- 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
Maelzel was in Baltimore licking his wounds from the discovery of the Turk’s secret by the two boys on the roof when news of the New York crisis reached him. The newspapers reported that the Walkers’ automaton was just as clever as the Turk but not as strong a chess player. Maelzel wrote to Coleman for an unbiased estimate of the competition and, when the editor replied that the Yank was indeed better, hurried to New York. Maelzel took in a performance with Coleman and afterward told the Walkers with magnanimity that they had a good automaton, but quite different from the Turk. After the softeningup process, Maelzel got around to offering the Walkers one thousand dollars to junk the American and join his own payroll as cashiers. The offer was refused and Maelzel ran an ad in the Evening Post on May 9 warning the public that the chess player now performing in New York was not his chess player, the one, the only, the true von Kempelen masterpiece. In truth, the American Chess Player lacked tradition and an imaginative showman like Maelzel: it was advertised for sale on May 27.
In another case of budding opposition, Maelzel diverted the inventor midway through his project and glibly persuaded him to convert it into the American Whist Player, a device with almost no box-office appeal that played for several months at the National Hotel and later became a useless adjunct to the Turk’s supporting cast. The Turk’s influence could also be felt in a circus act called the Turkish Female Automaton Juggler, and in 1831, while Maelzel and his troupe were in Philadelphia, an ambitious New York producer mounted a farce called The Automaton Chess Player starring “Gambit” and “Captain Check.”
The Turk’s circuit remained New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Baltimore until 1834, when Maelzel ventured into Richmond and Charleston. Edgar Allan Poe was a frequent, fascinated spectator during the Richmond stand in 1836. With characteristic attention to detail, he published a step-by-step deductive analysis of the Turk’s operation in the Southern Literary Messenger , in which he logically destroyed any possibility that the Turk could be a pure machine, a notion still held by many otherwise sensible people. Poe based his deduction on seventeen separate observations, beginning with the Turk’s unmachinelike behavior in making its moves not at regular intervals of time but in response to the moves of its opponent. By the sixteenth point, Poe’s ratiocination had reduced poor Maelzel to a competent sleight-of-hand artist, and Schlumberger was pinpointed as the man at the Turk’s controls by the cogent observation that the exhibition was canceled while he was ill. The Turk, however, won the seventeenth round. Poe assumed that Schlumberger played from within the Turk’s torso, where he could see the board, and observation No. 17 dwelled on the figure’s left-handedness as a device to allow the operator to cross his right hand comfortably over his chest to control machinery supposedly concealed in the Turk’s left shoulder. The Turk kept the secret of the pantograph.
But while Poe was deducing in Richmond, a onelegged Frenchman named Mouret, one of Schlumberger’s predecessors, was spilling the beans in Paris, selling the full details of the chess player’s innards for an article in the popular magazine Pittoresque . The article made no great sensation in the United States until it was republished in the authoritative Paris chess periodical, Palamède , and picked up by the American papers. The Turk’s magic diminished sharply at the box office and Maelzel set out for the hinterlands, overland to Pittsburgh and by river boat to Cincinnati, New Orleans, and points southeast.
The show was a hit in Havana, but a stateside visit to Philadelphia and New York was financially disastrous. With money borrowed from John F. Ohl, a Pennsylvania shipowner, Maelzel returned to Havana in 1837 hoping to recoup from the holiday crowds expected between Christmas and the beginning of Lent.
The plans fell apart. Maelzel and company arrived too late to take full advantage of the anticipated crowds, and Schlumberger, by now as close to Maelzel as a son, contracted yellow fever and died. Another assistant was hired but soon deserted, and Maelzel, broken in spirit as well as pocket, borrowed money from Ohl’s Havana correspondent and sailed for Philadelphia on July 14, 1838, on the brig Otis . Seven days later, off Charleston, he was found dead in his berth, a case of claret beside him. He was buried at sea.