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 TheChessDrum.net, 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."
The customer shrugged. Murphy hit the clock. Within seconds, Murphy's pieces were swarming the opposing position. The young man pressed his palms to his temples. "Ohhhh, no, no, no! Oh, God, what's happening here?"
Ninety seconds later, the customer was in checkmate. He handed Murphy his money. "Another game?" Murphy asked, as he set up the pieces.
"You hustled me fair and square," the man said, "but I'd be crazy to play you again."
THE CLOCK THAT GOVERNS THE RHYTHM OF TOM MURPHY'S DAYS IS A KIND OF DUAL EGG TIMER. It has two time screens and two buttons. After each move, a player taps a button, which starts his opponent's time ticking down and stops his own. In standard blitz, players start with five minutes, or three, or sometimes one minute apiece. Whoever runs out of time first (or finds himself in checkmate) loses the game. The final instants of a blitz chess match can be a thrilling sight, when the players are down to their last seconds and their hands flash between the board and clock with such desperate speed that it looks as though they're juggling lava.
Blitz is the 50-yard dash to slow chess's grueling marathon. American chess legend Bobby Fischer is a blitz enthusiast, and, at international tournaments, there's usually a full complement of grandmasters -- the game's loftiest designation -- competing in the blitz matches. To succeed at blitz requires deep knowledge of chess theory, if not the same planning and intellectual endurance the slow game demands.
Blitz is Murphy's game of choice, and he is one of the best blitz players in the country. In 2005, Murphy finished 15th in the World Blitz Chess Championship. In 1998, he swept the Arlington Chess Club's annual championship, beating out two international masters (the rank just below grandmaster). In 2000, he won the Atlantic Open, a national tournament held in the District.
Slow chess purists occasionally make the charge that blitz chess hustlers such as Murphy possess no real knowledge of the game, that they owe their wins to shallow tactical gimmickry. But Murphy's strengths, according to those who have played and studied with him, lie in his careful study of the game rather than mastery of flashy traps. "He's an encyclopedia of chess," said Ted Udelson, a former student of Murphy's for 10 years and a regular tournament competitor. "His expertise and his understanding of the game is so deep, I challenge you to find grandmasters who understand the game in greater depth than he does."
"I've watched Tom defeat grandmasters convincingly," said Mike Atkins, director of the Arlington Chess Club. "I watched him positionally crush [grandmaster] Pavel Blatny from Czechoslovakia. What makes him so good at blitz is that he's got a lot of deep theory, and he doesn't have to think."
Murphy once had hopes of becoming a grandmaster, but, as his career progressed, he decided that blitz more completely embodied his love for the game. "For those of us who are truly obsessed with chess, a pure chess moment" -- a particularly elegant defense or ensnarement of an opponent's piece -- "is a moment of art," Murphy said. "What drives my obsession is the search of the next painting on the chessboard. It might take a painter a week, or a month, to create his masterpiece. In blitz, you do it in five minutes."
Murphy's preference for the breakneck thrills of blitz to the ponderous agonies of judgment and planning that slow chess requires also says a good deal about the life he has chosen. "The way you play can tell you things about what's going on in your own life," said Shabazz. "Some players play their lives out over the chessboard."
If conventional chess is the art of fretting over the future, of sensing peril in all its guises, of divining the tiny misstep that will lead to ruin down the line, then, for the blitz player, prudence and reflection are deadly sins. Blitz is a game of snap judgments, of short-term rewards, of blind faith in familiar patterns that don't require peering too far into the future.
Six weeks before I'd met him, Tom Murphy had been living in a rented room in College Park and had been building a career of sorts, doing recruiting and canvassing on environmental issues for the Public Interest Research Group. But since then, he'd been devoting himself to the more immediate, short-term struggles of survival in the park in Dupont Circle -- hustling the money for his daily ration of food, cigarettes and brown-bagged beer, plus his stake for the open-air poker game that, most nights, goes on at the chess tables until dawn.
"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?"
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.
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.
He was still snoring lightly when we passed the exit to Philadelphia, the city where Murphy grew up. As he would tell me in a series of conversations over a couple of months, his life unfolded like this.
