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The Turk: The Life and Times of the Famous Eighteenth-century Chess Playing Machine


The Turk: The Life and Times of the Famous Eighteenth-century Chess Playing Machine

It had to be a trick, didn't it? Surely no one could build a
mechanical man capable not only of playing chess, but of winning
the majority of games it played, regardless of the strength of the
competition. It had to be a trick --- especially since it debuted
in 1770.

Tom Standage presents the remarkable story --- both fact and
fiction --- of the chess-playing marvel in THE TURK. Tracing the
history of the invention of Wolfgang von Kempelen from its first
performance to its destruction in a fire 85 years later, Standage's
book tells a fascinating story in an engaging style.

In the course of "the Turk's" career, it was challenged by a host
of famous figures to a game of chess --- figures running the gamut
from Benjamin Franklin to Napoleon Bonaparte --- and was reputed,
in a number of apocryphal tales, to have engaged quite a few more.
Even without these latter tales, the Turk's real-life adventures
were remarkable and influenced a variety of innovations, ranging
from the mechanical to the literary.

Indeed, the stories of the Turk's influence on the likes of Charles
Babbage, a key figure in the history of the computer, and Edgar
Allen Poe, "inventor" of the detective novel, are the highlights of
the book. Surprising though this may be given the mysterious nature
of the Turk itself, it is the Turk's effect on the lives of others,
rather than the mystery, which mesmerizes the reader. In fact, the
chapter in which the Turk's secrets are revealed is perhaps the
dullest in the book, and certainly the most disappointing in that
once the secret is finally told, the thrilling mystery

This, of course, is hardly Standage's fault, but he nevertheless
seeks a remedy for the problem with a wonderful final chapter
entitled "The Turk Versus Deep Blue" in which he considers the
closest thing to a modern version of the Turk --- the first
computer to beat the world chess champion. Unlike the Turk, Deep
Blue was unarguably a computer, but as Standage shows, that didn't
end the debate or the controversy surrounding chess-playing
machines, a controversy hardly lessened by the fact that Deep
Blue's designers accepted rematches until the computer won --- and
then refused to play again once victory had been achieved.

A compelling look at history as distilled through a single
curiosity, THE TURK is a fascinating study of the mechanical
wonders --- both genuine and faux --- made possible by human

Reviewed by Rob Cline ( on January 23, 2011

The Turk: The Life and Times of the Famous Eighteenth-century Chess Playing Machine
by Tom Standage

  • Publication Date: April 1, 2002
  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Walker & Company
  • ISBN-10: 0802713912
  • ISBN-13: 9780802713919