Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Chess has linked Gimli and Reykjavik since 1880s

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For two magical months in the summer of 1972, the Earth stood still. All eyes were riveted on Reykjavik, Iceland, enthralled by the epic battle that unfolded to determine who would reign as the 11th chess champion of the world.

In the land where epic battles were witnessed and chronicled almost 1,000 years earlier, two gladiators of the mind waged an uncompromising struggle involving wits and will. The irresistible force that was Bobby Fischer, the challenger, was colliding with the immovable object that was Boris Spassky, the defender. Metaphorically, a volcano versus a glacier.

Fischer was the lone American, a hero of the free world, who was obsessed with fulfilling his destiny to become the world champion. Spassky was the unflappable defender of the crown, representing the Soviet chess empire that had dominated world chess since 1948.

In the era of the Cold War, the Americans and the Soviets would regard a victory by their representative as positive proof of the superiority of their ideology and political system, as striking a blow for good over evil. American Secretary of State Henry Kissinger sent a message of encouragement to Fischer before the match commenced. President Richard Nixon sent a congratulatory message to Fischer after his convincing conquest.

While Iceland occupied centre stage as it hosted the most exciting World Chess Championship ever held, one might well wonder how tiny Iceland came to enjoy this privileged historical position. Surprisingly, the answer is connected -- if only indirectly -- to Manitoba.

The linkage between Iceland and Manitoba in chess began with the mass exodus in the 1880s of 20 per cent of Iceland's population to the New Iceland on the shores of Lake Winnipeg.

Among the new arrivals was a 16-year-old orphan named Magnus Magnusson. Magnusson adopted the surname Smith. Shortly after his arrival in Manitoba in 1885, he headed to California to seek his fortune. As the California real estate bubble burst in 1887, Smith relocated to Vancouver, where he joined the local chess club. In 1895, he took up the study of chess seriously and began to play competitively. He returned to Winnipeg in 1898.

Three Canadian Chess Championships were held between 1899 and 1906 -- in 1899, 1904 and 1906. In each of these competitions, Smith secured first place. He was clearly the strongest Canadian chess player at that time.

The next important link between Manitoba and Icelandic chess involved an important chance encounter between Winnipeg lawyer and politician Abe Yanofsky, eight-time Canadian chess champion and the first chess grandmaster in the British Commonwealth, and Fridrik Olafsson, Iceland's first chess grandmaster, former president of the World Chess Federation (FIDE), lawyer and Secretary of the Icelandic parliament.

The path to the encounter began when Yanofsky had a sensational victory against the leading Soviet grandmaster and future world champion, Mikhail Botvinnik, in a strong tournament in Groningen, Holland in 1946. Following this event, Yanofsky was invited to compete in a tournament in Reykjavik in January 1947 against the six leading Icelandic chess players and a New Zealand master. The population of Iceland was then 130,000 and that of Reyjavik was 45,000.

The Icelandic organizers called the tournament "Yanofskymotid" in Yanofsky's honour. Yanofsky was not quite 22 years old at the time. Shortly after his arrival, an exhibition was organized with Yanofsky playing simultaneous games against many challengers. Among these was a 12-year-old boy, Olafsson, who held Yanofsky to a draw. In fact, Olafsson had serious winning chances (having a two-pawn advantage in a rook endgame). After accepting Yanofsky's offer of a draw, Yanofsky proceeded to patiently analyze the game with Olafsson.

In March 2005, over coffee in Reykjavik, Olafsson described his encounter with Yanofsky as quite inspirational. Ultimately this experience culminated in Olafsson achieving an international ranking among the top half dozen players in the world. During his remarkable career as a chess professional, Olafsson achieved victories against Fischer and, on two occasions, against former world champion Mikhail Tal.

Even more remarkable is the fact that from the seed of one smitten chess fanatic in Iceland, ultimately nine Icelandic grandmasters sprouted. Iceland became the nation with the highest number of grandmasters per capita in the world -- about one grandmaster per 33,000 citizens. If Canada could claim a comparable number, there would be 1,000 Canadian chess grandmasters. In fact, Canada has produced eight grandmasters, of whom only three remain active competitors.

My meeting with Olafsson took place less than an hour after the Icelandic parliament voted unanimously to grant Fischer citizenship, thereby enabling his rescue from a Japanese prison where he awaited extradition to the U.S.

The outstanding charge was that he violated the U.S. State Department's order not to proceed with a rematch against Spassky in (former) Yugoslavia in 1992. Iceland's compassionate act on behalf of a mentally ill man looked beyond Fischer's highly offensive anti-Semitic and anti-American rants.

Less than three years later, at age 64, Fischer passed away among his supportive Icelandic compatriots.

Olafsson, the celebrated doyen of the Icelandic grandmasters, played an important, albeit behind-the-scenes role in the cultural enrichment of Manitoba. When Winnipeg was granted the opportunity to host the Canadian Open Chess Championship in 1986, 1994 and 1997, Haruldur Bessason -- the first head of the Icelandic department at the University of Manitoba -- contacted his close friend, Olafsson, to see whether the government of Iceland would be willing to cover the travel expenses of some Icelandic grandmasters to enable their participation in these events.

Through a deft manoeuvre, Olafsson and Bessason joined forces to make it happen. Three grandmasters in 1986 and two in 1994 and 1997 duly arrived in Winnipeg to compete in the Canadian Open Chess Championship.

The biggest coup for Manitoba occurred in 2004, when a tournament aptly named The Icelandic Invasion featured no less than five Icelandic grandmasters: Helgi Olafsson, Helgi Gretarsson, Johann Hjartarsson, Jon Arnason and Throstur Thorhallsson. The pivotal figure in arranging the influx of conquering chess heroes was Atli Ásmundsson, the consul general of Iceland in Winnipeg. Ásmundsson collaborated with his colleagues in the Icelandic government to arrange the friendly invasion.

Now you might well wonder, what was Fridrik Olafsson's and Bessason's deft manoeuvre? Winnipeg could be viewed as a mere stopover for the visiting Icelandic grandmasters, whose true mission was to act as goodwill ambassadors at the Icelandic Festival in Gimli. En route to Gimli, the grandmasters would simply be travelling through Winnipeg en passant. The Icelandic government could hardly turn down the request.


Irwin Lipnowski is an associate professor of economics at the University of Manitoba. He holds the title of FIDE Master in chess. Lipnowski was on the Canadian team at the 1976 International Chess Olympiad in Haifa, Israel. He placed first in an international tournament in Netanya, Israel, in 1979. In the Icelandic Invasion tournament, he was paired against three of the five visiting Icelandic grandmasters. He lost to the Icelanders, but scored five victories in other matches.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 24, 2012 J6


Updated on Saturday, November 24, 2012 at 8:09 AM CST: adds photo

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