Murphy spent his early childhood in Burgaw, N.C., a humble village in the state's coastal plain. When he was 13, his parents split, and his mother relocated to Philadelphia, taking Murphy and his four siblings with her. Murphy was a strong student and was accepted to Central High, a respected public magnet school on Philadelphia's north side. He played the viola, he said, with hopes of becoming the first jazz viola celebrity, and he excelled at math as well. "I had a particular joy for calculus," he said. "But chess took the joy of mathematical problem-solving and transcended it in a way that I found irresistible." He began playing competitive chess, under the mentorship of his math teacher, who also coached the chess team.
After high school, Murphy enlisted in the Air Force, where he hoped one day to fly planes, or at least design them, but he ended up becoming a jet mechanic. In the military, Murphy fell in with a cadre of African American chess enthusiasts who further whetted his interest in the game. After three years in the Air Force, he returned to Philadelphia, where he apprenticed himself to an African American chess team called Mate by Force, whose members shepherded him through a deeper study of chess tactics and strategy.
In the early 1980s, Murphy began playing in tournaments, and winning. He attended the chess World Open in Philadelphia, which spawned what would become a lifelong passion for playing speed chess for money. "I tied for fifth in my section, and this guy from St. Louis said, 'Let's play, $20 a game.' He dropped $500. From that point on, I was hooked. Every World Open I went to after that, I made at least $1,000."
Around that time, Murphy spent a year at Temple University and then went on to a job with the city of Philadelphia's water department, where he said he designed layouts for water pipes. He played chess whenever he could. The game, he acknowledged, took a toll on his personal life. Women did not understand his passion for the game. "I remember one girlfriend, she got upset with me. She said: 'You play this thing every chance you get. If you ain't working, you're playing chess. Where do I fit in?' I didn't have the heart to say, 'Wherever I fit you in.'"
By the mid-1980s, Murphy was known as the best blitz player in the city, according to Jerome Works, who helps run the Franklin-Mercantile Chess Club in Philadelphia. "Tom was chess in Philly," Works said. "If people wanted a real game, they'd call Tom. His game was very solid. Even when he played slow, he was hard to beat."
Even as his renown on the local chess scene was growing, Murphy was beginning to have trouble with drugs and alcohol. Both of Murphy's parents were alcoholics, he told me, and both of them ultimately died of the disease. His substance abuse turned intractable in the early '80s, when a girlfriend killed herself. "That was the catalyzing moment," he said. "I had just won the under-1600 section at the World Open. I had just gotten a big pay raise at my job. I had a house, a car. Everything was going great. Then she got involved in drugs and committed suicide, and that started a spiral that was out of this world."
Murphy ultimately rebounded and married, in 1992, but his devotion to chess, in addition to his drug and alcohol use, became an issue in that relationship as well. "It got to a point where she said, 'Make a choice, me or the chessboard,'" Murphy said.
In 1995, he said, the marriage dissolved, and Murphy left Philadelphia. He'd met a woman, "a good girl" who lived in Washington, and, in 1998, he moved in with her. At first, the relocation augured well. That fall, Murphy won the Arlington Chess Club's blitz championship. Mike Atkins, the ACC's director, still recalls Murphy's joy at winning. "He was about the happiest person I've ever seen win a tournament," Atkins said. "There's a big kid inside of him . . . He won in an impressive field, and there were often people who thought he'd win every year, but he didn't."
Not long after the victory, Murphy went through another rocky stretch. In 1999, he was arrested twice on drug charges, once for marijuana, once for cocaine, and was sentenced to a six-month stint in the D.C. jail.
His chess prowess proved valuable during his confinement, he said. His chessboard victories kept him in cigarettes and won him extra rations of food. Most important, he said, they provided him with physical protection, thanks to fellow inmates who bet on Murphy's matches and did not want to see harm come to him. "Chess probably saved my life in there," he said.
After his release, he began attending AA meetings, and he found steady employment doing canvassing and recruiting for environmental lobbying groups. During that period, Atkins recalled, "he'd sometimes come to the club in a suit. Tom showing up in a suit was very different from him coming in street clothes." Murphy's chess game, too, showed greater focus, Atkins said. "When he is stable, when he is employed, when he is sober, when he has a place to live, his chess improves markedly. When's he's unemployed, when he's abusing, when he's homeless . . ." Atkins trailed off. "You have to do what you do in order to survive."
After a six-year run of stability, Murphy drifted in and out of homelessness and sobriety. These days, if you ask Murphy's friends and colleagues about him, the conversation turns quickly to rueful reflections on his squandered potential.
