(Investigator 104, 2005 September)


Unnumbered chess players, including Napoleon, lost to the seemingly unbeatable "Automaton Chess Player" known as The Turk.

This marvel of the 18th and 19th centuries attracted crowds, royalty, nobles and even kings and queens. It baffled everyone and everyone wondered how it worked.

The Turk was a life-sized wooden dummy in Turkish costume and turban seated behind a wheeled wooden cabinet, which had a chess board built into its top surface.

The cabinet was about four feet wide, two feet deep and three feet high. It had two front doors and two rear doors. Before each performance the doors were opened one at a time to satisfy the audience no one could hide inside. What they saw was complex machinery, glistening brass wheels, levers and gears.

The Turk's left hand held a long clay pipe which was removed when the game started because the left hand also moved the chess pieces. The arm and hand would rise, advance above the board to the piece to be moved, descend, grasp the piece, and convey it to its new square.

Occasionally a chess-piece slipped from The Turk's hand whereupon the hand still went to the new position and the exhibitor then placed the piece on that square.

When switched on the cabinet emitted whirrs, buzzes and clicks, and an installed talking-machine called out "Check" when appropriate. The Turk also moved its head side to side and rolled its eyes.

Authors and academics wrote books and articles speculating how The Turk functioned. No one, however, fully guessed the secret and even when revealed it wasn't believed.

All the time, however, the obvious, mundane explanation was the true one. Perhaps there's a lesson here for today when so many seek exotic, rather than obvious, explanations for supposed paranormal phenomena like crop circles and fire-walking.


Baron Wolfgang von Kempelen (1734-1804), an Austrian inventor, built the Automaton in 1768/69.

Upon completion he demonstrated it to the royals and nobles of Vienna including the Empress Maria Theresa (1717-1780).

Von Kempelen then toured Europe with his Automaton including Germany, France and England. Amazed audiences watched the seemingly invincible machine beat all opponents.

Reports of encounters with the famous such as King George III of England, Frederick the Great of Prussia, Empress Catherine II of Russia, and Prince Metternich of Austria are probably false. A reported game against Benjamin Franklin, however, appears true as Franklin was a keen chess player and was in Paris in 1783 when The Turk performed there.


Books about The Turk already appeared in the 18th century. For example Carl F Hindenburg, a Leipzig University mathematician, wrote Ueber den Schachspieler des Herrn von Kempelen (1783) after attending exhibitions in Leipzig.

Hindenburg considered that The Turk functioned through a combination of mechanics and magnetism. But the main explanation was more mundane.

During performances a concealed "operator" or "director", the best chess player available for the job, sat inside the cabinet, his upper body left, legs extending right.

The "machinery" occupied the front one-third of the cabinet leaving space for the operator behind it. For audience inspection the drawer, which also contained the chess pieces, was opened first enabling the operator to lower his legs behind the drawer. With the legs concealed, the right door was opened for inspection and closed. The operator then bent his knees up and moved his body right. The left front and rear doors were then opened and a lit candle was displayed at the rear and was visible through the machinery. The doors and drawer were then closed and the chess pieces set up.

In 1818 and 1819 the operator was William Lewis (1787-1870) who was considered England's strongest player. Lewis beat Alexander Deschapelles (1780-1847) considered the best in France who had himself beaten the best players in Berlin.

After Lewis the next operator was Frenchman Jacques F Mouret (c.1777-1837), a strong player but not one of the greats. All told at least 15 men and one woman worked as operators.

The base of each chess piece on The Turk's chessboard consisted of a strong magnet. The board itself was thin and each of the 64 squares had, on its underside, a small iron ball suspended by a short thread. Each chess piece standing on the board therefore attracted the iron ball beneath it, but when the piece was lifted the ball dropped. In this way the concealed chess expert monitored the moves and duplicated them on a second chess set he had inside the cabinet with him.

By using levers the concealed player operated The Turk's arm and hand to grasp chess pieces and move them.

The talking machine that cried "check" was a small box fed with bellows, controlled with buttons which when pressed vibrated a reed resulting in recognizable words.

The concealed chess expert was cramped, hot, had to operate various levers, and worked by candlelight. But he had two advantages over his opponents:
1.    He almost always had White and so made the first move;
2.    He could explore, although only briefly, alternative variations on his second chess set, in effect cheat.


Johann N Maelzel (1772-1838), a music teacher in Vienna, purchased The Turk after von Kempelen died.

