Bobby Fischer Comes Home

The Final Years in Iceland, a Saga of Friendship and Lost Illusions

Helgi Olafsson

Reviewer: John Watson
143 pages

For many years now, I’ve chosen to review mostly chosen books that I liked, only rarely warning readers away from ones that I feel are largely a waste of time (or worse, dishonest). There are seemingly countless works about Fischer, and most of the ones that speak about his life tend to share a few characteristics: claims of close friendship (at its worst, a sort of generalized name-dropping) and accounts of amazingly trivial details that only the Fischer-obsessed could care about. There are usually additional comments about what a pleasant guy Fischer really was, in spite of numerous crazy rants and blowups (which would never be tolerated in a real friend). All these apply to Helgi Olafsson’s book Bobby Fischer Comes Home; anyone who followed Fischer in his years in the U.S. (or the Philippines, for that matter) will not be surprised that in the end Fischer turns on Olafsson in anger and their “friendship” is broken off. Predictably, it’s implied that Fischer’s mental deterioration is responsible, ignoring a long string of “friends” (practically everyone he ever interacted with) going back to his teenage years, most of whom he accused of betraying him (and/or being part of the Jewish conspiracy, whether or not they were Jewish). It’s a pathetic and tedious pattern.

Like so many players, Olafsson grew up inspired by Fischer’s match against Spassky, which was instrumental in his own chess career. Unfortunately, the first chapter in this short 143-page book is almost entirely about Olafsson’s own chess experiences and impressions, and the next two constitute a barebones, standard summary of Fischer’s career and the Fischer-Spassky match that you have likely seen many times; at any rate, it appears in countless other sources.

That pattern continues into the post-match years, and after a while we get to Fischer’s arrest in Japan, about which we hear an extremely lengthy, thoroughly biased account from the now-defunct Fischer website. No source is cited, so this is presumably based upon Fischer’s own tale, and probably written by Fischer himself (or transcribed from his words). The story and tone strongly resemble his “I Was Tortured in the Pasadena Jailhouse” pamphlet. For example:

“Now Bobby was in U.S.-occupied – excuse us – U.S.-controlled Japan. Obviously the filthy Jew-controlled U.S. government preferred to illegally and criminally grab and destroy Bobby’s passport only when Bobby was not in neutral Switzerland. So instead they planned to do the job elsewhere at a time and manner of their own choosing . . . The U.S. not only wanted to grab and destroy Bobby’s U.S. passport, but far more importantly they wanted to grab and destroy Bobby too. And neutral Switzerland was not the right place to do it . . . Little did Bobby suspect the devilish criminal plot that the ‘moderate’ Colin Powell had in store for him . . .By now Bobby felt certain that there was a real possibility of his being chained and handcuffed and flown back to the filthy Jew-controlled U.S.A. with a bag over his head that very night. So he decided not to go down without a fight!”

At this point we get a lengthy description of how the evil Japanese, for no apparent reason and quite unprovoked, physically assault and almost kill Fischer. In writing a book with all these fantastic and typically racist claims, did it even occur to Olafsson to present another side to the story, e.g., to quote from the Japanese authorities, or to solicit anybody else’s version of events? There’s no mention of any such attempt. Worse, Olafsson himself seems to extend the basic narrative (citing vague suspicions) as the book proceeds, although he doesn’t engage in Fischer’s anti-Semitic or anti-Japanese vitriol.

Finally we turn to the author’s and others’ efforts to get Fischer to come to Iceland and his time there after his release. It is painfully slow going; the most interesting of Fischer’s Icelandic experiences seem to be his going out to eat, and his befriending the owner of a local bookstore. At this point I’m reduced to browsing (even that is painful), so I may have missed some fascinating story or other, but even lengthy positive reviews of the book don’t indicate that there are any. Fischer’s life outside of chess seems to have been as boring and narrow as it was when he was playing.

What to say? This seems to me yet another attempt to trade upon Fischer’s name, which itself is largely based upon the nostalgia that older chessplayers have for the heady days of his triumphs. Fischer worshippers and ardent fans have certainly already bought the book (perhaps multiple copies!), but I would advise others to turn to one of the excellent books about his chess, for example, Mueller’s or Soltis’.

Jeremy Silman: A very interesting review! For two other perspectives about this book, please look at MY review and DONALDSON’S review.