“Play the Chessmaster, $2” the sign reads. The chess master, as he calls himself, has been a fixture in front of Holyoke Center in Harvard Square ever since 1982, a year before Au Bon Pain arrived. For $2 he takes on all comers, giving them a good advantage in his game of street chess: six minutes for the challenger, and three minutes for the chess master, to complete their game. Most often he wins, as he should, for Murray Turnbull is indeed a master, having reached that certified level in 1981. His current rating, just beneath the 2,400 that designates a senior master (the top category for nationally rated players) puts him in the top 1 percent of all rated players.
Turnbull discovered chess at age 11, but by his own admission didn’t make much progress until five years later, when “I encountered some literature. You have to do a systematic study or you won’t really get anywhere.”
Even later as a student at Harvard, he didn’t get seriously hooked on the game until his third year. After dropping out of school and working briefly as a metal polisher and maker of compressors, Turnbull decided to ply his skill on the street.
Turnbull’s spot is a small chess table near the sidewalk by Au Bon Pain, where the red-bearded master holds court seven days a week in good weather, from May to October, or longer if the autumnal air doesn’t intimidate his clientele. On any given day onlookers cluster around four chess tables, where the chess master and other regulars constitute a quiet but intense mini-community.
Turnbull makes a living, albeit a modest one, from playing the game he loves. He supplements his $2 a game income with private lessons, at $18 an hour. When he’s not playing, he reads about chess. “There’s a lot of room for improvement in my case,” he says humbly.
“I love being outdoors,” he adds, “and of course I’m my own boss. What do I like about chess? You can’t win a political argument, but chess there’s an argument you can settle!”
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