Kings, queens and knights: A saga for the ages

In Text Messages this week, the timid world championship chess match taking place in Dubai has nothing on the battle almost 50 years ago in Iceland between Boris Spassky and Bobby Fischer.

East of Greenland, north of Britain and Ireland, seemingly halfway between the Labrador coast of North America and the western shores of Norway, bobs an island in the North Atlantic. Rarely has a place been so mistakenly named for, despite its closeness to the Arctic Circle, Iceland is no land of ice. Only a little more than 10% of its land area is permanently covered by ice (although, with global warming, that figure will drop) and it has a mild climate for such a northerly location (although, with global warming, temperatures will rise).

Settled in 874 CE by Ingolf and Leif, two Norwegian chieftains fleeing the imposition of their and fellow chiefs’ effective servitude to the king of Norway, Iceland has since given much to the world for so small a place and population. Saga is an Old Norse word and the great Icelandic tales about martial conduct, religion, the law and codes of honour stem from around the 13th century CE. Around that time, the literature of Western Europe could boast of Thomas Malory’s Arthurian Romances, Chaucer’s inimitable portrait of England and the English in The Canterbury Tales and countless French, Italian and Spanish tales of war, love, loss and conquest.

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And yet it is arguable that none of those deserve pride of place in the West European literary pantheon. Rather, it is the well-heeled chieftain, political shapeshifter and supreme storyteller Snorri Sturluson who belongs in that niche. It was Snorri who infused the word saga with the meaning and connotations it has today, through his three works Edda, Heimskringla and Egil’s Saga. To those must be added Njal’s Saga (or The Story Of Burnt Njal), an account of a blood feud between two wealthy Icelandic land-owning families in the 10th century CE, which went from teller’s mouth to teller’s mouth until finally being written down in the 11th century CE.

The senses of independence, self-worth and freedom that typify the Icelandic character are to be found in these landmark works, narratives of elemental natures, records of the legal and civil practices of the early Icelanders, and documentations of their religious beliefs and customs. It was this self-confidence that enabled Iceland to defy the United States and offer asylum and citizenship to Bobby Fischer, the great chess player and former world champion, when the US wanted to extradite him from Japan. (For tax evasion, the usual American obsession with money.)

‘The greatest sports event in history’

Finding sanctuary in Iceland was a return home in some ways for Fischer, who had become world champion there by defeating the champion, Boris Spassky, in a three month-long match played in the capital, Reykjavik, in 1972. That monumental clash came at the height of the Cold War and was of such geopolitical significance that then US secretary of state Henry Kissinger personally intervened and encouraged the temperamental Fischer to play the match at a crucial moment when he was wavering.

The match had it all: global politics; East versus West; Spassky, the most cultured and refined of all the world champions, a sophisticated man of the world who preferred the tennis court to the chessboard, a lover of Dostoyevsky and quintessentially Russian, facing off against the least cultured and refined of champions, an introverted and paranoid loner who liked tenpin bowling, a reader only of chess magazines and books and atavistically American. But Fischer called it correctly when he said, “It will probably be the greatest sports event in history. Bigger even than the Frazier-Ali fight.”

It was apt that the match should have taken place in Iceland, with its warrior code and its cultural, historical and literary insistence on honour and right conduct. Fischer behaved badly at times, but that had always been his wont. Spassky was impeccable, even spurning the chance to win the match by default when Fischer did not turn up to play game two. From Moscow, the Soviet establishment bade Spassky to claim the match, as was his right, and return home. A true champion, in the way of the Icelandic sagas, Spassky refused. He had come to Reykjavik, he said, to play chess. To resist the Soviet behemoth took immense courage, mixed with Spassky’s pride as an artist and dedication as a sportsman. The match was saved, it continued, and on a September day Spassky resigned game 21 and his title.

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The most telling moment came much earlier, at the end of game six. Fischer had played an opening he had never touched in all the hundreds of tournament and match games that he had played before that encounter. In a style that can best be described as Mozartian – sublime and seemingly effortless on the surface but underpinned by iron logic and structure – Fischer won one of the best games of all time. After he resigned and shook hands, Spassky rose from his seat and joined in the rapturous applause from the audience. No Icelandic hero of the sagas could have behaved with greater honour and bravery.

All this took place almost 50 years ago and is thrown into sharp, heroic relief by the cowardly and odiously pragmatic world championship match taking place in Dubai at present between the champion, Norway’s Magnus Carlsen, and the challenger, Russia’s Ian Nepomniachtchi (popularly known as Jan – the proper pronunciation of Ian – or as “Nepo”). It’s for milquetoast play like this that the glorious word pusillanimous was invented.

But, then, we’ll always have Reykjavik. As the gamekeeper on the Skyfall estate, the home of James Bond’s late parents, says to Bond: “Sometimes, the old ways are best.” Snorri Sturluson would agree.

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