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
The Turk and company opened in Boston at Julien Hall, at the corner of Milk and Congress streets, on September 13, and the star of the show promptly blew the game, an event reported in the Boston Centinel as clear evidence of the superiority of Boston over New York. “We add as an extraordinary fact,” the Centinel gloated, “that on Monday the grave and skillful Chess Player found a conqueror in a Bostonian, in one of his most favorite end of games and was compelled to succumb, we believe for the first time since his arrival in America, any reports from the Commercial Emporium to the contrary notwithstanding.” The New-York American , upholding the honor of the “commercial emporium,” ran the dispatch in full but corrected the record by pointing out that the Turk had been beaten in New York in two end games by two men separately. “The truth,” countered the Centinel , “is that the automaton has been conquered in Boston by three gentlemen separately.” Greco, still smoldering in New York, exploded at this exchange. In a letter to the American , he wrote: I am sorry to perceive any discussion in the newspapers about either the victory or defeat of the automaton in any mere end of a game of chess. The ends of games played by the machine are all taken from various authors on the game, and the moves are of the most subtle construction. Few players, even of the highest order, are able to seize die solution of these different situations on viewing them set up for the first time. On the other hand, the individual who governs the automaton’s board, being fully possessed, by constant practice and experience, of every possible move which can occur, engages in contest with charmed strength and unfair advantage unless the opponent happened to have seen and studied the situation. The only fair test of skill would be full games. During the time the automaton was in this city I called on Mr. Maelzel often, as did at least two other men, and tried to get permission to play full games. But, although, Mr. Maelzel had advertised amateurs might have this privilege, he always evaded the application and it was impossible to encounter his “wooden warrior” in a complete game. Believing as I do, however erroneously, that at least two people in New York can play with a degree of skill inferior to no champion whatever, either American or European, I wish to challenge the automaton chess player to play a match of three full games on its return to the city. The match to be contested for love or money, as Mr. Maelzel pleases. If he accepts this defiance, the American public will be able to ascertain whether our countrymen are equal or not to foreigners in any specified particular—even a knowledge of the game of chess. Should this “card” be declined, let us hear no more of its vaunted superiority to the world as a chess player, but content ourselves with admiring it as a most admirable instance of mechanical ingenuity.
Maelzel (backed by the information that Schlumberger was heading north from New York) made a businesslike response to this nationalistic attack on the Turk: he promised a week of full games in Boston. He also doubled the admission price to one dollar. Schlumberger showed up in the nick of time, took a room at Mrs. Vose’s boardinghouse next door to the hall, and climbed into the Turk’s chest to report for work.
With a firm hand at the pantograph, Maelzel’s confidence soared. At one performance, after a week of solid victories in full games and with no more volunteers in sight, Maelzel cajoled a young doctor to try his hand. His name was Benjamin D. Greene, and as behooves a good medical man, he proved that human machinery was superior to the Turk’s by saying “ Échec! ” first. For years afterward, Greene’s reputation as the man who had beaten the automaton overshadowed his considerable success as a doctor.
After closing in Boston, Maelzel got around to his unfinished business with Greco. He announced publicly in Manhattan that he was accepting the “card” backed to the extent of five thousand dollars by a group of civic-minded Bostonians who felt that their chess prowess had been belittled. Greco’s two friends called on Maelzel for the challenge matches, but when they arrived he suggested that inasmuch as the Turk was still crated after the Boston stand, perhaps they would be satisfied to play a member of his entourage, Mr. Schlumberger. They consented, and both were beaten. Greco, apparently convinced that the Turk was at least as good as Schlumberger, withdrew his challenge and sent a chastened letter to the New-York American: … Since my former communication I am sorry to state that both the American chess players on whose skill I relied so arrogantly have been beaten with ease by a foreigner. I must therefore back out from my challenge, as better men have done before me and subscribe to the automaton’s superiority without a trial.
Your very obed’t servant.