"Chess is so full of stories like his," said Daaim Sha-bazz. "There are rags-to-riches stories, but you have the riches-to-rags stories, too. He's very gifted, very talented, but Murphy's one of those stories where you look at him and you think: If things had been different, what could he have become?"
AFTER ARRIVING IN NEW YORK MID-AFTERNOON, MURPHY MADE STRAIGHT FOR THE CHESS TABLES IN WASHINGTON SQUARE PARK. The tournament would start in 3 1/2 hours, and Murphy, whose pockets were empty, needed to hustle the $40 entry fee.
Eight or nine other men were hustling chess in the park that day, and several of them recognized Murphy from a long-shared past on the tournament circuit and from his prior visits to New York. Yaacov Norowitz, a round-faced, giggling man in a yarmulke who is a chess master, bade Murphy a hearty hello. So did a man named Wayne, who was making more money selling loose cigarettes at 50 cents per than he was hustling chess. "This has become a very lucrative business," said Wayne of the cigarette trade, as he folded a customer's bill into a stout green stack.
"I can see that," said Murphy.
"Hey," said Wayne. "Remember that thing you taught me, about the Sicilian versus white?"
"I've been eating people alive with that."
"Glad to hear it," Murphy said. Then he applied himself to drumming up clients. "Chess play-ers wanted," he called out merrily, putting on his warmest grin. "Chess play-ers wanted! Come on, come on over. I'm the new meat in town! You look like a chess player," he said to an older man, who conceded that he knew something about the game. The man sat and promptly lost $10.
"It must be nice," Wayne said, looking enviously at Murphy's fresh $10, "to show up in the park and make 10 bucks right off the bat."
"Chess play-ers wanted!" said Murphy.
A young man in a baseball cap paused by the table.
"I'll give you the five-two special," said Murphy, meaning that he'd take only two minutes on the clock to his opponent's five. Four games later, he'd relieved the man of $20.
Norowitz volunteered one of his students for a game. The new client was a thin, pale boy with a baseball hat and a cranky, studious mien. He looked Murphy over, his stained shirt and unclean fingernails, and it was hard not to notice the brittle contemptuousness with which he regarded the older man. In the first game, he made a brash, arrogant attack and was soon moving his queen toward Murphy's king.
"Now what is this?" Murphy asked in an amiable voice. "Didn't anybody tell you I do not like termites? No, sir, I cannot have termites in my house."
Murphy's opponent snatched one of his stray pawns. In return, Murphy collected one of the boy's knights. "You take a cat," he said, "I gotta take a dog."
"He's trying to annoy me," the young man whined to his teacher.
"Fine, fine, I'll be quiet," Murphy said. "But come on, whatever happened to the sporting spirit?"
Then he put the young man in checkmate, set up a new game and lit a cigarette.
The boy gave Murphy a sour look. "I'm asthmatic," he said.
"I'll stop the clock, and you can analyze your position," Murphy told the young man, who gazed back at him with a mixture of loathing and barely suppressed loser's hysteria.
After Murphy had unburdened the boy of $25, the game broke up with no parting pleasantries.
Leaving the park, Murphy reflected on the session. "I know what he was thinking. 'This guy looks like a bum. He can't play, so why's he beating me?' He refused to look at the content of my character. He'll cool down. After a day or two, he'll realize it wasn't me, it was him, and he'll want to play again. There's no need to stress out like he was doing. It's my philosophy that you should enjoy the art of the game, even when you lose," said Murphy, who had not lost a game all day.
With night coming on, Murphy made his way north to a brownstone on West 10th Street, home of the Marshall Chess Club, where the tournament was taking place. Upstairs, players sat at red leather benches, hunched intently over pre-tournament scrimmages. The Marshall had the comforting aroma of an old library. A venerable, lacquered chess table sat before the fireplace. "Bobby Fischer played the Capablanca Memorial Tournament [in Havana in 1965 by telex] on this table," read the inscription. Above the mantel hung a framed series of portraits of the Marshall's members from 1922, which included the surrealist painter Marcel Duchamp. "A lot of history here," Murphy mused.
All sorts of people were on hand for the tournament: kids who were so small they looked as if they were drowning in their clothes; gawky teenagers with glinting braces; elderly balding men who looked like chicken magnate Frank Perdue; and elderly bespectacled men who looked like Noam Chomsky. Women and girls were at a minimum -- two, by my count, in a crowd of 50 or so. Three African Americans had turned out, including Murphy, who was clearly the only street hustler in the house.
