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  • Iceland Follies


    One squally night two years ago, just when it seemed that Bobby Fischer was finally going to board a jet for Reykjavik, Iceland, when it looked as if his match with Boris Spassky for the world chess championship might actually take place, all hell broke loose at Kennedy International Airport. This time the perpetrator was not a freaked-out Fischer but a small boy who discovered the skittish grandmaster hiding in an airport bar and led a charge of newsmen to the scene. Bobby bolted out the door, across a highway and vanished into the gloom. His handlers meanwhile, fending off the reporters with kicks and body blocks, were approached by a cop who got right to the heart of the matter. "Who," he wanted to know, "is Bobby Fischer?"

    Does anyone in fact really care any more? Brad Darrach surely does, and so will the readers of his fast, funny account of the Great Airport Caper and other misadventures of the Brooklyn bad boy. Darrach, who became Fischer's confidant while covering his matches for LIFE, offers many new and intriguing facts about the "Chess Match of the Century." At one point in the hectic go, no-go negotiations, Darrach reports that despite diplomatic requests from such noted peacemakers as Henry Kissinger ("In short," Kissinger said later, "I told Fischer to get his butt over to Iceland"), Bobby, the exercise buff, refused to budge because he could not get Jack LaLanne on Icelandic TV. One of Darrach's more startling disclosures is that Fischer, assured of a $125,000 purse and still demanding more, inexplicably and in all seriousness asked Darrach to help him draft a letter to Spassky proposing that "we both give up all the prize money and play for the sake of chess."

    Spassky also harbored some surprises. Though often pictured as the witty, urbane sportsman going against the Brooklyn brat, Boris was himself a spoiled chess darling. Depressed, out of shape, drinking too much and beset with marital problems in the months before the match, he was "less interested in winning the title," says Darrach, "than in pulling himself out of the worst emotional hole he had ever been in."

    Prophetic Dreams.

    The contestants had no monopoly on strangeness. Throughout the frantic days when it appeared that the match would be cancelled, Gudmundur Thorarinsson comported himself with the kind of cool dignity befitting the president of the Icelandic Chess Federation and a Reykjavic city councilman. Except, that is, for that one moment when, by the light of the midnight sun, he assured some foreign friends that the match would take place because, based on consultations with a spiritualist, "prophetic dreams" and "certain powers" unique to his people, "I know a miracle will happen!"

    The Russians got in their wierd licks by charging that Bobby was using mysterious "electronic devices and chemical substances" to cause Boris to "lose his fighting spirit." The absurdity of it all was summed up when, in the subsequent investigation, a chemist whipped an open plastic bag around the stage of the playing hall and then sealed it for later analysis with the label AIR FROM STAGE.

    Darrach paints all his characters with rich strokes. Almost too rich, in fact. He describes one U.S. chess official as a "Huckleberry Babbitt," a man whose "pink scalp looks like a ham in mourning." Such vivid excesses might be well placed in a short treatment. But served in book-length bunches, the cumulative effect is a bit like overdosing on chocolate fudge.

    Get Darrach.

    Yet the central figure of this lively book comes through loud, clear and not a little screechy. Though Fischer is a kind of walking Rorschach test open to all manner of interpretations, most of them bad, Darrach grants him his due. As he notes, many of the seemingly outlandish demands Bobby has made over the years have not only been justified but have since been adopted as rules for tournament play. Although he recently resigned his world title because chess officials rejected additional demands, Fischer has more than made good on his own bold promise: "I'm gonna put chess on the map."

    Still, upon hearing of the book's publication, Fischer reportedly told his lawyers to "get Darrach." Bobby, who for years shunned women in favor of his trusty chess board and Bible, will probably be most annoyed by a pair of revelations. First, that during off moments in Reykjavic he frequently took to the mineral baths with a pair of adoring young lovelies in bikinis. And second, that for six months thereafter, while secluded in a California compound run by the Worldwide Church of God, he not only dated but, at his request, was introduced to "vivacious" girls with "big breasts."

    All of which suggests the hopeful prospect that just maybe the Bobby Fischer who is versus the rest of the world is also part of it.

    by Brad Darrach
    240 pages. Stein & Day. $7.95
    LIFE - July 23, 1971

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