The easiest way to find Tom Murphy is to walk toward the row of concrete tables at Dupont Circle and look for the crowd.
On a recent weeknight, almost a dozen people circled a table where Murphy was holding court over a chess match between his student, a 20-something with dreadlocks, and his opponent, an older man wearing spectacles.
The Chess University of Dupont Circle was in session, and Murphy, a member of its senior faculty, was administering a lesson.
“That pawn is not going to live,” Murphy says, speaking in a booming voice meant more for the crowd than for his student.
The student’s opponent studied the board.
“There’s no way you can kill both knights without killing that pawn,” Murphy says, smiling. “No, siree.”
His student grinned. “He’s blowing my mind right now,” he says.
When Murphy and his university, known by chess gurus throughout the region despite its lack of walls or accreditation, were profiled in The Washington Post Magazine in September 2007, Murphy described chess as an addiction and an art form.
Back then, he had no phone, no bank account and spent most nights on a bench in Dupont Circle. On most days, his employment consisted of giving $15 to $20 chess lessons or hustling speed chess for $2 to $5 a game.
Murphy had once dreamed of being a grandmaster, having beaten some of the nation’s top chess players at tournaments in the 1980s and 1990s. That was before his trouble with drugs and alcohol, which earned him a six-month stint in the D.C. jail for drug charges in 1999.
In some ways, Murphy, now 53, is living a more stable and connected life than he was four years ago.
He has a full-time job canvassing for Clean Water Action, an environmental advocacy group, a Samsung cellphone and an apartment, he says, in Northeast Washington.
In other ways, though, he is fighting the same demons.
Murphy showed up to a meeting with a reporter on a warm Tuesday morning carrying a bag full of belongings.
He had just returned from the Philadelphia Open, a chess tournament he said had ended poorly for him. He spoke with the same dignified thoughtfulness but none of the easy confidence he had at the chess lesson a few days earlier.
By this point in his life, Murphy thought he’d be running a formal youth chess program. He thought he’d own a home. He thought he’d be finished writing a book about chess and spirituality.
For now, he is still holding court at the Chess University of Dupont Circle and working on accepting his life as it is.
“Is it as bad as I think it is? No,” he says. “Is it as good as I want to be? Definitely not. But by the grace of God, I continue to try to make forward progress toward the place I want to be.”
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