REYKJAVIK, Iceland—Berg Agust didn't hesitate when he was asked about the biggest thing ever to happen here.
"The chess match," he said. "After that, everyone knew who we were. Still today, people remember the chess. Is it any wonder why we're still so fond of Bobby Fischer?"
This week, the memories of Fischer's famous 1972 chess match here came flooding back for Agust and others, as Fischer won his freedom from a Japanese jail cell and from the threat of 10 years in an American prison by being granted citizenship here.
These days, Fischer, 62, is in the news more often for his anti-Semitic and anti-U.S. views than his chess skills. He refers to President Bush as a criminal, has references on his Web page to murder plots against him by "the filthy Jew-controlled United States" and would face charges for violating economic sanctions during the Bosnian war were he ever to return to America.
But when he stepped off a private jet at a downtown airport late Thursday, his tangled salt and pepper beard reminded locals of a Viking, and they chose to remember him for his chess.
He won the world championship, played out in 1972 between Fischer, the brash American, and Boris Spassky, the dominating Soviet Russian. It was intellectual sport as Cold War politics, and Cold War politics as theater.
Fischer showed up late, insisted the television cameras bothered him, then that the real problem was the very idea of television cameras at the match.
Then he played brilliantly, and he won, becoming the first American world chess champion in a century. Everyone in this Atlantic island nation remembers it—remembers how the globally celebrated drama put their home on the map and made them proud.
That's what prompted Iceland's Parliament this week to offer Fischer citizenship, without much resistance in this nation of 300,000 often chilly souls.
Orn Orranou, 43, remembers shagging balls for Spassky during tennis games that the Russian played to relax during breaks in the chess tournament. Orranou, along with his wife and three children, went out to greet Fischer on his return.
"It wasn't just a chess match, it was a moment when Iceland was at the center of the world, when all the forces that normally ignore a small place like this were on display here," he said. "It's not often that Iceland is in the headlines. We talk about those days here."
For Fischer as well, it was a highlight in a life often controversial since. He famously refused to defend his championship against Anatoly Karpov in the mid-`70s, then faded from the public eye.
Until he decided to play chess again, against Spassky.
In 1992 he went to the former Yugoslavia for a rematch of the famous showdown, this time for more than $3 million in prize money. Fischer won, but the contest violated United Nations economic sanctions imposed to curb violence in Bosnia.
In coming years, according to news reports, he would talk openly about not paying taxes, either on those winnings or anything else.
In July 2004 Fischer was arrested in Japan while trying to catch a flight to Manila, Philippines, on an invalidated passport. He was jailed for eight months.
Fischer maintains on his Web site that he had no idea the passport was invalidated. The Web site notes that Fischer believed he would be "tried, convicted, imprisoned, tortured and murdered." His attorney says the site reflects Fischer's views but that Fischer wasn't able to maintain it while jailed in Japan.
In his last statement to the news media as he left Japan, Fischer reiterated a common theme, calling Bush a "criminal."
His supporters run a Free Bobby Fischer Web site that claimed victory, noting: "Our work is done. Let Bobby Fischer live in peace and freedom."
But not long after he arrived here, the spokeswoman for the U.S. Embassy in Iceland, Linda Hartley, noted that the situation is a stalemate. While Iceland doesn't deport its citizens to other nations for criminal prosecution, the charges against Fischer remain.
Fischer's Japanese attorney, Masako Suzuki, noted that while Fischer is protected from U.S. prosecution while in Iceland, it may be difficult for him ever to leave.
"This is probably the best outcome we could have expected," she said.
Meaning he may have exchanged a small Japanese prison for a larger one, island-sized. Still, it's one with volcanoes, hatchet-peaked mountains shrouded in clouds and glacier-fed streams racing down cliffs towards the Atlantic. And the other inmates are happy to see him.
Agust said that while people didn't agree with Fischer's strong anti-Jewish sentiments ("He's obviously not a well man."), they understood his anger at the United States.
"It's clear to us that he has been mistreated because of political views," Agust said. "In Iceland, we believe in freedom of speech."
Locals note that since the chess classic, their country has made other headlines. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev met here in 1986 for disarmament talks. More recently, locals have taken pride in soccer star Eidur Gudjohnson, who plays professionally in England, and singer Bjork.
But Fischer was first.
"He'll always mean a lot to us," Segdur Gudmondotir said. "I know he has problems, but that's all the more reason to help him. We did the right thing, and I hope he'll be happy here."
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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