At first, Murphy thought he might not compete. For one thing, it looked as though only a handful of players had registered in his section, "expert" and below. A small field probably meant that those who had turned out would give him a run for his money, he reasoned. (But given that Murphy had won as many tournaments as he had, I found his reluctance surprising. Had he grown too accustomed to the easy money in Dupont Circle?) For another, he learned the winner would be paid $150 by check, which did not sit well with Murphy, who has a fondness for green cash. I told him that if he won, I could cash the check for him. "Well, that changes things," he said.
The tournament would consist of four one-hour games, 30 minutes on the clock per player. Murphy's first opponent was a boy who couldn't have been much older than 10, with shoes that looked like skis. The game proceeded evenly, but, as it progressed, Murphy's time advantage deepened. Before each move, the boy would sit for a minute or two, nervously tugging the short hairs behind his ears, grimacing at the board. While the boy plucked and fretted, Murphy rocked back and forth in his seat, as though listening to music that only he could hear. After the boy had made his long-considered move, Murphy would shift a piece in a fraction of a second.
The air in the tournament room was stifling, and suffused not unfaintly with the smell of body odor. Forty players were hard at it. Most people bent over their games with their eyes wide and their palms vised on their temples as though afraid their brains might blow out of their skulls. The quality of silence in so crowded a room was startling. At one point, someone sighed, and someone else said, "Shhh!"
As endgame approached, Murphy had 18 minutes on his clock. His opponent had two. Murphy had steadily disassembled the boy's defenses. The game ended with the boy madly shuttling his king toward a corner, while Murphy's queen closed in on checkmate. The effect was like watching someone seeking shelter on a barren battlefield under machine-gun fire.
Waiting for the next round to start, Murphy took to the chess club's rear patio to smoke a Camel no-filter. "I should think seriously about moving to New York," he said. "The chess scene's so much stronger here." He'd heard somewhere about a place in New York where you could rent a room for $125 a week. "I could hustle that in two days, easy." I said I didn't think $125 a week would get him much more than a bunk at a Bowery flophouse, if that. "It wouldn't have to be pretty," he said. "If there's roaches, I'll get a can of Raid."
Murphy's next opponent was a girl of 16 or 17. With a minute or so left on her clock, and 11 minutes on his, Murphy put her in check, then stole her bishop, and the young woman curtly resigned.
Of the two games that followed, Murphy won one easily and was coming close to sealing a tournament victory in the other when he committed a blitz player's blunder. Though he had plenty of time on the clock, he made a rash move that left his bishop unprotected, a misstep he would surely have caught if he'd taken an extra second or two to study the board. His opponent, a bespectacled man in his 30s, seemed stunned and faintly humiliated to be given a victory that shouldn't have been his. "Sorry," he whispered. He sacked Murphy's bishop and went on to take the game.
"Drat," Murphy said under his breath.
Murphy did not let the loss bother him excessively, though it put him out of contention for the prize money. "Drat," he said again, out on the back patio, where a warm summer rain was coming down. "Well, that's what you get for being hasty."
It was pushing midnight when Murphy took his leave of the Marshall Chess Club and stepped out onto West 10th Street. The rain had tapered off and left the night feeling damp and clean. "Let's go down to the park, see if I can catch up with the late-night crew," Murphy said. "There's an African guy who told me, if I'm in town, he wants action. That could make the trip worthwhile."
So we walked to Washington Square, but there wasn't anything happening there, except a few drug dealers hanging around the chess tables, murmuring, "Smoke? Smoke? Blow?" The African man who wanted action was nowhere to be seen, and at the stroke of midnight the police kicked everybody out of the park. Murphy had no place to stay, and no cards or chess opponents to pass the hours until dawn. We decided to drive back to Washington.
Murphy slept the whole ride south. Driving was difficult because he'd fallen deeply asleep with his knee on the gearshift and could barely be budged. When we arrived at Dupont Circle at 6:15 in the morning, I had to nudge Murphy for nearly an entire minute to get him to wake up. Then he stirred, shook my hand and walked into the park, where a poker game was going on.
