Friday, October 12, 2007

Homeless man is chess king of Washington

WASHINGTON (AFP) - He sleeps on a bench, but he is king of chess during the day at Washington's Dupont Circle, where he dazzles beginners and masters alike with his winning moves on the park's stone chessboards.

Tom Murphy, 49, makes what little money he has from teaching his prodigious knowledge of the game to passersby for a few dollars.

"He has the title of expert in chess. This is the second highest American title; above him are master. So it means he is quite good," said Washington's Chess Center director David Mehler.

A former math and science major and a celebrity among amateurs, Murphy has made the Dupont Circle public square America's most prestigious chess park after New York's fabled Washington Square, according to some chess lovers.

"The mathematical equation has always been fascinating to me, then when you add the camaraderie, the ambiance, the open air, it's almost irresistible," said Murphy, peering over a park chessboard that draws players from all walks of life -- students, doctors, lawyers, drunkards.

Garrulous and brilliant, Murphy, grew up in North Carolina and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, two well known chess centers, and specializes in a lightning version of chess known as "blitz."

In this accelerated version of the ancient game, players are allowed five minutes for all their moves, and the game ends within 10 minutes.

"The appeal of blitz is that, maybe in two or five minutes, I may put together a work of art that might last a life time," Murphy said in his inimitable style of explaining chess basics.

The game, he said consists of "few guiding principles: king safety, fight for the center, give every piece a job."

"At blitz he is a very strong player. He has a very fast mind and he sees combinations very quickly. He calculates very quickly," said Mehler, who has been teaching the board game to underprivileged children for 15 years.

Murphy has won several chess tournaments and finished 15th in the 2005 world blitz championship.

He's not always down and out, but his addiction to booze often lands him on the street.

"The pursuit of the ego versus the pursuit of the spirit are in conflict sometimes," he explained. "I enjoy alcohol a little too much."

He attends Alcoholic Anonymous meetings and admits, "when I don't drink my chess is better."

Murphy aims to get better at chess and rise to the title of master.

"I would dearly love to go on and make my master's rating because through that I get a credibility to increase my teaching fee," he said.

"There is an upcoming tournament on Thanskgiving (November 22) in Philadelphia. That's looking promising," he added.

For now, the homeless chess teacher charges 20 to 30 dollars an hour and will match his wits with any rival for two to five dollars per game.

"Grand masters are teaching 100 or 200 bucks (dollars) an hour, masters can get at least 50, that's not bad," he said.

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