Checkmate: Dupont Circle Chess for Newbies

August 4, 2008


TOM MURPHY BALKS at my use of the word “intimidating” to describe the chess players at Dupont Circle.

Then again, I have to remember to take what he says with a grain of salt.

One of the most skillful players at Dupont, Murphy claims to know only “a little something” about chess. Having just sat through a chess lesson with him, I beg to differ. To a beginner like me, Murphy’s mastery of the board game — featured prominently in The Washington Post Magazine‘s “The Days and Knights of Tom Murphy” last fall — is nothing short of mind-boggling, and the chess tables at Dupont Circle are downright scary.

Walk through the northeast quadrant of the park and, unless you’re a competitive chess player yourself, you’re bound to agree. Luckily, according to Murphy, there’s hope for even the most clueless chess newbie — as long as you follow a few basic rules.

» 1. “It’s about the joy.”
Before you sit down to play — before you even take a step toward Dupont Circle — admit to yourself that you’re going to lose. Because you are. Murphy says that the regulars don’t always wipe the floor with an outsider — but in the example he describes, the so-called outsider was a soon-to-be-grandmaster from Bulgaria. Yikes.

So it’s a good thing that in Dupont, chess isn’t about winning; it’s about having fun. There are a few things you’re going to have to do, though, if you want to enhance that fun, and they’re going to cost you.

» 2. “They’ll come, they’ll play, they’ll leave a deposit.”
While you’re admitting to yourself that you’re going to lose at chess, you’ll want to come to terms with another loss: the contents of your wallet. Murphy might profess to worship at the altar of joy, but he expects a little more from his customers — er, students and opponents. My chess lesson-and-interview combo came to $30, though I might have been spared the steep rate if I’d just wanted to play a quick game or two.

“One hand should wash the other,” says Murphy. Even spectators must pay a small fee, and almost every story Murphy tells — whether it’s about a married couple playing a few quick games or an experienced chess player wanting to see what all the fuss is about — ends with the size of the players’ “deposits.” Though the range is from $2 to $100 “depend[ing] on their bankroll,” everyone leaves Dupont Circle a little lighter.



» 3. “The more you understand, the more you’re going to enjoy.”
Of course, just because you can have fun while repeatedly getting your ass kicked by the Dupont regulars doesn’t mean you shouldn’t make an effort to return the favor. Many of the most skilled players offer lessons to anyone with some interest — and cash. And if you really want to have a good time in Dupont Circle, you’re going to have to pony up and learn a little about the game.

Murphy’s lessons, for one, are worth the price of admission. He illustrates the basic principles of chess by reconstructing famous (to chess buffs) games from memory, while using grounded terminology to keep the flashiness of the production from getting out of hand. When pieces aren’t being put to use, for example, they’re “lazy loafers.” When black takes one of white’s pieces, white is “paying taxes.” Murphy’s narration makes chess easy to understand, as well as more interesting — and fun — than this skeptic thought possible.

» 4. “Don’t deprive yourself of your joy for the game for your joy of arguing.”
Murphy tells the story of one chess-player who was so disagreeable that he gained a reputation for it. “I said, ‘You know, you like to argue just for the argument’s sake,’” recounts Murphy. “He said, ‘No, I don’t!’ Ten other people walked by and said, ‘Yes, you do.’

“Chess appeals to all different personalities,” he says. “Now, some people are just contentious by nature.”

When venturing into Dupont Circle, however, you should be sure to check your contentious nature at the door. According to Murphy, “arguing just for the argument’s sake” just gets in the way of the joy.


» 5. “Nobody is unteachable.”
In the end, many who are too scared to play that first game in Dupont are probably just worried about being — joy or no joy — that pesky beginner who will never come close to competing with the regulars. For people like that, these particular words of wisdom are invaluable.

Murphy is firm in his belief that he can teach anyone something about chess. True to form, he once bet a confidence-lacking student on the subject and came away $20 the richer. “If they fail to learn, it’s the fault of the teacher,” he says, “not the student.”

If you’re looking to educate yourself a little before jumping headfirst into the Dupont Circle chess scene, though, Murphy recommends three books: “Endgame Strategy” by Mikhail Shereshevsky; “My System” by Aron Nimzowitch; and “Killer Chess Tactics” by Eric Schiller, Raymond Keene and Leonid Shamkovich. In Murphy’s opinion, these books are useful and fun for anyone, even beginners.

Intrigued newbies should also be encouraged by the fact that Murphy has several current students who have become full-fledged regulars. “Usually, people who take my advice, they end up falling in love and their game grows exponentially,” he says. Stick to the rules and you too might one day be able to enjoy high-level chess in the park, just for the joy of the game.

And, if you get lucky, maybe someone will even leave you a deposit.

Written by Express contributor Elizabeth Simins

Photos by Juana Arias/The Washington Post

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