Woman's Place: Chess at Vatnasafn

by Guðfrídur Lilja Gretarsdóttir, President of the Icelandic Chess Federation


It is easy to think that everything in Iceland is related to the weather. And in one way or the other it is. Even chess.

The biting cold, the storm, the dark: it is the perfect climate for a game of chess, the ultimate indoors hobby, appropriately intellectual. And indeed, for a people beaten by the weather into being a people of few words - rather too few than too many, please, always, without exception - chess is the perfect form of communication. Never having to utter a single syllable you still communicate with your partner: you make a move, you share ideas, you attack, you defend, you challenge, you respond, you ponder, you lose the thread, you find it, lose it again, you continue: yes, you converse, albeit in silence. Weathering the storm, inside and out.

The story of chess in Iceland is quite remarkable. For the longest time Iceland boasted more grandmasters of chess than all the Nordic countries put together. Over the years this small remote island has produced an astounding number of world grandmasters and geniuses of chess. When Iceland´s first grandmaster, Friðrik Ólafsson, competed in international tournaments in the fifties and sixties local schools and movie theatres came to a halt. Every activity was put on hold to announce Friðrik´s results in the latest game. When he won, wild applause could be heard in every corridor of society. Chess became a national pastime.

While the story of chess in Iceland has its own twists and turns with its own intricate nuances it shares one central thing with the rest of the world. It is a story of men.

Well, that is not entirely true. Officially, publicly and competitively the story is that of men.

Tucked away and sheltered from the weather, however, there has always been a tiny space for women too, mostly regarded as irrelevant - but it has existed, and it still does.

Take one example, my grandmother. Guðfríður Lilja Benediktsdóttir, my "amma", was born in 1902 at the farm Þorbergsstaðir í Laxárdalur. Growing up, my grandmother used to play chess with all her brothers and sisters, mother and father, uncles and aunts - and whoever happened to come and visit. While she never competed in public chess events she did play outside the home too. As a young girl she walked on her own to neighbouring farms and challenged people to compete with her. While at it, she used the opportunity to offer them a special discount on the freshly laid eggs by her favourite hen at Þorbergsstaðir. In today´s world, she would be called an entrepreneur.

Amma passed on the tradition of chess-playing to her grandchildren. She taught me how to play when I was 5 years old. I never met anyone so keen on sacrifice, fun and direct attack, and her style of playing said a lot about her character. To me, my grandmother was the unbeatable chess champion of the world - the world being my home where chess was a part of everyday life. In the days when Sundays used to be special and families sat around together, amma and I played chess every Sunday.

Closing that shelter of home behind me, chess became something very different from what I had known before. No longer was it a gentle, fun form of communication with my grandmother, a favourite pastime. Of course playing chess continued being fun, but that warm, cozy climate was lost forever, no matter the place. The masculine climate of chess competition in those days was often perplexing and strangely unpredictable to a young girl, predictably similar perhaps, to the unpredictable and unforgiving Icelandic weather. Most of the time I was the only girl at chess competitions, a lone girl in a masculine whirlwind.

No wonder, then, that we women who appreciate chess end up spending so much time and energy and effort in telling people how urgent it is to get more girls to play, how urgent it is to teach them separately, encourage them differently, inspire them with a focused effort, a female effort. Chess is a beautiful thing and no one should miss out on it or be discouraged just because you are a girl facing a storm.

Vatnasafn/Library of Water provides a nourishing shelter from that storm. It gives girls and women an occasional home in Iceland, a chess home, and provides shelter and encouragement in the most gorgeous of settings. The space is ours, a girls’ home, but we extend our offer to boys and girls alike, men and women from near and far: Come, let us celebrate! Let us converse across generations and genders in the Icelandic style, the silent style of understatement, no matter the weather. Let us play chess.

Through this small effort we are doing something quite special. We are reclaiming a space, a woman’s shelter of chess, a square on the board. Out by the sea, a room with a view will be ours.

It is a rare thing. And it matters, even today, when all should be changed but isn’t.

Guðfrídur Lilja Gretarsdóttir is the President of the Icelandic Chess Federation. She was the Icelandic Women's Chess Champion eleven times and was the first Icelandic woman to receive the title of International Women´s Master. She is the first woman to be elected the head of the Icelandic Chess Federation, as well as the Scandinavian Chess Federation. Gretarsdóttir has a B.A. in history from Harvard University and a M.Phil. from Cambridge University in Intellectual History and Political Thought. Since returning to Iceland in 2001 she has primarily worked as the Secretary General of the Conference of Parliamentarians of the Arctic Region.

Image: (above) a chess board by the window in the Library of Water, Roni Horn, Library of Water (2007). Photograph: Cedric Schonwald