Too Good to be True

Bruce Pandolfini is the author of the forthcoming "The Diagonal Mind" and other books on chess, including "Kasparov and Deep Blue." He was the real-life inspiration for the chess instructor in "Searching for Bobby Fischer."

During the Age of Enlightenment, a number of scientists experimented with a tantalizing problem: Could the human brain be mimicked mechanically? One such inventor was Wolfgang von Kempelen, scientist, founder of experimental phonetics and counselor to Empress Maria Theresa of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. During his creative lifetime, Von Kempelen designed bridges, experimented with steam engines and devised machines that “spoke.”

Well aware of the public’s enchantment with the idea of a thinking machine, Von Kempelen played a trick on the brightest of his contemporaries. When he unveiled his human-like curio, which he called “the Turk,” the life-size figure dressed in ermine-trimmed robe and turban amazed the court by playing chess.

“The Turk,” written by Tom Standage, technology correspondent for the Economist, is a history of that automaton, which consisted of a wooden mannequin seated behind a cabinet some 4 feet long, 2 1/2 feet deep and 3 feet high. A chessboard was attached to the tabletop. Given an opponent, a dramatic presentation and a wind-up, the Turk competed against some notable players, including Benjamin Franklin, Napoleon Bonaparte and the greatest chess-player of the time, Francois-Andre Danican Philidor. The Turk traveled across Europe and parts of America for decades, giving deceptive proof of its chess-playing prowess.

Standage’s account begins with the 18th century rage for contraptions that produced singing birds, flute-playing statues and even a duck that quacked, ate and digested its food in full view of the audience. No wonder the Viennese court turned out in 1769 for similar practical proof of scientific progress when a Monsieur Pelletier, a visiting lecturer of sorts, attested to the superiority of French learning with an entertaining mix of staged exhibitions, automata and conjuring tricks. Provoked by the Frenchman’s arrogance, Von Kempelen told Maria Theresa that he could build a machine more surprising than anything the empress had just seen.


He did. The Turk seemed a giant technical step forward, and the automaton’s apparent ability to master the complexities of the chessboard inspired other inventors. Upon seeing the Turk in action, Edmund Cartwright tackled the development of a mechanical loom. Charles Babbage, who created the forerunner of the digital computer, may have disputed that the Turk was a reasoning machine, but he was nevertheless convinced one could be developed and sketched out his computational procedure for a machine that might someday play chess.

Observers alternately described the Turk either as proof of inventive brilliance or as an elaborate, if ingenious, hoax (Edgar Allan Poe demonstrated that he belonged to the latter group in his essay “Maelzel’s Chess-Player”). Standage surveys nearly eight decades of inevitable conflict between the Turk’s supporters and critics. Despite many close encounters with observers who correctly speculated that a human operator was the chess-playing brain behind the Turk, enough hard-headed analysts concurred with delighted onlookers, satisfied that the Turk played chess wholly independently and intelligently.

Standage connects scientists across the centuries, and the result is pleasantly thought-provoking. Von Kempelen operated on the same premise as 20th century British computer scientist and cryptographer Alan Turing: that human intelligence was best simulated and revealed through communication or chess-playing.

We know that computers power through complex chess problems or linguistic tasks with massive mathematical muscle-flexing. By 1997, Deep Blue, IBM’s chess-playing computer, could analyze 200 million chess positions per second. But while chess-playing computers succeed as calculators, they fall short in making creative judgments. Programs that imitate chess-play or produce speech cannot yet replace the human mind. And still we go on asking the obvious question: Can a machine ever be made that will rival, let alone best, the human brain? It’s the thought that counts.


The Turk was a beguiling illusion. A concealed human operator did the actual playing. He alternately curled up and stretched out inside the cabinet as doors were opened at the beginning of the performance to prove it was empty. Once the doors were closed, he sat, though uncomfortably, in the main compartment.

With the creation of the Turk, Von Kempelen knew he was foisting a canard on Europe’s elite. But for the most part, the deception worked, even though rational minds surmised that an automaton could not be capable of the ingenuity the Turk displayed. The show was too good to be true and a number of astute eyewitnesses explained why the Turk wasn’t playing and a human being was. Eventually, after a later owner died, the Turk was sold to Dr. John Kearsley Mitchell (Poe’s physician), who managed to put the disassembled marvel’s many parts back together and verify how right they were.

Why would people want to believe that a machine could be capable of insightful thought over a chessboard? Why does a machine with even the appearance of human qualities intrigue us? And why are humans interested in the development of comparable intelligence? Do we believe that, if we can create something like the human brain, we will finally understand it? If we can build a machine to incarnate what is human, could we then cheat mortality?

Chess, Standage writes, has been regarded as a touchstone of intelligence. Indeed, one of the reasons why the Turk was so enthralling is that the game’s appeal transcends any knowledge about it. Even for nonplayers, chess symbolizes the mind’s ability to come to grips with new situations, complex problems, even emotions unleashed by some cunning and determined opponent. More than a test, chess is a metaphor that plays out the realities of life: challenge and contest, struggle and defeat, foreseeing and comprehending the future. Because chess stands for so much, it can mean something even for those who know little about the game.


Standage leaves it to others to explain how and why the chess-playing automaton artificially embodied human curiosity about the nature of the human mind. The Turk both captivated and fooled eager spectators, and we keep coming back for more. It’s not the engineering that’s primarily fascinating, it’s we, the people. Nobody gives any thought to devising a human that plays chess like a machine. But a machine behaving like a human to explain us to ourselves--that’s the true magical spell of the Turk.



From ‘The Turk’


Napoleon’s encounter with the Turk is easily the most famous episode in its career.... “The automaton was seated in front of a table on which a chessboard was arranged for a game,” wrote [Napoleon’s valet] Constant. “His Majesty took a chair, and sitting down opposite the automaton, said, laughing: ‘Come on, comrade; here’s to us two.’ The automaton saluted and made a sign with the hand to the Emperor, as if to bid him begin.

“The game opened, the Emperor made two or three moves, and intentionally a false one. The automaton bowed, took up the piece and put it back in its place. His Majesty cheated a second time; the automaton saluted again, but confiscated the piece. “That’s right,” said His Majesty, and cheated the third time. Then the automaton shook its head, and passing its hand over the chessboard, it upset the whole game. The Emperor complimented the mechanician highly.”