Turk, Ajeeb, Mephisto – the great Chess Automatons

Chess automatons are machines that play or appear to play chess.  The first chess Automaton was called the Turk.  In was constructed and unveiled in 1769 by Wolfgang von Kempelen.  He built a maplewood cabinet mounted on wheels.  Behind it was a mannequin dressed in cloak and turban.  He called the mannequin “the Turk.”  In 1770 the Turk was exhibited in Vienna at the court of Marie Theresa, the Empress of Austria.  The illusion took the form of a man in Turkish costume seated at a desk with a chess board in front of him.  Doors and panels were opened up to show no one was concealed in the desk.  Inside were mechanical wheels and pulleys that made it look like the inside of a clock.  The Turk was then wound up and set in operation to play chess.  Against all comers, it would play chess with its left hand and win 99% of the time.

The Turk went on tour all across Europe over many years.  In 1783, Benjamin Franklin played it an lost when it was exhibited in Paris.  In 1804, von Kempelen died and Johann Maelzel bought the Turk from his son the next year.  In 1809, the Turk defeated Napoleon Bonaparte during the Wagram campaign.  In 1811, Bonaparte’s stepson purchased the Turk simply to learn how it operated (hidden operators).  Maezel used some of the money he was paid to help Beethoven compose music.

In 1817, Maelzel bought the Turk back from Napoleon’s stepson, but was soon in debt.  He fled to America to escape his debts and lawsuits.  Maelzel then traveled to Britain and displayed the Turk for 5 shillings.   Maelzel returned to America in 1825 and exhibited the Turk in New York in 1826.   Maelzel then did exhibits in Boston and Philadelphia.  The Turk became so popular in Philadelphia that the first chess club in America, the Franklin Chess Club, was formed in Philadelphia due to the Turk.  One of the Turk’s opponents was Charles Carroll, one of the original signers of the Declaration of Independence.

In 1835, the Turk was on display in Richmond, Virginia and Edgar Allen Poe saw it and took an interest in it.  In 1836, Poe wrote an article in the Southern Literary Magazine.  The article, ‘Maelzel’s Chess-Player,’ was an attempt to explain how the Turk operated.  In 1837, Maelzel took the Turk to Cuba for an exhibition.  A year later, the Turk operator caught yellow fever and died.  Maelzel also caught yellow fever and decided to return to America.  On the way to New York, he died onboard the ship.  He was buried at sea off Charleston, South Carolina.

The Turk ended up in a Chinese Museum in Philadelphia, where it remained, never to be used.  In 1854, the Turk was destroyed in a fire.  In its 85 years, at least 15 chess experts and masters occupied the Turk.  In 1859, the great magician Jean Robert-Houdin wrote his memoirs and tried to explain how the Turk operated, even though he never saw the Turk in action.  He thought an amputee operated the Turk.

In 1865, Charles Hopper began the construction of a copy of the Turk.  He called his chess automaton Ajeeb.  Hooper was a Bristol cabinet maker and first displayed Ajeeb at the Royal Polytechnical Institute in London in 1868.  It stayed at the London Crystal Palace from 1868 to 1876.  In 1877, Ajeeb moved to the Royal Aquarium at Westminster.  It then went to Berlin for 3 months where over 100,000 people saw it.    Hooper took Ajeeb to New York in 1885.  Ajeeb played checkers for 10 cents and chess for 25 cents.   In 1886, Ajeeb was displayed in the Eden museum in New York City.

In 1895, Hooper sold Ajeeb to James Smith, then retired to England.  Smith then displayed Ajeeb at Coney Island.  In one instance, a sore loser took his gun and fired shots at the torso of Ajeeb.  Some sources say the operator was wounded, while others say he died of his wounds.  In 1898, the operator for Ajeeb was America’s strongest chess player, Harry Pillsbury.  He never lost a single game of chess and was an operator from 1898 to 1904.   By 1915, Ajeeb was used just to play checkers.  Its operator was Charles Barker, U.S. checkers champion.  He never lost a single game as Ajeeb.  In 1929, Ajeeb was destroyed by fire in Coney Island.  Some of Ajeeb’s opponents included Theodore Roosevelt, Harry Houdini, Admiral Dewey, O. Henry, and Sarah Bernhardt. 

In 1932, Frank Frain and Jesse Hanson purchased a copy of Ajeeb.  Hanson was a checkers master and never lost a game of checkers while playing as Ajeeb.  While on tour in Quebec, Ajeeb was thought to have supernatural powers and was blessed as a shrine.  Ajeeb disappeared during World War II.

In 1876, Charles Gumpel built a chess automaton called Mephisto.  It was operated in another room by electro-mechanical means.  In 1878, it entered a chess tournament in London and won the tournament.  Its operator was Isidor Gunsberg, a strong master.  One of the chess masters withdrew from the tournament, refusing to play Mephisto unless the operator was revealed.

When Mephisto went on tour, it defeated every male player.  However, when playing ladies, it would lose the game, offering to shake hands afterwards.  In 1883, Mephisto (Gunsberg) defeated Mikhail Tchigorin, one of the top 5 players in the world.  In 1889, Mephisto was taken to Paris, but was subsequently dismantled and never displayed again.

In 1890, Luis Torres y Quevado built a true chess automaton, called El Ajedristica.  It automatically played a king and rook endgame against king from any position without any human intervention.