For the second time in two years I decided to visit the Reykjavik Open tournament in Iceland – not to play chess, but to watch it, and enjoy the country’s hospitality and natural wonders.
Last year, I didn’t have enough time to see any glaciers or volcanoes, though I did manage to visit Bobby Fischer’s grave and make a tour of the ‘Golden Circle’. This time round, I had planned two more days of ‘non-chess’ activities and was intending to do at least one glacier hike and a visit to the Eyjafjallajökull volcano (the one which caused so much delay to thousands of travelers, including myself, back in 2010). I had also rented a car and was planning a mini-road trip to the North of Iceland.
When my plane landed at Keflavik airport, it was immediately clear that spring hadn’t begun in Iceland yet. A white dress covered the land as far as I could see and the lakes looked frozen and still. Nevertheless, the shuttle bus that took me to my hotel in the centre of Reykjavik had no apparent problems driving the snow-covered roads and the following day I optimistically rented a car that could take me to the northern tip of the island without problems.
That day, I drove to Þingvellir national park together with WIM Arlette van Weersel. There was a lot of snow on the roads and visibility wasn’t optimal, to say the least, but we managed to keep clear of any problems by staying behind two huge four-wheel drive jeeps heading in the same direction. All was white and a cold wind from the mountains blew across the valley, but it was beautiful and worth the ride.
Meanwhile, the chess tournament, which as always took place in the magnificent Harpa concert hall in Reykjavik’s harbour, was anything but cold. Temperatures rose to extremes in the 5th round, where I witnessed the time trouble phase of my fellow countryman Robin van Kampen's game against Richard Rapport. The position seemed utterly unclear for a long time but all of sudden the mist cleared and Van Kampen was winning.
On Saturday morning, when the first rays of sun broke through the permanent-seeming clouds and the snow-covered mountains of the Kollafjörður fjords became visible from Reykjavik’s harbor, I got up early for my trip to the country’s most northern province. A beautiful day was ahead of me and the 250 kilometers to the small fisherman’s village of Blönduós, my most realistic end-point for a one-day trip, appeared a fairly relaxing ride.
That was a bit too cheerful, though. Driving through the mountainous area between the town of Borganes and the Hrútafjörður fjord, following ‘Route 1’, the road winding through hills of the whitest of white, was rather slippery due to fresh snow and there was a strong wind which forced me to hold on to the steering wheel tightly. I had lunch at a gas station where I was the only visitor and asked about the weather for the afternoon. The boy serving my hamburger with fries told me that it was supposed to stay clear so I optimistically headed towards the north coast, speeding past beautiful fjords and cliffs and seal spotting sites.
I reached Blönduós, a very modest collection of colorful houses, some barns and a tiny wooden church, around 1 pm and drove to the sea-side. Visibility was excellent and I had a clear view of the Greenland Sea which lay at the end of the bay. I walked towards a small graveyard for war veterans and took a few pictures, feeling the cold wind against my cheeks.
After I had seen enough, I filled up the gas tank and turned around. Within an hour I reached the outskirts of the milk-white hills and headed up, listening to a duo of Icelandic disc jockeys chatting on the radio. I didn't understand a single word of it but instantly recognized the chatty, joke-filled mode that DJ’s seem to adopt universally.
But as the car ascended higher, it became clear that the weather had changed radically. Visibility deteriorated by the minute and light flurries of snow increasingly gave way to more serious snowfall. Slowly but steadily, a white curtain came down and I felt I had to slow the vehicle down even though the few cars in front of me didn’t seem to do so. I couldn’t see the hills anymore and saw only the road ahead of me. I was driving straight against the snow now which made visibility even worse.
The sides of the road blurred with the rest of the world and I concentrated solely on the slightly darker wheel tracks on the road, and the reflecting little poles on my right side. Although it was the middle of the day, it felt like night, so little did I see. For miles, I saw no other cars, no other sign of life. I wanted to drive more slowly but felt the car slip immediately.
The two DJ’s on the radio, chatting in Icelandic about God knows what - perhaps the sudden snow storms - were my only reminder that I wasn’t completely alone. I literally couldn’t see two meters ahead of me despite using head lights, and even the reflecting poles which had kept me from driving off road were now too far apart.
I saw a road sign indicating the distance to the nearest town: 40 kilometers! I was beginning to think it was perhaps better to stop altogether and wait until the air had cleared somewhat, but I decided against it because I was afraid another car might crash into me, seeing me too late. I also wasn’t sure about what would happen to the car's battery. So I drove on, concentrating on what little I could see ahead of me and feeling increasingly desperate and terrified.
Suddenly, I heard something on the radio that I recognized: "Robin van Kampen. Erwin l’Ami." Those two clowns on the radio were talking about the chess tournament, where two Dutch grandmasters were leading! Two familiar names in an ocean of white and a tongue I didn't understand.
I laughed out loud and this gave me a small boost of energy and confidence. For just a moment, I thought about chess instead of the situation I was in. Playing chess had taught me how to concentrate for a long time, had it not? How often had I not transformed a bad position into a winning one by just hanging on, trying to stay calm and sharp for hours and seize my chances when they presented themselves?
If there was any discipline that was good for one's ability to concentrate for hours and hours, I thought, it was chess. So, why not use it to my advantage now? I could concentrate on the road even though things looked pretty grim. I could hold on. I could.
After what felt like days (in reality, it probably was just under two hours), I reached Borganes. My eyes hurting even more than my hands, I stopped at the nearest gas station and got myself a hot coffee. Although I felt immensely relieved, I knew I still had about 80 kilometers to go until Reykjavik, so I asked another driver if the weather was going to be better further on. He said, "This was exceptional, the worst day of the year to drive in this area". He was sure it was much better towards Reykjavik, and having regained some faith in the world, I resumed my trip back.
Unfortunately, it quickly turned out that things weren’t better at all. If anything, they were worse, mainly because of the strong winds carrying snow from the mountains and the even more slippery road along the waterside. There were more cars on the road, but this didn't make the situation better because the danger of collision was also bigger.
But the DJ’s again mentioned the names of the two leaders in the chess tournament - and somehow I made it back to the capital. I returned that car and headed back to my hotel. There, I took a long shower (which in Iceland smell faintly of rotten eggs, just like the Blue Lagoon) and cancelled my glacier hike for the next day - I wasn’t going to get into another car in this country for some time! It was almost dark when I passed the harbour again, entered Harpa and stepped into the large playing hall of the tournament.
Inside, all appeared quiet and peaceful. People were worrying about their positions and not about their lives. When I told my chess friends about my adventures, they were amazed and explained that it had hardly snowed at all that day in Reykjavik. I ordered a beer, and then another, and another.
Erwin L’Ami and Robin van Kampen played against each other that evening – an exciting draw - and both of them lost the next day. Too bad, but I was still grateful to them, and to the two anonymous (to me) disc jockeys who had mentioned their names. If they hadn't saved my life indirectly, then the royal game itself certainly had.
Without chess, I might have become just another stupid tourist renting a car in Iceland without having checked the weather, and paying the price.