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)

IF YOU DO NOT CARE FOR THE FRANTIC AND EXPENSIVE MELEES OF THE SPEED CHESS TABLES IN DUPONT CIRCLE, there is often gentler action to be had at the checkerboards, presided over by William Moore, known to the park's regulars as Mr. William, or simply, "the checker man."

Moore, 64, visits the park twice or more each week, and, as a service to the game-playing public, he always brings a few extra chess sets, along with a pair of plywood checkerboards he made himself.

When he is not absorbed in a game, he paces the sidewalk that runs past the chess tables. He will regularly collar a pair of perfect strangers walking by and insist that they sit and play a game, chess or checkers. If the newcomers aren't familiar with the rules, it is Moore's pleasure to conduct a quick lesson.

"I do like to teach people," he said. "And I've taught so many kinds of people, you don't even know. The proudest teaching I ever had was I taught a pimp in New York. His name was Comfort, as in 'comfortable.' I was going down the street to my friend's house. I had my board with me. He said, 'You know anything about that game?' I said, 'Yeah.' He said, 'You have time to show me?' I said, 'Yeah.' He said, 'Step into my office,' which was a pink, long Cadillac. I got in. It had a bar in the car and everything. I started thinking, 'Now how in the world am I gonna show this pimp how to play the game of chess?' So he asked me, 'What do the queen do?' I said, 'The queen do all the work.' He said, ' Ohhhh, now what do the king do?' I said, 'The king don't do nothing.' His eyes lit up when he heard that. He said, 'Man, I like this game already.'"

Moore, a retired Postal Service employee, first visited Dupont Circle in 1968, the year the 10 concrete chess tables were erected, and has frequented the park since. Moore lives near Walter Reed Army Medical Center and, in his spare time, plays piano for two church choirs in the area. He is a bachelor, a condition he blames in part on his fondness for the Dupont Circle chess tables. "This park has lost me three or four women over the years. They'd call me up and say, 'You mean to say, I cooked you dinner, and you not coming over?' I'd say, 'Noooo, I'm going to the park.' She'd say, 'Ohhhh, the park. Always with that park. Tell you what, I don't want no more of this.'"

In the meantime, Murphy had left the chess hustle to play a few rounds of cards. From the look of it, he was not having much success. When the call was in, he showed his cards, let out an anguished shout and stalked in a brisk circle on the sidewalk, in the manner of someone trying to walk the pain out of a stubbed toe.

ON THE MORNING OF THE NEW YORK TOURNAMENT, I STOPPED BY DUPONT CIRCLE SHORTLY AFTER 9 O'CLOCK. Murphy was just waking up. Did he still want to go to New York, I asked. He looked at me through a set of weary, bloodshot eyes. "Aw, man, I'm broke," he said. "Things didn't work out for me at the poker game last night. I lost a hundred bucks."

"I'll get you to New York," I told him. The news hit him like a shot of B-12. His color seemed to improve, and a grin bloomed on his face. "Let's go!"

His chess kit (board, clock and pieces) and the latest issue of Chess Life magazine were the only luggage he brought with him.

I'd been looking forward to the four-hour trip with Murphy, who is a gifted conversationalist and can hold forth in fine style on nearly any topic you throw at him, from music, to history, to romance, to politics. But when he got into my car, the first thing he said was, "Does this seat fold down?"

"Yes," I said.

"Awesome," he said. He levered back his seat and fell instantly asleep.


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