World chess champion bobby fischer: the long descent of a legend

Bobby Fischer spent the last years of his life as a broken man in Iceland. Now, for the first time, the priest who gave him his final blessing is speaking out.

August 1, 1972: Bobby Fischer (right) during his historic World Championship victory against Boris Spasski Photo: ap

The end, the snow, the night that will not pass. It has snowed mightily, almost a meter high. A small excavator has laboriously dug a grave, just to the left of the entrance to the village church of Laugardælir. It lies next to a homestead near the small town of Selfoss in the south of Iceland. Almost in the middle of nowhere.

Now a handful of mourners step in front of the pit. Under the light of the excavator’s headlights, a simple wooden coffin is lowered into the earth. It is quiet and still pitch dark. Dawn can only be glimpsed here, high in the north, in mid-January, even now, around ten in the morning. Jakob Rolland, a Catholic priest, makes the sign of the cross over the grave, pronounces the blessing – the last service of love that the church can render to a person. The mourners look after the coffin. There is nothing more to be said. There is nothing more to be done. Then it’s off to breakfast.

Eleven years ago, on January 21, 2008, a brilliant, very difficult man is thus buried in secrecy, once a master of his profession, but whose undisputed fame had long since faded, through his own fault: Bobby Fischer, from 1972 to 19th world chess champion, about whom many other grandmasters of his and later generations judge that he was the best the brutal game with the small pieces had ever seen.

But how did it come about that Fischer was buried so secretly? And why, although of Jewish origin, by a Catholic priest?

This text comes from the taz am wochenende. Always from Saturday on the newsstand, in the eKiosk or immediately in the practical weekend subscription. And on Facebook and Twitter.

Jakob Rolland is a fine gentleman of Alsatian origin in his mid-60s. He sits attentively and turned toward others in a small meeting room of the administrative headquarters of the diocese of ReykjavIk, to which the entire island belongs, in an unadorned low-rise building that looks a bit like an elementary school home from the 1960s.

Father ("Sera") Jakob has never said more than two sentences about Bobby Fischer’s funeral – although shortly after his secret burial, press people from all over the world pressed him. Only now, after almost eleven years, does he feel the time has come.

Ready to print, Jakob Rolland speaks German, his French accent just a touch. Decades ago, he came to Iceland to serve as a chaplain to the tiny Catholic minority on the island in the North Atlantic. On that dark January morning eleven years ago, he was caring for a special soul, that of a champion who had actually long been finished, a tragic figure, only a shadow of his former self.

Merciless player

Bobby Fischer, who would have turned 76 this year, is a greatness in chess for about two decades, from the mid-1950s. First marveled at in his native United States as a prodigy of the game, then feared worldwide as a usually aggressive, mercilessly attacking master. "I like the moment when I break a man’s ego," he said at the time.

In the early 1970s, Fischer succeeded in breaking the decades-long dominance of the Russian-Soviet world chess champions. For many, the lanky American became a symbolic figure for the alleged superiority of the West in the Cold War. Even today, books and films are published about Fischer. Norwegian reigning world champion Magnus Carlsen, who also has a past as a chess prodigy, said three years ago that Fischer would be a dream opponent. He is a legend in his own lifetime and an innovator of the age-old game.

And Iceland was the site of his greatest triumph. Starting July 11, 1972, in a sports hall in ReykjavIk, the then 35-year-old reigning world chess champion Boris Spasski of the Soviet Union and Bobby Fischer, 29, will play for the world title. There are 21 games in just under two months – a spectacle that attracts worldwide attention, also thanks to the sometimes bizarre quirks of the two players.

Even after the first game, Fischer refuses to continue playing until all the cameras have been removed: they were whirring too loudly. The third game, Fischer ultimatively demands, is played in a side room without spectators. The audience in the hall only gets to see a TV broadcast. For the fourth game, Spassky and Fischer return to the hall, even though Fischer complains that the chessboard reflects too much light. Spassky, for his part, complains about an alleged auxiliary device used by the other side to interfere with his brain waves.

Anti-Semitic conspiracy fantasies

The match is often referred to by experts as the "match of the century" and ends with an impressive 12.5:8.5 victory for Fischer. It will remain his only world title. Both playfully and mentally, he goes downhill afterwards. He retires from tournament chess and automatically loses his title to Anatoly Karpov in 1975.

Fischer only plays one more match, in 1992, again against Spassky. It takes place in Yugoslavia – and is considered a violation of the economic embargo imposed by the USA on the fracturing Balkan state because of the Bosnian War. Because Fischer therefore faces a prison sentence of up to ten years and a fine of 250,000 dollars, he never enters the USA again.

Fischer now wanders around the world, homeless. More and more frequently, he criticizes his home country harshly – until his lowest point on the day of the September 11, 2001 attacks. In an interview with a Philippine radio station, he describes the targeted massacre, in which almost 3,000 people died, as wonderful: it was about time that the shitty USA got a kick in the face, he would like to see the USA wiped out.

Fischer’s hostility toward Jews develops in a similarly insane and hurtful way. It becomes a mania, a constant in his thinking, along with the usual conspiracy theories, and this despite the fact that he has a Jewish mother, which he tries to keep quiet about. In September 2000, he publicly declares that "the Jews" totally control the U.S., that the U.S. government is a facade: "It’s just a puppet in the hands of Jews, a toy of the Jews." A year earlier, Fischer had already denied the Holocaust.

Nine-month imprisonment in Japan

Since 2000 Fischer has been living in Japan with his girlfriend Miyoko Watai – also a chess master and to this day a high official in the Japanese Chess Federation. He travels briefly every three months, for example to Manila, in order to obtain a new tourist visa on re-entry to Japan.

