- 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
Schlumberger—according to Greco’s seedings—was now the unofficial if anonymous chess champion of New York. But after the honeymoon interval at Boston, his duties began to multiply. On tour, besides playing chess, he had to pack and unpack the Turk in five crates, manipulate the ropedancers (after la Française and her husband—the regular handler of the ropedancers—struck out for themselves), sell tickets, and attend to a number of outside details for Maelzel. For all this Schlumberger received only fifty dollars a month plus his traveling expenses.
Schlumberger was fluent in English, German, French, Italian, and Spanish, but showed animation in any language only when the subject turned to chess. He was slovenly in appearance and shy, but his ability as a player brought him frequent dinner invitations from the serious American chess contenders. Maelzel encouraged these social engagements and even managed to use them as businesss calls. One of Schlumberger’s public-relations functions was to visit two or three of the leading players in a city and flatteringly ask them not to challenge the Turk because Maelzel feared that the automaton might lose. In return for this favor, Schlumberger would be available for private matches at their convenience. The effect, aside from keeping the Turk’s chances of winning at ninetynine per cent, was to build a corps of influential supporters for the enterprise.
When neither Maelzel nor Schlumberger had outside appointments, they took their meals together at a special table in the exhibition hall, a bottle of wine and a portable chessboard constantly between them. They ate, drank, and played without a word, with Schlumberger invariably tipsy and victorious. After dinner, Maelzel watched his fuzzy assistant disappear into the chest and carefully looked for signs of sleepiness in the Turk’s game, drumming his fingers rapidly at the side of the chessboard to keep Schlumberger alert. On such occasions, when Maelzel thought the Turk was in danger of losing, he circled the chest several times, pretending to listen carefully to the operating machinery. Pinpointing a “flaw,” he explained that the automaton was out of order, apologized to the audience, quickly shoved the Turk out of sight, and sent the always-sober French dragoon trumpeter into the breach.
Even though he was occasionally beaten, the Turk always sprang back in the popular mind as an invincible mechanism. When Charles Vezin, one of Philadelphia’s best players, bested the Turk, he got short shrift from a friend who had accompanied him to the hall. Vezin won, the friend said, only because he took so confoundedly long with his moves that even an automaton would lose interest.
The inner workings of the Turk remained a mystery to the general public until 1827, when, during an engagement in Baltimore, two boys learned the secret by the simple method of direct observation. One May day they climbed to the roof of a shed behind the exhibition hall and watched the lanky, stoop-shouldered Schlumberger rise, sweating, from the top of the cabinet after a performance. Maelzel’s reaction to the story—headlined “The Chess-player Discovered” in the Baltimore Gazette —was an immediate and voluble denial. But despite record crowds drawn by the publicity, Maelzel felt the Turk needed time to recover from the shock of having been seen déshabillé . He closed the show on June 2 and when he reopened in the fall offered his spectacular diorama, “The Conflagration of Moscow,” right off the boat from Paris, as the feature attraction. The Turk was shunted into semiretirement.
Just at this low point in his career, the Turk suffered another blow—the sudden rise of a formidable competitor. For the benefit of a Baltimore man, Maelzel had compared the reactions of the Turk’s audiences here to those in other countries: The Germans wondered and said nothing [he had said]. In France, they exclaimed “Magnifiquel” “Merveilleux!” “Superbe!” The English set themselves to prove—one, that it could be, and another, that it could not be, a mere mechanism acting without a man inside. But I had not been long in your country before a Yankee came to me and said, “Mr. Maelzel, would you like another thing like that? I can make you one for $500.” I laughed at his proposition. Then he came to me again, and this time he said, “Mr. Maelzel, would you like to buy another thing like that? I have one ready made for you.”
Maelzel turned down the offer of the new automaton, the brainchild of a pair of brothers named Walker, but he should have listened to them, for the Walkers proceeded to get the backing of a promoter named John Scudder and started the career of their “American Chess Player” on April 22, 1827—appropriately enough at the American Museum in New York.