Murphy’s Law: Holding Court in Chess

Tom Murphy has been known in chess circles for four decades. More familiar with those who revel in the excitement of blitz in public places, Murphy has showcased his craft giving it a higher profile. As a result, he has been the subject of many interviews on the intrigue of the game. He also was the subject of a 2007 Washington Post story, another one on NPR and countless others. While most will not be surprised that Murphy is an Expert-level player, his keen mind and crisp, baritone articulation will cause you to take notice.

Murphy’s background is one of life’s challenges. He is a born North Carolinian but spent formative years in Philadelphia. Later, he spent many years becoming a legendary figure in Washington, DC’s Dupont Circle before settling in his current location of Chicago. He was once enlisted, once homeless, once imprisoned… but more than once dreamed of chess stardom. Substance abuse led him to a six-month stint a D.C. prison nearly 20 years ago. Chess seems to be the way to express his obvious intellectual talents. He has been instrumental in injecting excitement in every city he has been in. These types of contributions may be overlooked.


“People tend to look at the stereotype of what I represent, not what I understand.”

~Tom Murphy


One may ask, “What can a ‘blitz hustler’ do for chess?” Murphy is not a “hustler” in the vein of a sleazy character that we see in street games like “three-card monte.” There is always a principled lesson that he tries to impart. It is another trait of a chess artist… someone more interested in protecting dignified tradition than merely trying to swindle you out of a hundred bucks with shady play.

If you’ve ever watched “Murph” play chess, he is a consummate professional and always seems to defuse minor disagreements before they escalate. The term “hustler” is often associated with players who are cheaters. There are quite a few of the true hustlers. Noted examples are players like the one who tried to hustle Maurice Ashley by taking two pieces in one move, or the Dominican player who tried to queen a white pawn by advancing from f7 to e8. Murphy has seen his share of tomfoolery (no pun intended), but he makes an effort to treat chess with respect and honor.

Tom Murphy at the 2nd Emory Tate Memorial (June 2017) in Chicago.
Photo by Daaim Shabazz

James “Black Knight” Taylor used to call such players “Street Masters” to signify the special status they had at showing a passerby the exciting slings and arrows of chess. Today Murphy is known as one of the catalysts of chess on the southside of Chicago. Certainly, Tom has a lot of stories to tell you about his own life and what he has seen on the streets. He is a man of wisdom and speaks of a life of hard lessons. While it is true that he may have lost a second or two off of his lightning reflexes, he can still assert his version of Murphy’s Law.

3 Comments

  1. Always enjoyed Mr. Murphy’s presence at the Eastern Open when I was on staff. Thank you for the write-up, Dr. Shabazz, and best of luck to Tom Murphy in Chicago.

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