Until July 13, 2004, when a Japanese official at Tokyo International Airport, at the urging of the U.S. State Department in the background, gives Fischer’s American passport an "invalid" stamp. Fischer is still wanted on an arrest warrant, not only for undermining sanctions against Yugoslavia, but apparently also for large tax debts: He publicly boasts that he has not paid taxes for years.

A nine-month imprisonment in Japan follows, before the Icelandic government offers him citizenship as a "humanitarian gesture". He accepts and settles in ReykjavIk in 2005 with Miyoko Watai – whom he had married in prison. But even then, Fischer is a broken and sick man. Even friends of his come to the conclusion that he suffers from paranoia. People he avoids. "Bobby Fischer walked in front of himself without greeting people – and then he went to a bookstore, a used bookstore, and read comics, Donald Duck and stuff," Jakob Rolland recalls. "That’s how he spent the day. So somehow there was something not quite right with him."

In this last phase of his life, Icelandic journalist, author and human rights activist Garðar Sverrisson becomes Fischer’s best friend – he trusts him completely, Fischer confesses. Garðar, an amateur chess player, had been among the people who lobbied for Fischer’s release from Japanese custody and admission to Iceland.

Painkillers rejected

Fischer goes on trips with Sverrisson and his wife, they go swimming together. "They lived on the same block, in the same house in their apartments," says Jakob Rolland, "Bobby Fischer was with him almost every day. Garðar did everything for him." Rolland is also friends with Sverrisson; the clergyman had accepted him into the Catholic Church.

In January 2008, Fischer’s health continued to deteriorate. "When he got sick, at the end he was suffering from kidney failure, he didn’t want the doctors to start dialysis and things like that on him," Jakob Rolland says. Why? For that, the priest has this explanation based on conversations with Sverrisson: "It was according to nature, in Bobby Fischer’s view. If organs no longer function, then so be it. Then you have to respect that." Fischer is also said to have refused painkillers.

At the very end, however, he is admitted to LandspItali Hospital in ReykjavIk. Here Bobby Fischer dies on January 17, 2008, at the age of 64. Garðar Sverrisson is with him. They have no idea that it will suddenly happen so quickly.

It is the middle of the day. Sverrisson calls Rolland, asks if he can come to the hospital. " ‘A friend of mine died there,’ he said. He didn’t give the name." Rolland immediately rushes to the LandspItali. "Outside the door of the room, Garðar said to me, ‘This is Bobby Fischer. Can you say some prayers for him?’ "

Prayers for the dead

Jakob Rolland is surprised, but also professional. He goes into the dead man’s room, barely recognizing Fischer. Then he performs a few prayers for the dead man.

Christian prayers for a dead man of Jewish origin? Rolland says that, according to Sverrisson, this was what Fischer had in mind. He had wanted a Catholic priest. Fischer said he told his friend Sverrisson when he converted to Catholicism, "This is the right thing to do. The Catholic Church is something you can count on."

Fischer had also wanted a Catholic funeral, Sverrisson reveals to Rolland while still in the hospital. Not a funeral in public with all the people who wanted to take him for themselves, from the Icelandic Chess Federation, from the government and so on. "That’s when he felt he was being hogged. He didn’t want that," Rolland says. "He wanted a funeral in all simplicity."

It quickly becomes clear that Sverrisson had already prepared everything: "His wife came from a farm near Selfoss, there is a small church there that her parents took care of. We could bury him there, on Monday, as early as possible, when everything is dark."

Four days later, the time has come. It snowed heavily the night before. "I thought, ‘My goodness, I might not get there in my little car!’" recalls Jakob Rolland. But the hearse, easily camouflaged because of the journalists, had already set the trail; Rolland need only follow it to the homestead and church near Selfoss.

An intimate funeral

Only four other mourners are present besides himself, Jakob Rolland recalls: Bobby Fischer’s wife Miyoko Watai, Garðar Sverrisson, the latter’s wife and their daughter together. "I couldn’t actually have a Catholic funeral in that sense. Because I didn’t know if Bobby Fischer was really a believer. I then prayed for him in general. And likewise for his relatives."

Jakob Rolland remembers his sermon only in outline. He spoke about people who significantly changed the history of mankind. "I mentioned Mozart – there were only six people at his funeral. And yet, in the world of music, there is no one greater than Mozart." And Rolland also speaks of Jesus, for here too he sees a parallel: "When Jesus died, there were only his mother and a few women, no one else accompanied him, not even his disciples. But a Roman soldier was there – who, in view of this event on Good Friday, said: ‘Truly, this man was the Son of God.’ I said, ‘This is how it is today. This man, Bobby Fischer, is now buried without the world knowing about it. But what he leaves behind also has meaning for all mankind."

Bobby Fischer’s tombstone is very plain – few tourists or chess fans stray here. The modesty of the gravesite is touching. It impresses Jakob Rolland to this day. "This was his wish. Everything that was big and bombastic was not his style at all. He wanted to live and die quietly and in harmony with nature and the Creator. ‘Creator’ – whether he said that, I don’t know, but that’s how his friend Garðar described it."

It was the last victory of the brilliant tactician. In the end, by a few tricks, the deeply fallen Bobby Fischer got what he had wanted: a quiet funeral. "As quiet as any human being," says Jakob Rolland.

Epilogue: A few years after the funeral, Bobby Fischer’s repose is disturbed. His remains are exhumed, DNA samples are taken to clarify possible paternity. It turns out that the young woman who claims to be his daughter is not his child. Since then, Bobby Fischer has been allowed to lie quietly in his grave again, in the south of Iceland.

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