Correction to This Article
The article incorrectly said that chess is the world's oldest known board game. A board game found in the royal tombs at Ur in Iraq dating to about 2500 B.C. is believed to be the oldest, according to Melinda A. Zeder, curator of Old World archaeology at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History.
Cover Story

The Days and Knights of Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy, right, holds court at the Dupont Circle chess boards.
Tom Murphy, right, holds court at the Dupont Circle chess boards. (Bill Bamberger - Bill Bamberger)
By Wells Tower
Sunday, September 30, 2007

IN DUPONT CIRCLE, AN INSTITUTION OF HIGHER LEARNING HAS BEEN OPERATING UNOFFICIALLY ALONG THE PARK'S EASTERN PERIMETER FOR THE PAST THREE DECADES OR SO. Known to its habitues as the Chess University of Dupont Circle, the school has neither walls nor accreditation. Its campus and physical plant consist of little more than the 10 uncomfortable concrete table-and-chair sets that line the arc of sidewalk on the circle between New Hampshire Avenue and P Street NW.

One day in mid-June, when the morning air was wiltingly hot, Tom Murphy, a member of the university's senior faculty, was holding a private seminar for David Benassi, a recent graduate of George Washington University who was taking a couple of weeks to hone his game of chess before joining the workforce. "The invaders have crossed the border!" Murphy declared, indicating his pawn and bishop, which had traversed the board's middle line and were bearing down on Benassi, whose major pieces were trapped behind his pawns. "Your people are suffocating! To participate in the war, the people must be freed!"

The young student strained his brow while Murphy puffed learnedly on a filterless cigarette. Beyond the seminar at hand, there wasn't much scholarship underway at Chess University that morning. Two tables down, five men were playing the final weary hands of an all-night poker game. On a nearby bench, a pair of homeless men were sipping a liquid brunch from paper bags and conducting two unrelated monologues of unprintable words. A third man had already reached a startling degree of stupor for so early in the day and was drooling steadily down his shirt front. Compared with the local company, Murphy, who is 49, radiated the civility and bookish eminence of an Oxford don, yet he, too, bore signs of hard living. His clothes looked as though he had slept in them, and his chess set was in a decrepit state. Grime clung to the rooks, one of which had been chopped off at its base, revealing the gray metal weight inside. His board was stained, and his time clock had a habit of shorting out.

I had asked if Murphy would mind if I observed his tutorial for a minute or two. "Of course not!" he said in a smoke-cured baritone. "All I ask is that you make a token contribution to chess education in the nation."

Then I went into a brief stammering fit, trying to wriggle out of paying a spectator's fee on the grounds that I was a writer here on official journalistic business. Murphy calmly fixed me with a set of intelligent hazel eyes. "I sure could use that contribution," he said in a voice both kindly and insistent, and, a second later, five of my dollars had vanished into the depths of Murphy's pants pocket. A second onlooker, who didn't want to pony up, walked off into the park. The lesson continued.

Chess originated in India and Persia about 1,500 years ago, making it the world's oldest known board game, and perhaps its most complex. But for a mere $5, I learned from Murphy that the entire tortuous body of the game's strategy is neatly reducible to three clean principles.

"Number one, king safety" -- above all else protect your king. "Number two, control the center" -- i.e., maintain influence over the board's four center squares. "Number three, free the people and give everyone a healthy job" -- that is, don't oppress your powerful rear echelon behind a torpid row of pawns; stagger your pawn platoon so that your ranking pieces can go to work attacking or defending.

True to his third law of chess strategy, Murphy is himself one of the least encumbered people you are likely to meet. He has no telephone, no bank account, and, at the time I caught up with him, he was spending most nights on a bench in the park and passing his days at his chosen employment: offering lessons at $15 to $20 per and hustling speed chess for $2 to $5 a game. Yet as a player, Murphy's fame extends far beyond the park. In past years, he'd racked up major tournament wins, routing some of the best chess players in the country and cementing a widespread reputation as a player who might have risen to international prominence had his life taken a different turn. "He's considered one of those D.C. legends, a Dupont Circle legend," said Daaim Shabazz, an associate professor of business at Florida A&M, who runs, a Web site devoted to black chess players worldwide. "Anyone who's come through Dupont Circle, they know about Murphy, and they know about his troubles, too."

Back in the park, Murphy's student headed off. The morning deepened into a day of oppressive heat, which slowed Murphy's client stream. Toward afternoon, a young man with an earnest face and sparse goatee happened past the table where Murphy was sitting. "Care for a game?"

He shrugged, and sat. "Five a game?" Murphy offered.

"Two," the man countered.

"Come on, man. That's not even minimum wage. Three."

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