It's Your Move (Clank, Whirr), Mister Turk

June 19, 1972
June 19, 1972

Table of Contents
June 19, 1972

Yesterday/Your Move
On Two Wheels
Eye On The Ball
Dan Gable
Track & Field
Big D
19th Hole: The Readers Take Over

It's Your Move (Clank, Whirr), Mister Turk

An 18th-century chess machine succeeded for 65 years in fooling most of the people all of the time, and vice versa. It might have gone on longer if the man inside had kept his trap shut

Although chess has its "swindles"—referring to games in which a player capitalizes on a blunder by an opponent in a winning or drawn position—the incidence of actual chess cheating is rare. Championship players are keenly aware of every piece on the board, whose move it is and the time remaining, so that opportunities for genuine swindles are almost nonexistent.

This is an article from the June 19, 1972 issue Original Layout

Still, there was an occasion when nearly the entire chess world, not to mention such otherwise sophisticated lights as Napoleon Bonaparte, was duped by a chess hoax as resourceful as it was long-lasting. It all began in the Royal Palace in Vienna in 1770. Baron Wolfgang von Kempelen, a famous inventor, had boasted to Empress Maria Theresa that within six months he could construct a marvelous invention that would astonish and baffle everyone with its mysterious design and secret power.

And, sure enough, half a year later he was prepared to demonstrate his device in the Great Hall, not only before the members of the royal court but some of the country's finest mathematicians and intellectuals. The Baron's boast came at a time of scientific and technical sophistication throughout the world. The clock had been contrived, magnetism and gravity were well known, gunpowder had been invented, astronomy was well developed and many early steps toward controlling disease were being taken. Surely there could not be much left to discover. Still, the buzzing in the court was heated as the Baron stepped forward to make scientific history.

What he had to show and demonstrate to the assemblage, he said, was the world's first automated chess machine—or, as he called it, the Automaton Chess Player. The announcement evoked instant disbelief. It was ridiculous, the courtiers told each other, to assert that a machine could actually play anything as challenging and complex as chess. No machine could reason out all the plays and combinations that had puzzled some of the greatest minds in the world. Clearly, the Baron was making a joke. And if it were a trick, he would not be able to get away with it for long. Consequently, the audience watched with amused skepticism as the demonstration began.

First, attendants wheeled into view a chest about four feet long, three feet high and two feet wide. A chessboard was fastened to the top. Behind the cabinet was a life-size, mustachioed "Turk" wearing a turban, an Oriental costume and holding a long, thin pipe in its hand. The Baron announced, with a few courtly flourishes, that his machine—entirely unaided by any human agency—could beat any opponent who would accept the challenge. The Baron would be on hand only to wind the device from time to time. He asked for a volunteer to step forward.

The audience balked. Obviously, the crowd felt, the machine was a hoax and would be operated by someone hidden inside the cabinet, perhaps a clever dwarf or boy. Several people suggested as much and asked for permission to look inside the contraption.

The Baron willingly agreed. Indeed, he said, he had intended to open the cabinet after the first game but would be pleased to do so now if it would clear up any suspicions. While the audience watched closely, he took a key and unlocked one of the doors facing toward the audience. Inside they saw a mass of clockwork wheels, levers, narrow metal bars and pistons. Then he began to unlock two doors of a larger compartment on the other side but stopped suddenly and asked for a lighted candle.

Because there was so much machinery in the opened section, the inventor said, he wanted his audience to know for certain that no one could be hiding behind it. He now opened a door in the rear of the cabinet and held the candle up so the audience could see no one was inside. Then he shut the rear door, walked around to the front and opened a drawer in the bottom of the cabinet. It contained only chessmen. He left it open as he swung out the two cabinet doors he had started to open before. More machinery. He opened the back door and again held up the lighted candle so the audience could see all the way through.

Now the inventor took the desklike cabinet, which was on casters, and swung it around to show the Turk's back. He lifted the robe, and the spectators could see it contained only wheels and machinery with no space for a person. With the doors and drawer open and with the Turk's robe lifted up over its head, the Baron rolled the cabinet around the room, permitting careful inspection, and returned it to its original place in front of the apparently satisfied audience.

The Baron took the pipe from the Turk's hand, then placed a cushion under the left elbow, set up the chessmen on the board and wound up the machine with a key, much as one would wind a clock. The device began to click. A volunteer stepped up, and the game began.

The Turk had the first move.

After turning its head from side to side, the mechanical man, to the accompaniment of mechanical noises inside, lifted its left arm jerkily and closed its lingers on a pawn, moving it forward two squares. The 18th-century audience reacted predictably. One woman rose from her chair, crossed herself and departed.

The Turk's opponent now made his first move. Within seconds the Turk, with more whirring, made a second and logical move. The spectators moved closer. The inventor had not interfered in any way with the operation of the device. In fact, he turned his back on it, and after a time strolled to one side to converse with observers, returning to the cabinet only to wind it again after every 10 or 12 moves.

As the game proceeded, the audience's credulity became more strained with every move. At one point the Turk bowed its head twice to warn the opponent that his queen was threatened. Three nods signified a check. A mild sensation occurred when the human player made an illegal move, and the Turk solemnly shook its head and returned the piece to its proper position. Unhappily, there is no record of the moves of this first match of man vs. "machine," nor do we know who won. In light of the overwhelming victories the automaton ran up in later years, we may assume the man was roundly beaten.

