Volcanic chess festival

2/21/2003 – It began as a joke by a bunch of chess loving friends in downtown Reykjavik, where Fischer faced Spassky thirty years ago. But it has blossomed into Iceland’s most successful chess event, a chess festival (18th – 27th February) that features Adams and Shirov – and the spectacularly beautiful landscape of this island in the Northern Atlantic.

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The Hrokurinn Chess Club chess festival takes place 18th - 27th of February in the Reykjavik Art Museum. The main event during this time is the Category XV tournament featuring Adams and Shirov.

What began as a bit of a joke by a bunch of chess loving friends in downtown Reykjavik’s Grand Rokk pub over four years ago has blossomed into Iceland’s most successful chess club. Thanks to the efforts of a handful of founder members under the dynamic leadership of its President Hrafn Jökulsson, Hrokurinn Club soared like a rocket from 4th to 1st divn in the minimum time to win the league’s most coveted trophy last season.

Along the way Hrokurinn confounded local sceptics to the point where many of these are now openly admiring the Club’s achievements. First division national league champions last season from a standing start, Hrokurinn now has teams in all four divisions and plans to win the top three this season.

But Hrokurinn’s ambitions to revitalise Icelandic chess are much more ambitious than just this. Last year in particular saw a whirlwind of activity by the club.


Iceland's spectacular Gullfoss (Golden Waterfall)

First, there were the tournaments in 2002. The Dan Hansson Memorial rapid knockout for 64 players held in March actually had more prize money than the Reykjavik Open which immediately followed it. Among those who played were Grandmasters Ivan Sokolov, Jan Timman, Predrag Nikolic, Loek van Wely, Jaan Ehlvest, Vladimir Malakhov and Luke McShane as well as the two Czech GMs Tomas Oral and Jan Votava who contested the final. All of these except Timman played for Hrokurinn last season. In addition all nine of Iceland’s Grandmasters including Johann Hjartarson and Fridrik Olafsson competed in the Hansson Memorial.

The Selfoss Milk tournament (not just one but two strong round robin tournaments) followed in October. The Category XII Masters tournament was won jointly by Sokolov and Nikolic with the Russian Pavel Tregubov in third place. The Category IV Challengers tournament was won by Votava. Both events provided excellent opportunities for Iceland’s best developing players to strive for coveted International Master and Grandmaster norms. The event is likely to happen again this year.


It's worth going there just for the landscape (Photos: Verfur.is)

Also held last year was a match for 20 year old International Master Stefan Kristjansson, hopefully Iceland’s next Grandmaster, against his fellow Hrokurinn member Tomas Oral.

The teams ambitions to win the three top divisions will shortly be put to the test on 28 February and 1 March, the final weekend of the current season. Immediately before that there’s a round robin tournament in Reykjavik (Hrokurinn Chess Festival), at Category XV the strongest in Iceland for more than ten years, to be quickly followed by the Edda Rapid Open. That will field no less than 16 players from the world’s elite top 100. Sponsored by Iceland’s largest publishing house with a prize fund of $30,000.

Hrokurinn has also been visiting each and every school in Iceland, presenting as a gift Disney’s and Anatoly Karpov’s “Skak og Mat”, published by Edda. The eventual aim is for every 8 year old in the country to have a copy. As a result chess is becoming very popular among Iceland’s children. The eventual aim of this campaign is to have chess as a recognised school subject from the age of 7.


The original table from the 1972 Fischer-Spassky match

There’s one thing everyone knows about chess and Iceland. In 1972 Bobby Fischer played Boris Spassky in the national’s capital Reykjavik for the world championship. The very table and board on which they played now sits like a shrine in the Icelandic Chess Federation’s headquarters. The enormous worldwide interest created by this match led to a flourishing of chess everywhere, but especially in Iceland.


Fischer's signature on the board

Eventually there were nine Grandmasters in a country with a population of just 280,000. By the end of the 80s Iceland’s Olympiad team were achieving results against the world’s very strongest. Somehow that achievement was allowed to stagnate through the 90s.

But things are now looking up again. With supporters like Iceland’s first and preeminent Grandmaster Fridrik Olafsson, now 68, and at his best a World Championship Candidate with good results in his heyday against the likes of Petrosian and Korchnoi, Hrokurinn’s former critics are swiftly being won over. Last year Olafsson paid the club a supreme compliment when he announced on national TV, “Things are really happening in Icelandic chess again.”


Iceland artwork: giant pieces used for an outdoor chessboard

The stimulus provided by this activity in the nation’s schools and by its tournaments, mean that, far from just establishing a single dominant chess club, Hrokurinn is building a solid new infrastructure for the future of Icelandic chess.


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