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Knight moves

Keeping an 18th century chess machine in check

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Would you rather play a sore loser or a sore winner? How about a sore winner or a winner with almost too much grace and humility—the kind you just want to throttle for being so goddamned swell about trouncing you?

Imagine it’s May 1997 and you’re Russian world chess champion Garry Kasparov. Your first two-game match against IBM’s chess-playing computer, Deep Thought, almost eight years ago, was more than just the event that made Garry Kasparov a household name. The historic showdown was also widely hyped as the match for humanity’s honor, and after your decisive victory you were lauded in the press for having successfully defended it.

In the 15 months since you won a six-game match (three wins, two draws, one loss) against Deep Thought’s Successor, Deep Blue, in February 1996, your performances against human opponents have been the best of your career. And now it’s all over but the crying. The upgraded Deep Blue, made up of 32 supercomputers with 512 chess chips capable of analyzing more than 200 million positions per second, has beaten you in the sixth game, making this match the first one ever lost by a human to a computer in standard tournament conditions.

And now it’s just sitting there, two faceless black monoliths about to be wheeled into a closet on the 35th floor of a Manhattan high-rise. Nary a peep nor a gloat nor a smug twinkle in a nonexistent eye. You’re the finest chess player in the world, and you’ve just lost the match of your life against an opponent that only “knows” how to do one thing, and that is to smoke practically anyone who squares off against it through sheer computational brute force. It’s like the chess-playing version of the Terminator. Even if you could mutter your feeble assent, your ears still burning with humiliation, this opponent can’t shake hands and would never offer to take you out for a tumbler of vodka and caviar on toast points at the Russian Tea Room.

New match. It’s 1770, and you are another chess player about to become an interesting footnote in history, this time a Viennese aristocrat named Count Cobenzl. You are a courtier to Maria Theresa, empress of Austria-Hungary, and you have just volunteered for an exhibition game in front of a small gathering of court favorites and the empress herself. Your opponent, however, is unlike any you’ve played before. Seated behind a wooden cabinet mounted on castors, it’s the life-sized figure of a man, carved out of wood and dressed like a Turkish sorcerer with baggy trousers, turban and a robe trimmed with ermine fur.

Wolfgang von Kempelen, the charismatic civil servant who built this unlikely chess contender, has already opened a series of drawers and doors in the cabinet to reveal its clockwork machinery. He has turned it on its castors to display it from every angle, illuminating its innards with a candle to show that it’s far too packed with cams and cogs to possibly conceal a person inside. With a great clatter of springs and ratchets, Kempelen winds the whole contraption up, and after a brief but pregnant silence the mysterious automaton’s head swivels from side to side to survey the board. To a chorus of astonished gasps, it now extends a carved wooden hand and makes the first move.

And so begins the celebrated career of the Turk, the chess-playing automaton that would take on—and usually beat—many of Europe’s finest competitors, and a handful of famous amateurs including Benjamin Franklin and Napoleon Bonaparte. In more than 80 years of wandering Europe and the United States, first with its creator von Kempelen and then with a succession of subsequent owners, the Turk would incite astonishment, controversy and a torrent of feverish newspaper articles by learned men eager to explain its workings wherever it went. This splendid enigma of 18th century technology is the subject of The Turk, a work of riveting nonfiction by Tom Standage, technology correspondent for The Economist.

Not just riveting good, but riveting by design. Standage treats the Turk controversy like a real mystery, strewing the board with one red herring after another and not revealing the automaton’s secrets until the very end. Interestingly, he is not the first author to fall under the spell of the Turk either. A number of books have been written about the Turk over the years, ranging from earnest attempts to debunk or celebrate to wild flights of romantic fancy involving legless Polish cavalry officers and von Kempelen’s own daughter. But Standage’s book should still be a first for most readers, at least those readers outside the cabal of chess buffs, computer science buffs, scholars and historians of magic whom Standage calls the “Turk mafia.”

The Turk’s many doubters, and also its legions of enthusiastic boosters, were at loose ends trying to figure out what sort of mechanical marvel or sophisticated conjuring trick von Kempelen had wrought in the Turk, which to all outward appearances had its chess-playing “brains” built right into its noisy clockwork. Would-be debunkers suggested magnets, a dwarf or a child prodigy concealed inside, and even thin wires attached to the automaton’s operator, yet none of these explanations was wholly plausible just because of the way the Turk’s creator presented it. Von Kempelen often placed powerful magnets alongside the chess board built into the Turk’s cabinet to show that he wasn’t guiding its movements remotely, and he exhibited the interior of the cabinet from all angles before play began. Furthermore, von Kempelen, who usually monitored the game from several yards away, would often leave his automaton unattended for several turns while he strolled around the room chatting with spectators.

Unlike Deep Blue 200 years later, the Turk could be almost human in its apparent haughtiness, rolling its mechanical eyes at challengers’ blunders and primly returning their chessmen to the previous squares if they attempted illegal moves. A simple voice apparatus in the Turk’s throat even wheezed out “Check!” in French and English. Reading Standage’s book, it’s not hard to understand why the Turk haunted the dreams of so many who saw it.

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