The following story is inspired by an interview I had with Iceland’s Ambassa-dor to Guyana, His Excellency Hjalmar Hannesson. Ambassa-dor Hannesson presented his letters of credence to President Bharrat Jagdeo last Monday.
For centuries, Icelanders have had a great love for chess. Their devotion to the game is steeped in an ancient tradition dating back to the Norse kings of the twelfth- century.
Today, thirteenth-century historical sagas are still the favourites of Icelandic school children. They are found in most homes and abound in references to chess. In 1561, Gories Peerse tells a story of the masters of a house who do nothing for weeks in the wintertime but have their servants wait on them while they play chess interminably.
The lonely isolation of the long, dark, frozen winter evenings has helped chess to become the Icelandic farmer and fisherman’s favourite pastime. And today, Iceland is ranked among the top ten countries of the world in registered federation players in proportion to their national population of 320,000. Nothing significant happened in Icelandic chess for years until 1958 when the country got its first grandmaster, Fridrik Olafsson. Olafsson qualified for the coveted grandmaster title when he placed sixth at the 1958 Interzonal Tournament in Potoroz, Yugoslavia. In that tournament he scored a win against Bobby Fischer, who was 15 at the time, and who also qualified for the grandmaster title, thereby becoming the youngest grandmaster ever in the history of the game up to that point.
Icelanders became inspired by Olafsson’s singular achievement and chess, inevitably, became more popular. But it was 1972 that changed Icelandic chess forever, and by extension, changed the country forever. Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland, was the city that was chosen as the locale for the world championship match between Boris Spassky and Bobby Fischer. Iceland had put up the third highest bid of US$125,000 to the governing body of world chess (FIDE) to host the match. Only Yugoslavia and Argentina had put up higher bids. After much negotiation and a frenzied inspection of credible venues, both players agreed to play in Iceland.
The match, before its start, was already being billed as the ‘Match of the Century.’ For a decade, even longer, Fischer, like another American original, Muhammad Ali, had boasted that he was the “greatest.” The entire chess world was eager to see if he could prove his claims, especially against such a formidable player as Spassky, the world champion and certainly himself one of the greatest by anyone’s standards.
Here is the full article.
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