Murray M. Turnbull is sitting in a chair in front of his family’s Christmas tree, watching a game of chess online. With his scruffy brown beard fading to white and a belly bulging against the buttons of his shirt, he could easily be mistaken for Santa Claus.
But it’s the chess board on the screen in front of him that is Turnbull’s most identifying feature. In spite of a peripatetic early life—growing up in an academic household, dropping out of Harvard, living homeless in Berkeley—Turnbull, a member of the Class of 1971, is today known best as “The Chessmaster” of Harvard Square.
Turnbull says he never believed in the value of a college degree.
“You can earn your own degree with chess, which anyone can do,” he says. “You simply display your ability on the board.”
His “season” runs from sometime in May until sometime in September, depending on the weather. For those five months or so, Turnbull plays in front of Au Bon Pain for 10 to 12 hours a day, often dragging slowly on a cigar.
From his $2 games and giving private lessons, Turnbull says he will earn anywhere from $8,000 to $10,000 a season. He runs his chess table like a business, recently moving away from timed games because, he says, they intimidate potential customers. Instead, he allows his opponent the first three moves. He takes obvious pleasure in his cleverness on the board.
“I’ve had success playing without the clock. They usually come up with some bizarre idea that doesn’t pan out,” he says. “They can’t get [check]mate in three moves, so I just start a few moves behind and catch up soon enough.”
Turnbull shrugs off his trademark sign proclaiming him “The Chessmaster”—a cardboard slab that he affixes to his table every day with several layers of heavy tape.
“A Chessmaster, that’s just what I am. I’m a Life National Master in the U.S. Chess Federation. But that’s too long to fit on the sign or to grab people’s attention.”
LEARNING THE MOVES
Turnbull grew up in Niscayuna in upstate New York, where his father worked for General Electric Research Laboratory. His father joined the faculty at Harvard in 1962, eventually taking the McKay chair in applied physics. His brother graduated from the College and the Harvard Law School.
Turnbull says he started playing chess at age 11 and has been playing ever since—excepting his first two years as a student at Harvard.
When Turnbull moved into Thayer in 1967, he immediately stood against the grain, according to his roommate Jonathan K. Walters ’71.
“Murray was an interesting guy—he really was a character. He would walk into a room and start an argument,” Walters says. “He didn’t care about pissing people off, but wasn’t pugnacious....Murray danced to the beat of his own drummer.”
Walters remembers that Turnbull was strongly opposed to the Vietnam War which was then the political focal point for many students at Harvard and across the country.