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Monday, August 31, 2015

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Glaciers, geysers and a genius’s grave

Tags: Travel
Ron Csillag at the grave of arguably the greatest chess player ever.

REYKJAVIK — Iceland deserves an award for truth in advertising. As its tourism industry avers, this is the only place on Earth where you can see glaciers, volcanoes and geysers on the same afternoon.

I threw in an added, if somewhat morbid attraction: Bobby Fischer’s grave.

Arguably the great chess player ever, Fischer put this Nordic nation on the map in 1972 when he, the fresh-faced American upstart, defeated the world champion, the icy, robotic Soviet, Boris Spassky.

It was billed as the Match of the Century and a decisive Cold War battle between two superpowers. The match attracted more attention than any chess event in history. Chess would never be the same.

Marking the 40th anniversary of the contest is an exhibit at the National Museum of Iceland that consists of the table, board and chairs used by the combatants, their scorecards, the actual chess pieces and other memorabilia.

In this chess-mad country, Fischer is still a hero, though a tragic one. He fell out of public view after the 1972 match, forfeited his title three years later for failing to defend it, and surfaced in 1992 when he played Spassky again in a 20th anniversary “re-match,” a rather sad affair between two aging champions (but which Fischer won).

Trouble was, the match took place in the former Yugoslavia, which was then under a United Nations embargo that Fischer violated. The United States was also chasing him for back taxes, and Fischer became a fugitive. He bounced from Hungary to the Philippines and Japan before Iceland granted him full citizenship and took him in.

Mangy-looking and bloated, Fischer was a mess. He saw conspiracies everywhere. The CIA was out to get him, he whispered. The U.S., he announced, fully deserved 9/11.

And centrally, the Jewish-born Fischer became a vituperative antisemite. He believed Jews were behind every ill in history. They were villainous “snakes.” Tolerant Icelanders lowered their eyes.

He refused treatment and spent his last days mostly alone at a favoured Reykjavik cafe or strolling in the rugged countryside. Fischer died in the capital in early 2008.

His funeral was described by a British newspaper as “a guerrilla burial.” It took place at the small churchyard cemetery about 60 kilometers southeast of Reykjavik, in the dead of night, attended by five people and performed by a Roman Catholic priest.

And Fischer wasn’t done: In 2010, his remains were exhumed to determine whether he was the father of a nine-year-old Filipino girl (he wasn’t).

I relate all this to our guide, the strapping Asgeir Asgeirsson, who smiles and nods, remembering it well. When I rue that Fischer’s grave is inconveniently located, Asgeir replies, “not really. Everything in Iceland is close. Do you want to see it?”

Within minutes, we are in the town of Selfoss, where Asgeirsson veers off the road and, guessing, turns into the parking lot of Laugardaeir Lutheran Church. He walks to the very first tombstone he sees, and there it is: “Robert James Fischer,” adorned with a cross.

My emotions are conflicted. What a miserable Jew-hater but a genius who made me appreciate chess so much.

Not to give everything else in Iceland short shrift, but there’s lots to do here and you can do most of it in a week. Must-sees include the Golden Circle, which encompasses the roaring Gullfoss waterfall; the Strokkur geyser, which erupts every few minutes; and the pristine Thingvellir National Park, where Vikings established the world’s first democratic parliament in 930 CE.

The famous Blue Lagoon, a sparkling salt-water spa the size of a small lake, handles crowds well. Be sure to smear on the mud, which is snow-white.

The Thorsmork Glacier Valley, which can be seen only via 4x4 Jeep, will have you believe you’re on the surface of the moon. And Iceland’s newest attraction is the “Inside the Volcano” tour, which lowers tourists on a scaffold into the dormant chamber of Thrihnukagigur, a volcanic peak just outside Reykjavik. It’s been 4,000 years since it blew its top but evidence of the once-fiery abyss surrounds you with vivid colours.

But back to Fischer: The eyes of chess nerds and purists glaze over when they relate his age at death. He was 64 — the number of squares on a chess board.

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