Maelzel took the Automaton on further exhibitions including a match against the conqueror of Europe, Napoleon of France.


Napoleon played against The Turk in 1809 at his headquarters in Schoenbrunn (Austria) after the Battle of Wagram. He lost the first game, arranged for another, and returned with a junior officer reputed to be a chess prodigy with whom he consulted.

The second game had spectacular tactics, a prolonged "king hunt", and ended with Napoleon checkmated despite being three pieces ahead. French officers, delighted and amazed, showered The Turk with silver coins!

The operator from 1805-1809, and therefore Napoleon's opponent, was Johann Allgaier (1763-1823) a leading German chess player, author of the first chess-primer in German, and discoverer of the chess opening named the "Allgaier Gambit".

                                                                                                    White: The Turk                 Black: Napoleon

1    e4           e5 17    NxN        gxN
2    Nf3          Nc6 18    Bxf         Qd6
3    Bc4         d6 19    Rxc+      Ka6
4    Nc3         Bg4 20    b4           e4
5    d3            f5 21    Bc4+      b5
6    e x f          Nd4 22    Bd8        exd+
7    N x e        d x N 23    Kd1        h5
8    Q x B        N x c+ 24    Bxb+      KxB
9    K d1         N x R 25    a4+        Kxb
10    Qh5+      Kd7 26    Rc4+      Ka3
11    Be6+      Ke7 27    Rc3+     Kb2
12    Bg5+      Nf6 28    Bf6         Qa3
13    Qf7+       Kd6 29    Rc2+     Kb1
14    Ne4+      Kc6 30    Qa2+     QxQ
15    Ke2         b6 31    Rc1 Mate
16    Rc1+       Kb7


Napoleon could have lasted longer by giving up his Queen via 28 --- QxB; 29 QxQ but would still be checkmated quickly:

e.g. 29 ---
Ba3; 30 Rc1+ Ka2; 31 QxN+ Kb3; 32 Rc3+ Kb4; 33 QxB+ Ka5; 34 Qc5+ Ka6; 35 Qb5 Mate.
Or 29 --- Rh6; 30 Rc2+ Kb3; 31 Qc3+ Kxa; 32 Rb2 Rb6; 33 Qb4+ Ka5; 34 Ra2+ Ba3; 35 RxB Mate

25 Qc4+ by The Turk would probably have lost to 25 --- Ka4; 26 Rb7 Rh6; 27 f6 Ka3; 28 Bc7 Qd7; 29 Bf4 Qa4+; etc.


Napoleon's stepson and Viceroy of Italy, Eugene de Beauharnais, wanted to find out how The Automaton worked and purchased it for 30,000 francs from Maelzel. His curiosity satisfied Beauharnais then sold it back to Maelzel on terms.

Unable to keep up the payments, and with debt collectors tailing him, Maelzel took The Automaton to Paris.

There he met Wilhelm Schlumberger (1800-1838), Germany's best player, who made his living playing for bets in cafes.

The two men hatched a plan to make a fortune in America.

Maelzel, together with The Automaton and a small French woman named Le Francaise, set sail in December 1825.


On April 13, 1826 Maelzel wheeled the Automaton into the spectator-packed ballroom of New York's National Hotel for its American debut. 

He opened the cabinet doors consecutively while the French woman, concealed inside, maneuvered to stay out of sight. Candlelight illuminated the clockwork machinery expelling any audience suspicion.

A volunteer opponent played at a table some metres from The Turk and Maelzel duplicated his moves on The Turk's chessboard. The Turk made his own moves, which Maelzel duplicated on the opponent's board.

The Turk won and became the talk of New York. Hundreds were turned away night after night for lack of seating.

With the cash rolling in Maelzel sent for Schlumberger.

But this took months. Meanwhile New York's top chess-player a man calling himself Greco (after a 17th-century Italian chess expert), turned up and demanded to play. Neither the French woman, nor another operator Maelzel had hired, stood a chance.

Maelzel therefore stalled Greco off with excuses and in July packed and went to Boston.

Then Schlumberger arrived, a chess player no American could match. In Boston The Turk took on all comers and lost only three games. Then, it was back to New York.

Schlumberger beat two challengers sent by Greco. Maelzel then requested stakes of at least $1,000 whereupon Greco withdrew his challenge writing, "I subscribe to the Automaton's superiority without a trial."


In 1827 The Turk played at packed houses in Baltimore.

