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.
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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)

"I might make a hundred, two hundred dollars," Murphy said. "Then I go to the poker game, and, poof, it's gone."

On the rare days when Murphy is not in the park, he travels to the homes of friends -- one in Greenbelt and another in Suitland -- with whom he stores his laptop. On other days, he said, he attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings on Connecticut Avenue or fellowship meetings at Shiloh Baptist Church at Ninth and P streets NW, where he's lately turned for advice about his gambling troubles, which he described as an "addiction." "The fellowship suggests that I quit cold turkey," Murphy said. "And they're probably right."

Though Murphy no longer entertained dreams of becoming a national name in chess, he still had reasonable hopes that chess might offer him a way out of his present circumstances.

"He's unusually talented as a teacher," said David Mehler, director of the U.S. Chess Center on M Street NW. "He has a great understanding of chess, and he has an amazing way of being able to express himself so that people, especially children, can follow what he's saying and learn from him."

To get his teaching career off the ground, Murphy said, he had recently decided to return to the tournament circuit to boost his professional rating, a number handed down by the U.S. Chess Federation, based on one's tournament performances. It had been a few years since Murphy had competed regularly, but he still held a tournament rating of 2092, placing him in the "expert class" and among the top 3 percent of tournament players in the nation. If he applied himself, a string of tournament wins would boost his rating the 108 points he needed to reach "master" status, which would provide a bankable credential for him to begin teaching chess professionally -- in chess clubs or possibly in schools -- and to free him from the uncertain life of hustling in Dupont Circle.

"As a master, I could do private lessons, for $30 or $40 an hour, and stabilize my plus side teaching chess in the schools. And then," he said, socking his hand with his fist, "I could live decent."

ON A BREEZELESS TUESDAY, AFTER A LATE NIGHT AT THE POKER GAME, MURPHY WOKE UP AT CLOSE TO NOON ON A BENCH ON THE PARK'S WEST SIDE. Business was slow that afternoon. On the table in front of him was the latest issue of Chess Life magazine and a slim green book called The New Chess Player, which details such tactical maneuvers as the Catalan, the Queen's Pawn, the Benoni, the Nimzo-Indian, the Grunfeld, the Sicilian, the Dragon, the Caro-Kann, Alekhine and the Bogoljubow-Indian. He looked up from the diagram he was puzzling over. "I'm looking at these beautiful works of art," he said. "Each one, there's a way to win. It's just a matter of discovering how." In particular, he was searching for solutions to the Trompowsky attack, which involves an early onslaught by white's dark-squared bishop.

He was keen to divine the proper defense, he explained, before an upcoming trip he hoped to take to a tournament in Manhattan. I was curious to see how Murphy's talents would hold up in conventional slow play. I told him I thought I might head up to New York myself.

"How would you get there?" he asked.

I said I supposed I'd drive. "Why? Do you want a lift?"

"Absolutely!"

Then he asked if I'd like to buy a lesson. I told him no, that I'd rather sit with him while he explored the perils of the Trompowsky attack. He offered me a seat. Then Murphy began to ply me with Socratic queries about pawn structure and lines of attack. As the talk wore on, it began to dawn on me that I was not observing a study session. Never mind that I'd declined his offer of a lesson, Murphy had gone ahead and transformed our discussion into a formal chess tutorial to which a ticking meter was attached. When the talk wound down, he presented me with a verbal invoice for $20, his standard teaching rate. The chess instruction aside, the $20 I spent taught me an even more memorable lesson about Murphy: When you are in his company, there is often a second, invisible chess game taking place, one that can easily conclude with Murphy's rooks advancing on your wallet.


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