IN 1923, A DECADE AFTER PAINTING "NUDE DESCENDING A STAIRCASE," Marcel Duchamp, disgusted with what he believed was the hollow commercialism of the art world, abandoned painting and sculpture for what he saw as a nobler discipline: chess. Chess, he said, "has all the beauty of art -- and much more. It cannot be commercialized. Chess is much purer than art in its social position." In 1927, on his honeymoon in the south of France, Duchamp dismayed his new wife by spending every evening at a chess club in Nice. After he returned, he would ponder chess problems through the night. One morning, his neglected bride rose while he was sleeping and glued his chess pieces to the board. The couple split six months later. "Chess is my drug," Duchamp confessed in a letter to a friend after the divorce.
As destructive chess obsessions go, Duchamp's was a fairly mild case. For centuries, the game's detractors have bemoaned chess's tendency to swallow people whole. (Chess, wrote H.G. Wells, "annihilates a man. You have, let us say, a promising politician, a rising artist that you wish to destroy. Dagger or bomb are archaic and unreliable -- but teach him, inoculate him with chess.") The first famous casualty might have been America's earliest chess titan, Paul Morphy (1837-1884), whose career was cut short by paranoid psychosis -- an effect, some conjecture, of excessive immersion in a game of murderous traps. Morphy's psychological cave-in later echoed in the troubled life of America's second chess superstar, Bobby Fischer, who among other eccentricities, had his fillings drilled out for fear they contained mind-control devices.
Since the game first emerged, no one has designed an unbeatable pattern, that is, truly conquered the game. The field of play in chess is tiny: 64 checkered squares with a population of 32 pieces. Yet the possibilities the game embodies are essentially endless.
"The first four moves can lead to seventy thousand different positions," George Steiner wrote in the New Yorker in 1972. "The number of possible ways of playing the first ten moves on each side is such that if every man, woman, and child on the earth played without respite it would require more than two hundred and seventeen billion years to go through them all." The possible ways of playing an entire game is a much vaster number, 10120, a number considerably larger than the number of electrons in the known universe (1079), according to chess historian David Shenk.
Tom Murphy sits on a concrete stool in the park, moving pieces across a board 14 or so hours out of every day, seven days a week. Before you dismiss this as simple mania, consider what a satisfying thing it must be to spend your days staring at a chessboard, into the very mouth of infinity, when a lot of the time your world is encompassed by the chain barrier encircling Dupont Circle, when the loss of $100 will leave you broke and the array of options spread out before you is considerably short of endless.
SOME CHESS FIXATIONS CULMINATE IN MORE REWARDING WAYS THAN MURPHY'S HAS. For Maurice Ashley, the obsession has paid off in considerable renown. In 1999, Ashley, who was born in Jamaica, became the first black player to achieve the grandmaster title, a milestone that symbolizes an enthusiasm for chess that has been rapidly swelling in African American communities in recent decades. The sudden upsurge in black interest in the game, according to just about everyone I spoke with, dates to July 1972, when Bobby Fischer triumphed over the Soviet grandmaster Boris Spassky in their clash for the world title in Reykjavik, Iceland.
Unfolding amid Cold War tensions 17 years before the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the match was freighted with outsize consequence, a proxy struggle between the Free World and the Iron Curtain. And Fischer, ardent in his hatred of the Soviets, did all he could to trumpet the match's global significance. "This little thing between me and Spassky . . . it is really the Free World against the lying, cheating, hypocritical Russians," he said. Fischer's well-timed zealotry, coupled with his tactical ferocity, touched off a short but fervent American mania for the game. Attendance at tournaments exploded. "Black people got caught up in chess the same way everybody else did," said Shabazz. "You'd see it on TV. You'd read about it in magazines, or hear about it in the news. There was all of the propaganda of the Cold War behind it, and it was easy to get drawn into the Bobby Fischer mystique. Here was this well-dressed, good-looking man, and he had this swagger to him that people admired. Fischer made chess sexy. He made chess cool."
While newly converted white players flocked to tournaments and chess clubs, African American players took the game into less formal spaces. "We don't do our socializing in posh clubs," said Ashley. "You're always going to find that when African Americans catch onto something, it's going to find its way into the public parks, the street corners, the barbershops, the places where the brothers go to play."
Through the dawn of the 1970s, black chess players were a comparatively rare sight in Dupont Circle, but according to William Moore, the park's ethnic balance at the tables underwent a rapid shift shortly after the Spassky-Fischer bout. "I was right here in the park, and when Bobby Fischer won, the people just started going crazy. Where the CVS is now, that used to be a Peoples Drugs. They used to sell these checkers sets over there, and, right after Fischer won, they started selling chess sets like you wouldn't believe, and checkers went off the shelf. Chess was all the people wanted to play."
