- Historic Sites
The bizarre career of “The Turk,” an ingenious mechanical chess player that defeated Frederick the Great, George III, and Napoleon (whom it caught cheating) and nearly fooled all America
February 1960 | Volume 11, Issue 2
Every clay during Madame’s three-month stewardship of the Turk in New York, Maelzel rolled his combatant into battle with misgivings about the outcome of the contest and scanned the horizon nervously for some sign of Schlimibergcr, whose passage money was sent as soon as lhe show was established as a longterm attraction. The exhibitor’s lack ol confidence in his machine’s ability was quite obvious. One editor lound it newsworthy enough to devote space to it. “Whoever will watch [Maelzel’s] face closely while the game is going on,” he wrote, “cannot but observe the anxious workings of his miiitl and the relief lie experiences when the figure says ‘Échec!,’ especially when the player seems to be almost a match lor the automaton.” While Maelzel regarded la Française as merely the least reliable part of the inner workings of the Turk, there were a good many people in New York who took notice of her before and after games too. They took so much notice of her, in fact, that they missed her during the games and began to suggest that she might be the brains behind the Turk, a troublesome notion that Maelzel thought he cotdd combat only with complete candor. He walked over to the office of the Evening Post at 49 William Street, and presented its editor, William Coleman, with the scoop of the year on a silver platter. Maelzel explained the workings of the Turk, identified the operator, and confided that he was in a spot. Coleman, an ardent chess player, realized the effect that the Turk’s appearance was having on the popularization of chess by increasing the sale of chess books and chess sets, and was very gratified by it. With a gesture that establishes him as one of the most discreet reporters in the history of American journalism, Coleman not only suppressed the story but loaned Maelzel his own son to train as relief operator of the Turk. When the younger Coleman was ready for public performance, Maelzel stuffed him into the chest, and la Française sat demurely at the opponent’s board several evenings in a row, for everybody to see.
If by some chance Maelzel had chosen the editor of the Commercial Advertiser , Colonel William Leete Stone, as his confidante, he might have had to close up shop. Colonel Stone served his readers by following up every clue that might lead to the unveiling of the chess player’s mystery.
When Stone dug back into the old von Kempelen days and discovered that the baron used to peek into a square box during the course of a game and claim that the box held the automaton’s secret, Maelzel explained why he had discarded this simple deception. His words were calculated to warm the hearts and loosen the purse strings of 120,000 New Yorkers. “The people,” Maelzel said, “are now intelligent; then they were superstitious.” A writer to the National Advocate guessed that Maelzel controlled the Turk’s moves by touching springs when he drummed his fingers on the chest. Colonel Stone dutifully stopped by the National again and reported that this was impossible because Maelzel (who had read the letter too) stayed fifteen to twenty feet away from the automaton while it contemplated its moves.
Though the Frenchwoman proved herself an apt pupil, she was no chess prodigy and had not become a player de la première force in four months of preperformance practice. Therefore, to avoid a disastrous losing streak that would tarnish the Turk’s reputation and earning power, Maelzel advertised that the automaton would play only “end games,” the critical final moves leading to check and mate of the king, piously explaining that “whole games occupy too much time, and fatigue the attention of those who do not understand the game.” In finer print he added a footnote stating that the Turk was available privately for full games with interested amateurs “on application to Mr. Maelzel.”
This maneuver allowed Maelzel to limit the risk greatly, because the only end games offered to opponents were plotted out within the covers of a small green morocco-bound book compiled with the help of one of the Turk’s illustrious former tenants, a London chessmaster named William Lewis. There were several hundred situations listed, all of which had one characteristic in common: they were set up so that the player making the first move would almost invariably win the game, and the Turk always moved first.
But the footnote to his ad almost tripped Maelzel. A persistent challenger named Greco showed up at the National at least once a week to apply for a complete game, and when he couldn’t make it personally sent a couple of chess-playing friends over to torment Maelzel. Expecting a good stiff wind to blow Schlumberger into New York any day, Maelzel stalled them with a list of excuses such as broken machinery, missing parts, and emergency appointments. Greco kept up his assault until Maelzel closed the show in New York and moved to Boston, still without Schlumberger. Greco limited his complaints about misleading advertising to his circle of friends until, by a series of circumstances, it involved his civic and national pride.