A. I. Horowitz, the American grand master, has said the automaton's secret was never fully discovered by the spectators. But theories abounded that a boy was somehow hidden inside, or a dwarf or a legless man. Scores of books and articles purported to "expose" the secret of the invention while others accepted the Turk truly as a mechanical marvel of fantastic complexity.

Actually, said Horowitz, the skeptics were correct in believing a human was hidden inside the cabinet. What they were never able to explain, however, was the way he was concealed from view during inspection of the cabinet's interior by the audience. The answer lies in the realm of illusion—the same phenomenon that permits us to believe a magician is sawing a woman in half or making her vanish before our very eyes.

In the case of the Turk the deception was the greater because the man inside, besides being a superb chess player, was fully grown. He was concealed from detection by remarkable tricks of design that kept him out of sight while doors and drawers were being opened to "expose" the inside of the box. The secret was in the cabinetwork. The drawers did not go all the way to the back of the cabinet, leaving a narrow channel in which the man could operate while the doors were being opened and shut. The machinery inside had nothing to do with the operation of the automaton and could be accordioned forward. All the doors were never opened at the same time. When the smaller door was opened to expose the machinery and permit the lighted-candle demonstration, the large door in back was shut. The man perched on a sliding seat and moved back and forth behind the machinery, compressing it to make room for himself and lowering a panel so the audience could not see him.

But how did the concealed chess master operate the automaton and how could he know what moves were being made on the board outside? These were questions that stumped even those who were convinced a man was hidden inside. One common but erroneous theory was that the man peeked out through the robes of the dummy and had his left hand inside the left arm of the Turk.

A duller man than Baron von Kempelen might have tried to delude his audiences with such a trick, but the Baron seldom was content with the obvious or simple. What he had done was contrive a panel holding a small peg-in chessboard that folded over the lap of the man inside when the doors of the cabinet were closed. Tiny chessmen were placed in the peg holes. Using rods and levers connected to the arm of the Turk somewhat in the fashion of a pantograph, the man was able to guide the Turk's hand to the proper piece on the board by remote control.

So far, so good.

But how were the topside moves transmitted to the man inside? The Baron used magnetism to carry off that part of the hoax. As the chessmen on top were moved, they stimulated the "mirror-image" chessmen underneath by magnetism. The hidden player simply duplicated the moves on his lapboard, pondered his reply and, using the rods and levers, made his move. Additional hocus-pocus, such as making the Turk turn or shake his head as if in deep thought, was provided by other rods and levers underneath.

It took the skeptics 65 years to catch up with the Baron's machine, although it had by then gone through the hands of another owner and had been the subject of at least one academic study that came close to disclosing its secret. In 1821 Robert Willis at Cambridge University in England had published a shrewd but only partially accurate hypothesis on how the player was hidden, but he had stumbled over the matter of how the player knew what was going on outside.

Edgar Allan Poe followed with an expose of the Turk in the Southern Literary Messenger, giving virtually the same incorrect explanation Willis had given 15 years earlier. Poe became interested when the Turk came to the United States in 1826. As it had in Europe, it fascinated the chess-playing public and led to the usual burst of theorizing and skepticism.

The first authentic revelation of the automaton's secret was published in the magazine Pittoresque in 1834. It described how the player was hidden and explained properly how he was able to "see" the moves and control the automaton's arm. The material for this article was furnished by a man identified only as Mouret, who had run the automaton for its new owner from about 1819 to 1824.

"This very skilful player [Mouret]," wrote George Allen in The Book of the First American Chess Congress, "sank into habits of intemperance, and died in 1837. He was, therefore, in the lowest stage of his degradation when he betrayed the secret of his old employer." The old employer was Johann N. Maelzel, a German piano teacher who bought the automaton from Baron von Kempelen's son in 1804. A man interested in various mechanical devices, Maelzel had once constructed a complicated instrument that played compositions by Mozart and Haydn on an ensemble of flutes, drums, cymbals, clarinets, violins and cellos.

Subsequently, Maelzel toured Germany with both the Turk and his curious harmonicon. He seems to have exceeded even Baron von Kempelen in showmanship—he once drew Napoleon into an explosive series of games. Although details of the encounter are disputed by various authorities, there seems little doubt that the match took place. In his first game with the Turk, Bonaparte made six moves, and then, apparently to test the automaton, deliberately made a false move. The automaton bowed and replaced the ill-placed piece, indicating that Napoleon should move correctly. Napoleon again deliberately made a false move. The automaton now quickly confiscated the piece and made his own move. Napoleon again tried a false move. The Turk in disgust swept the board of all its pieces and refused to continue the game.

In another game against the Turk, Napoleon ordered Maelzel to remain behind a rope barrier. Napoleon lost again. A third game was arranged. Napoleon produced a magnet and put it on the Turk's board. Maelzel removed the magnet and Napoleon was defeated again. His last attempt to beat the Turk was no more successful. On this occasion, according to one report, Napoleon wrapped a shawl around the Turk's face and upper body. Once more the Turk won. Napoleon, in anger, swept the board clean, dismissing the machine as "a bagatelle."