AFTER HIS NEAR-VICTORY IN NEW YORK, MURPHY RESOLVED TO COMPETE IN THE WORLD OPEN, a six-day affair commencing a week or so later in King of Prussia, Pa., outside Philadelphia. With a field of more than 1,000 competitors, the World Open is the largest chess tournament in the United States, and a good competitive showing could have truly life-altering consequences for Murphy. First prize in his division was $20,000, which would mean a lot for Murphy -- "an apartment, food, new clothes, a car."
But even if he didn't go home with prize money in his pocket, a strong performance at the open, he said, might be enough to boost his rating to master and open the door to a teaching career. "If I score really well at the World, that'd be it. The U.S. Chess Center would probably offer me a job teaching. That'd be nice."
This sounded promising. But what I didn't know then was that David Mehler, the center's director, had offered Murphy a job a couple of years earlier and that Murphy didn't act on it.
"Tom is such a fantastic teacher that I certainly could have rammed it through with my board," Mehler would tell me later. "But not unless he took the steps necessary, which was giving me a r¿sum¿, or working with me so that I could create a r¿sum¿ for him. But he never did that."
There was, however, the matter of how to raise the formidable entry fee of $400, but Murphy did not let it worry him, and had no plans to raise the money in advance. He could hustle it -- "no problem" -- when he got to the tournament. We pulled into the convention center as the sun was going down. Murphy grabbed his chess kit and lunged from the car. "Chess play-ers wanted," Murphy shouted to the darkening parking lot.
The open was confined to the basement levels of the convention center, a series of cavernous, windowless rooms paved in checkered linoleum of oatmeal and a scab brown that matched the fiberboard wainscoting. More than 1,200 people had registered, and the total purse topped out at $400,000. Nearly 40 grandmasters were competing. But Murphy did not head for the tournament hall. He went straight to what is known as the "skittles room," which was not actually a room, but a series of tables where people could play chess for fun before their formal matches. The skittles tables doubled as the gambling pit for several dozen hustlers, who'd come to the tournament not to compete but to ply their trade against skilled players willing to play for high stakes.
"Hey, Murph. Hey, Murph!" several people said when he arrived.
At the skittles tables, fresh-faced young people played games for pleasure alongside tough-looking men who seemed as if they hailed from the rough side of the tracks: a man with biceps the size of cannonballs and tattoos on his neck; a grizzled man with a matted beard and a heap of dirty luggage at his feet; a man wearing a gold necklace, two gold bracelets and a gold ring on each of his fingers. There were hustlers from Detroit, Baltimore, New York and Atlanta. Someone asked where Murphy was from. With pride, he said, "I represent the Chess University of Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C."
The news that Dupont Circle had sent a representative seemed to terrify a rotund hustler from Detroit -- Fats was his name -- who was looking for a game. "Dupont Circle -- that's no joke!" he said. "Even the bums down there can play! I went there one time thinking I was going to win some money. Man, they was so tough, I ran out of that park screaming for my life!"
As it turned out, raising the entry fee was tougher going than Murphy had expected. He'd managed to find a late-night poker game but had cashed out an undistinguished $10 in the black. The following morning at the skittles table, while Murphy was in the middle of an unending sequence of quick, $2 slaughters of an old friend from New York, one of Murphy's students from Dupont Circle stopped by. "You playing in the tournament?" he asked.
Murphy didn't take his eyes off the board. "Nah," he said. "I'll probably just chill. I went in [to the tournament hall] and watched a few of the games. My stuff's weak as water. I'd just be wasting my money."
Evidently, it didn't bother Murphy to have journeyed two hours north simply to keep doing what he did all day, every day in Dupont Circle, only with stiffer competition and more depressing scenery. As he set the pieces for yet another game of $2 blitz, it was difficult not to wonder whether Murphy's dream of the apartment, the car, the teaching career wasn't just another sort of hustle, one he ran on himself.
Dispirited, I went into the tournament hall to watch the grandmasters play. I stood on the edge of a game and watched two men squeeze their temples for about 15 minutes straight. No one touched a piece. I walked back out again.