One day two teenage boys watched from a roof across the street. After the performance they saw Schlumberger climb out of the cabinet.

The Federal Gazette published the story under the heading "The Chess Player Discovered". Maelzel denied it and the paper retreated noting that the boys' story had no corroboration. Another paper, the National Intelligencer of Washington, criticized the Federal Gazette and claimed the story was a ruse by Maelzel to gain publicity.

And there the matter rested. The Turk's secret had been exposed to the world and the world refused to believe.

Nevertheless, the negative publicity needed to blow over. A further problem was that several Americans had built their own chess automatons and were touring with them. Maelzel therefore ceased public exhibitions for a while and did only private showings in Baltimore and Philadelphia. He also put one rival automaton out of action by purchasing it for $5,000 and burning it.


From 1830-1835 Maelzel resumed tours and exhibitions including a stint in Canada.

In January 1836 he went to Richmond in the Southern States.

There the famous writer Edgar Allan Poe wrote an expose in the Southern Literary Messenger. Poe argued that a concealed human operated The Turk's hand and watched the game through a small hole in the Turk's chest. Poe noted that Schlumberger was never around whenever The Turk played.

With The Turk's secret increasingly compromised Maelzel needed new territory. They went West, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Louisville, and then down the Mississippi to New Orleans.

Maelzel and Schlumberger now figured richer pickings lay in South America. In early 1838 they began with Havana, Cuba. The Havana exhibition was successful but Schlumberger died there in April of yellow fever.

Meanwhile, the American press had quoted Poe's article extensively. Also devastating was an article published in Europe in 1834 (and subsequently in America) wherein Mouret described his career as The Turk's operator 14 years earlier.

Sickness then forced Maelzel to leave Cuba for the US, but he died aboard ship in July.


After Maelzel's death the Automaton had several more owners, finally the Chinese Museum in Philadelphia.

There, in July 1854, it perished in a fire.

The Turk inspired the movie The Chess Player (1927) with Charles Dullin as von Kempelen, and has also appeared on stamps of several countries.


Two further chess-playing automatons became famous after The Turk.

One was Mephisto constructed in 1876 by Charles G Gumpel a manufacturer of artificial limbs.

The other, Ajeeb, was constructed in 1868 by Englishman Arthur Hopper. Ajeeb was a life-sized figure of an Egyptian and, like The Turk, sat behind a cabinet. The contraption was exhibited across Europe, the United Kingdom and the United States. In Berlin alone 100,000 people came to see it.

Ajeeb was less ingenious than The Turk, the operator, for example, watched the game directly through a hole in the Egyptian's navel.

Among Ajeeb's operators was Harry Pillsbury (1872-1906) the American champion and equal to the best in the world. He operated Ajeeb from 1898-1904.

Since the 1950s we've had chess-playing computers. In 1997 a chess program named Deep Blue defeated Gary Kasparov the most highly rated human player of all time.


The Turk's secret was never publicly exposed with a full explanation of how it worked. Some critics speculated that a child, dwarf or legless man was concealed inside the cabinet, which in principle was correct but not the whole story.

Many people simply wanted to believe in a genuine chess-playing machine. They wanted to believe that gears and clockwork-like machinery could out-think humans.

In support was the fact that The Turk rarely lost. Against was the fact that no scientist or mathematician could show, even in principle, how machinery could play chess. Belief in The Turk required the implausible assumption that one man, the inventor, was intellectually centuries ahead of his time, yet was content to waste his life and talents supervising chess games! 

Similarly today, numerous alleged paranormal phenomena require, if they are to be believed, remarkable and unscientific assumptions. As with Kempelen's Automaton the ordinary, common sense explanation in most cases refutes the alleged paranormal claim.


Brace, E R 1977 An Illustrated Dictionary of Chess, Hamlyn
Carroll, C M 1975 The Great Chess Automaton, Dover, USA
Levitt, G M 2000 The Turk, Chess Automaton, McFarland
Parade, The Great Chess Hoax, 1962 May, pp 38-39
Standage, T 2002 The Turk, Walker


To avoid promoting false history the following admission is made:

The editorial of Investigator #104 said in part:

"This edition includes a test of your alertness and insight. Under one subheading is some false information which does not belong there because it was deliberately fabricated. See whether you can spot it."

The "false information" refers to the second chess game between The Turk and Napoleon.

If you play chess enjoy the game but don't spread the rumor that Napoleon played it.