buried in a tiny town in Iceland? How could this be?

What did Icelanders think of him? How did they feel about his anti-Semitism? Were they anti-Semitic, on this quiet little island that when I was there, was as close to paradise as any place I’ve ever been?

I don’t have to tell you anti-Semitism is back in fashion today in the United States and Europe. For me, as a Jew, this is not a huge surprise. I’ve never felt totally safe in the United States. Yeah, we’ve had a good 250- year run, but I know my history. Every country we’ve ever been in, we eventually got kicked out.

All my life, I’ve kind of kept my eyes open for possible escape hatches, if it comes to that: Israel, Ireland, New Zealand, Iceland.

But now, was Iceland going to be out of the question? So I went in search of, not so much Bobby Fischer, as what Icelanders thought about Bobby Fischer. I began with Katla, the pixyish blond artist who ran our artists’ colony. “Katla,” I said, “I noticed Bobby Fischer is buried near here.”

“Yes,” she said, as she kneaded a loaf of rye bread she was making for us starving artists. “Isn’t that great?”

“He was a great chess player,” I said, “but he was kind of crazy, too.”

“Crazy? How do you mean?”

“Well, he had some pretty out-there views.”

“Out there?”

I decided not to mince words. “He was very anti-Semitic.”

English isn’t Katla’s first language. “Anti-Semitic? You mean like, anti-Jew?”

“Yes, he was very anti-Jewish.”

“Oh, I don’t know about that.”

She didn’t know? Did Icelandic people not care enough about his anti-Semitism to talk about it?

Later, I asked Katla’s husband, Einar, about Fischer. Einar, it turned out, knew of Fischer’s anti-Semitism. He said, “Yes, Fischer was very, shall we say, eccentric? In Iceland, we tend to be very, what’s the expression? ‘Live and let live.’ ”

“Huh,” I said. Eccentric? The man was a monster. Maybe you could say he was more mentally ill than monstrous, but he believed “these goddamn Jews have to be stopped. They’re a menace to the whole world.”

“I don’t know,” I said. “To me, being anti-Semitic or racist or whatever is worse than just being eccentric.”

“You have to understand,” Einar said. “When Fischer came to Iceland and insisted that we have the world championship here, this put Iceland on the map.”

The next night, Einar and Katla invited a woman named Hekla to their place. Hekla is a published fiction writer and a former candidate for president of Iceland. That’s not quite as impressive as it sounds; Iceland is full of people who are former candidates for president, and she got only about 1.5% of the vote. But still, I thought Hekla could give me the worldly Icelandic view of Bobby Fischer.

“Sure. Bobby Fischer,” she said. Her face brightened. “My uncle owns a bookstore in Reykjavik. Bobby Fischer used to hang out there all the time.”

“Really,” I said. “What was he like?”

“Oh, you know. He just used to hang out there. A lot of people would hang out there. It’s that kind of place.”

“Did he seem, you know, crazy?”

Hekla looked at me, puzzled. We were standing in the kitchen before dinner. “Crazy? No. My uncle said he was a nice guy. Why do you say crazy?”

Did she really not know what I was talking about? “Well, he had some pretty extreme views.”

“Oh yes, he was very anti-American.”

“And anti-Semitic. He was terrible that way.”

“Well, you know, people have a right to believe what they believe.”

At this point, Katla saw that the conversation was about to go off the rails. She swooped in and noisily offered everyone wine. Later, over dinner, Hekla described some of her experiences as a child traveling in the Middle East. It became clear that she was not anti-Semitic. But if I knew somebody was a virulent racist, would I say, “Hey, he has the right to believe what he believes?” I guess that’s technically true, but this way of thinking kills people.

I’m scared that during the next 20 or 30 years, many Jews may die in Europe because of anti-Semitism. Not that we Jews are the only ones at risk because of ethnic hatred. We have plenty of company.

“He had renounced his American citizenship, so he was without any place to go. … Fischer flew to Iceland and spent the last three years of his life there, before dying in 2008.”

I finally hustled up a car ride to Selfoss to visit the Bobby Fischer Center. It was on the second floor of a building on the main street. It cost 1,000 Icelandic krona to get in. That’s about $8.

The museum was quite moving. There were pictures of Fischer at his handsomest, most alive, with alert flashing eyes; pictures of him 40 years later in that funky beard and ball cap, looking drugged. There were books and videos of his most famous chess masterpieces. There also were displays of Iceland in the early 1970s, with videos of joyful natives greeting Fischer and descriptions of how much the world championship match had meant to them. The match took place less than three decades after Iceland finally gained independence from Denmark, and it was the country’s national coming-out party. Icelanders were forever grateful to Fischer for insisting the match be held in Iceland.

Much to my relief, the museum acknowledged Fischer’s anti-Semitism. It was conveyed with great sadness on at least three plaques. The Icelanders in charge of this museum were very aware his views weren’t just eccentric or crazy; they were evil. The museum made no lame apologies on Fischer’s behalf.

But, as Einar might have said, “They still love? Admire? Respect? They have great interest in Bobby Fischer.”  I can relate; I have great interest in him, too. And you could say, who am I to judge? I’ve admired the writings of people who held slaves and seen movies directed by people who were probably rapists.

After I left the museum, I walked the mile and a half to Fischer’s grave. He’s buried in the front yard of a small, white, wooden church on the outskirts of town. His tombstone just gives his name, date of birth and date of death. It’s small, no bigger than any of the 15 or 20 other tombstones. There were no flowers. Just Bobby Fischer’s grave.

I went searching for Bobby Fischer, and I guess I found him.

I do have one more thing to say. I had a great time in that tiny Icelandic town. Katla was a generous host, and Einar drove us to nearby waterfalls and ice cream restaurants. Baldur, at the diner down the road, gave us free Icelandic skyr cake and hung out with us. The phlegmatic teenage lifeguard at the municipal swimming pool, after he got to know me, actually smiled when he saw me coming — and Icelanders, though friendly, are not known for smiling. 

We had a lot of good communal meals at the artists’ colony. The lesbian poet from Tennessee; the Indian from Australia who wrote “weird fiction,” as he called it; the British visual artist who painted a chair blue and took photographs of himself carrying it all over Iceland; the Native American memoirist who was writing about his father; and the Jewish crime writer from Los Angeles (that’s me) all cooked up a storm and had a great time together. We  had hilarious debates long into the night about whether the blue chair was Brit or Hindu or Jewish, eventually deciding it was all three.

I guess what I’m saying is there’s a lot of love in the world, too. The corny stuff is true: We’re all pretty much the same and, person to person, we’re usually nice to one another.

So who knows? Maybe this current wave of hatred in Europe and the United States will subside.

If not, let’s vote for New Zealand.

Matt Witten is a TV writer, screenwriter and novelist who has written for “Pretty Little Liars,” “House” and “Law & Order.” He also wrote the Jacob Burns mystery series, published by Signet.