In the days that followed, Murphy held his own at the skittles tables, though the high-stakes victories and $1,000 profits he'd talked of earlier were not forthcoming. The trouble was that so many hustlers were on hand that just about everybody the hustlers were trying to hustle turned out to be a hustler himself. The whole thing was shaping up to be one big expensive exercise in professional cannibalism.
Fats, the hustler from Detroit, concurred. "It's terrible -- everybody's kicking my ass," he said. "There's just no fish in this water. Even just a little damned minnow would be nice. But every time I put my toe in the water to try to catch me one, a goddamned shark comes by and bites me on the foot."
ONE NIGHT, AT 1:30 A.M., AFTER LOSING $10 TO A QUIET MAN WITH A SERIOUS FACE, Murphy pushed himself back from the chessboard to go join a poker game upstairs on the third floor of the Radisson Hotel, which is appended to the King of Prussia convention center. The game was in full ferment when Murphy arrived. The room's paying tenant was a teenage boy who could have passed for 10 and who bragged about riding the New York subway for child's fare.
As the dawn was going blue, Murphy cashed out his chips with a $470 profit, but by then it was too late for him to enter the tournament. He took the elevator to another floor in the hotel to find a place to sleep. He settled on the little lobby area in front of the fourth-floor elevators, where he stretched out on a divan and soon was fast asleep.
All over the hotel and convention center, in fact, the chess hustlers were camped out on whatever incidental furniture they could find. They slept in doorways and in stairwells. One hustler had made himself a bed from four chairs and a set of table linens borrowed from the convention center. Some, like Fats of Detroit, who was just starting a new match at 5:15 a.m., solved the challenge of where to sleep by not going to sleep at all.
On the final morning of the open, Murphy looked ready for a nap. He'd undergone a reversal of fortune at the card table the previous night. "I lost a C-note and a half," he said wanly.
The skittles tables, too, were looking woebegone. Cigarettes and french fries minted into the shape of running-shoe treads were squashed on the floor. Fats of Detroit was losing a game. The most energetic players in sight were a pack of grade-school kids playing blitz. Though by the end of the day, $400,000 in prize money would be distributed among the open's winners, the tournament itself could have been taking place in another state for all the hustlers cared. All of them were consumed by trying to win back at least their travel costs before the tournament shut down.
Murphy had his chess kit shouldered, and we were heading for the exit to catch a ride back to Washington when, at the last moment, a man asked Murphy for a game. It took Murphy a fraction of a second to weigh the value of a lift home against the opportunity to win back his poker losses of the night before. He sat and tapped the clock.
The games started out at $5 per, and, curiously, Murphy lost three games straight. He handed over $20. When the man asked his neighbor to change the bill for him, Murphy got suddenly agitated, seized with an anxiety that his opponent didn't have the money to cover his bets. "Whoa!" Murphy said. "Show me some money."
"I'm trying to get change."
"Whoa! Whoa! Whoa! Show me some money! I need to see some money!"
The man reached into his pocket and pulled out a $100 bill.
"You happy now?" the man asked.
"I'm happy," said Murphy.
But he remained agitated. A game or two later, Murphy stopped the clock to dress the man down over an infraction of the rules. "Now, let's be gentlemen," said Murphy in a calm but stern voice. "I'm here for a gentlemanly game."
The men set up their pieces, and the clock started ticking down. Murphy lost again. He shrugged and grinned. "Well, at least I'm enjoying myself," he said amiably. "You can take my money, but you cannot deprive me of my joy."
What probably lay behind Murphy's grin was his knowledge that the man would not for long deprive him of his money, either. When the stakes went up to $10 per game, Murphy suddenly began to win. It was a subtle string of victories, nothing that would have given his opponent cause to wonder whether the early games might not have been what they seemed.
Murphy took a cigarette break outside and confided that the odds were good he'd win his $150 back. A few carefully thrown games, and he felt sure his mark would offer $20 per and play on until his wallet was exhausted.
He returned to the table, and within half an hour, the other man's $100 bill was in Murphy's pocket. Beads of sweat stood out on his opponent's flushed brow. The man, sensing perhaps that a hustle was afoot, looked as though he was close to tears of frustration.
"Relax, relax," said Murphy affably. "No need to get upset. I'm an easy man to work with."
Wells Tower is a Magazine contributing writer. He can be reached at email@example.com. He will be fielding questions and comments about this article Monday at noon at washingtonpost.com/liveonline.