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The Turk, Chess Automaton
by Gerald M Levitt
(McFarland, $50.00, 268 pages, hardback; 2000.)

Two things about this book are immediately striking.

The first is its title. What are we to make of it? Is it the biography of some sort of robotic chess player? Or is it about an Ottoman chess master who was so adept cover scanat playing that he made all of his moves in rapid, seemingly rote reaction to his opponents' plays? As we discover, there is a small element of truth to be found in both conclusions.

Then there is the book itself. Its colourful, plastic-coated hardback cover is a departure from the elegantly monochromatic, library-suited cloth hardbacks we have come to expect from McFarland's catalogue. It appears to be more at home with the role-playing manuals at your local gamers' supply shop than on a McFarland order form. And the attractive cover illustration of a mysterious amir poised over a chessboard and seated behind a square cabinet, its open doors revealing a gearbox on one side and a scarlet cushion on the other, will certainly lure the game-store browser into picking up the book and leafing through it. It is very eye-appealing.

What he will find when he does is a skilfully constructed amalgam of two unique nonfiction genres involving the worlds of chess and of magic during the Age of Reason in Europe.

The book is divided into three "parts", the first of which is titled "The History". With Schonbrunn Palace in Vienna during the latter half of the 18th century as a backdrop, we learn of the mentally adroit Queen Maria Theresa, Regent of the Holy Roman Empire, and her interest in entertainment involving illusion and trickery. (One hesitates to label it "magic".) One of the members of her court was Baron Wolfgang von Kempelen, a genius of great renown in the field of mechanics who served as counsellor to several of the royal courts of Europe. The baron had been invited to witness the performance of one Monsieur Pelletier, who was skilled in the use of magnetism to carry out his illusions.

At the conclusion of the show, von Kempelen advised the queen that, while he admired Pelletier's performance, his "tricks" could be performed by anyone with the knowledge and dexterity to make them work. When the baron further stated that, given the chance, he could create a machine whose deceptive effects would be more amazing than anything Her Majesty had ever seen, she quickly insisted that he make good on his boast. Soon thereafter, The Turk, Chess Automaton, was born.

The Turk, we learn, was a large wooden figure carved and painted in the form of a man with a moustache and a turban, set behind a square wooden cabinet. On its debut in Vienna in 1769, Baron von Kempelen claimed it was highly skilled in the game of chess, and so a chessboard was removed from the cabinet and placed in front of the figure. The baron then opened the doors to the cabinet to reveal a gearbox and a space empty save for a cushion and a drawer containing the chess pieces. Challengers were solicited from the audience. The cabinet doors were closed and the pieces were placed on the board at their proper starting points.

With the sound of gears whirring from within the cabinet, The Turk proceeded to move its head from side to side, as if to scan the chessboard. Then it picked up its piece with its mechanical arm and moved it to the desired spot on the board. When it placed its opponent's queen in jeopardy, The Turk nodded its head twice. When it placed its opponent in check, it nodded three times. If its opponent made an illegal move, The Turk shook its head and moved a piece of its own as punishment.

At the conclusion of the game (most likely won by The Turk), the cabinet's doors were opened to reveal that no one had crawled inside to manipulate the automaton. Audience reaction ranged from skepticism to amazement to sheer fright at such an unholy power.

The baron's fame as creator of The Turk soon overshadowed his reputation as a respected inventor. Disgusted at this turn of events, he soon dismantled his creation and put it away. The rest of this section of the book is concerned with the automaton's first rediscovery by Maria Theresa's son Joseph II, and its subsequent tour of Europe; followed by its second rediscovery twenty years after the death of Baron von Kempelen and its acquisition by a young Bavarian musician and mechanic, Johann Maelzel.

Part Two is titled "The Mystery". Here the author presents theories and hypotheses as to how The Turk was operated and why the illusion succeeded. These are too technical in detail to be presented here; besides, the crux of a good mystery is in its denouement, and it would not be appropriate to reveal the alleged secrets of The Turk. A wide variety of articles and illustrations, including some from publications such as The Sporting Magazine (1819), Frazier's Magazine (1839) and a small book titled An Attempt to Analyse the Automaton Chess Player ... (1821), are referenced and excerpted in detail. We discover how The Turk's notoriety grew large enough during the 19th century to attract attacks from the likes of Sir David Brewster and Edgar Allan Poe. We are presented with excerpts from the article "The Last of a Veteran Chess Player", written by Dr Silas Mitchell, the son of The Turk's third owner, in which the secrets of the automaton are revealed in eyewitness accounts and first-hand testimony. The section concludes with the revelation of the discovery of Maelzel's The Book of Endgames, in which the The Turk's operator explains the various chess strategies and moves the automaton utilized to win its matches, and which serves to validate Silas's treatise.

This also acts as an appropriate segue to Part Three, which is a series of appendices detailing the moves of pertinent chess games, and reproducing in full the significant articles and letters referenced throughout the book. One appendix covers games played between "directors" of The Turk, as taken from The Oxford Encyclopedia of Chess (Oxford, 1981) and an 1893 book by chess historian George Walker. Another lists the moves of the seventeen "endgames" described in Maelzel's journal. Each individual game is supported by an instructive chessboard illustration.

In fact, the entire book is generously illustrated. Reproductions of paintings of the principals, along with photos of billboards, documents and locations mentioned in the text are lavishly scattered throughout. They are a juicy balance to a text that tends, at times, to become a touch dry.

At $50 a copy though, I wonder if The Turk, Chess Automaton will contain enough chess to appeal to chess fans and enough legerdemain revelation to appeal to magic buffs. It is difficult to write a book that incorporates two unrelated genres and cover both thoroughly enough to satisfy each readership base, no matter how skilfully they are combined. The Turk, Chess Automaton is sufficiently attractive to persuade each of its target groups to pick it up and skim through it, and should be just meaty enough to hold their interest after they do. It would be a shame if they put the book back down without giving it a chance because they saw its price first.

Review by Randy M Dannenfelser.

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© Randy M Dannenfelser 2 June 2001