If you follow the curve of the Arctic Circle from Alaska through northern Canada and across the Greenland ice cap, then stop directly above the mainland of Iceland, you will locate Grímsey Island. This speck of treeless, rock-strewn land, with a total area of less than three square miles, is the only part of Iceland to touch the Arctic Circle. It sits alone in the frigid North Atlantic, 25 miles from the mainland, and is home to 125 hardy humans, 36 species of birds and an obsession with chess that lasted nearly 1,000 years.
"Chess in Iceland has a rich background: The sagas are filled with references to the game," says Fridrik Olafsson, 58, Iceland's first grand master, speaking of the 13th-century tales written by early Icelandic settlers. "We have long winters with long periods of darkness, which is perfect for studying moves." Iceland, still buoyed by the famous 1972 match in Reykjavík between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky, boasts eight grand masters. In a country with a total population of 260,000, Iceland's per capita grand-master rate of one in 32,500 leads the world by an enormous margin. The U.S., by comparison, has one chess grand master for every 7.5 million Americans.
But nowhere in the storied history of Icelandic chess has a passion for the game been more extreme than on Grímsey. The island was settled at the turn of the 11th century by a group of Vikings with an extraordinary appetite for chess. Except for the occasional fish that had to be caught, Grímsey offered few distractions from chess playing. Distractions might have been welcome. According to legend, one Viking had the ability to remember every move he had ever made, an affliction that soon caused him to remember nothing else, and he descended into madness. Others who were struggling with a game took to bed for weeks at a time, unable to budge until a new strategy was devised.
For almost nine centuries Grímsey's chess addiction remained virtually unknown to the outside world. Then, in 1879, the island's eccentric nature came to the attention of an equally eccentric American, Daniel Willard Fiske.
Fiske, a traveler, linguist and millionaire who organized the first U.S. chess championship, in 1857, learned of Grímsey's devotion to chess as he sailed through the region on a steamship. He identified with the hardy iconoclasts of Grímsey and was immediately taken with the place. Without ever having set foot on the island, he decided to become its benefactor. Fiske sent each of the 11 families living there an ornate marble chess set. Later he financed the island's first school and library, and upon his death, in 1904, he bequeathed $12,000 to Grímsey, a vast sum at the time.
Until 1931, when a gravel airstrip was put in, the only dependable way to reach Grímsey was by the supply ship, which sailed there twice a year, weather permitting. Once airplanes began making the 30-minute flight from the mainland, Grímsey's mania for chess finally received national attention. After the 1972 Fischer-Spassky match, "the entire country went completely chess mad," according to Olafsson, and Grímsey's school instituted mandatory chess classes. Then, in 1982, the island staged a bizarre tournament in which the country's best players played with life-sized chessmen on a board laid out on the runway.
Today Grímsey Island looks much the same as it always has—a wind-ravaged fishing outpost, its skies clogged with puffins and gulls and arctic terns. There's still just a single mile-long dirt road, and the island's 20 homes remain clustered together along the southern shore, as if in an attempt to keep warm. Closer inspection, however, reveals electrical wires running between the homes, and hidden amid the grassy hummocks are a fair number of satellite dishes.
The library built with Fiske's money is still there, but his collection of chess tomes sits in a corner, gathering dust. Fiske's portrait hangs in the library; he is wearing a stern, almost caustic look, as if he were faced with imminent checkmate. Beneath the portrait sits the island's only remaining marble chess set—nobody knows what happened to the other 10. The set has obviously gone a long time without being used; the pieces on the board are arranged incorrectly. "We really don't play chess anymore," explains Sigrun Oladottir, who was born and raised on the island and now serves as its unofficial tour guide. "The times have changed. We have TV and radio and all that, and the game we mostly play now is Nintendo."
Michael Finkel lives in Bozeman, Mont., when he isn't traveling the world in search of the offbeat.