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Monday, July 11, 2011

THE TURK by Tom Standage: The True Story of the Chess-Playing Machine that Fooled the World

The Turk: The True Story of the Chess-Playing Machine that Fooled the World

What was 'The Turk'?

With its exotic name and semblance of a man and mechanical arm over a chessboard, The Turk was an amazing automaton or  'automated device' from the 1770s that played chess...amazing crowds like a modern-day computer. But what was its secret? Was it really a machine that could play and beat anyone? Or was some trick involved?

Today, seated among world-class chess players Vladimir Kramnik, Viswanathan Anand and young prodigy Magnus Carlsen of Norway, we seem far removed from the players of the past. But do we have any idea how their brains - human masterminds - work? Great players of the past from Paul Morphy to Bobby Fischer, the Russians, Germans, Czechs or Cubans, are even harder to now dissect for glimmers of pathways for us to understand their genius. What about those chess machines - Deep Thought, Deep Fritz, Deep Blue - that claim artificial intelligence?

Author of THE VICTORIAN INTERNET and THE NEPTUNE FILE, Tom Standage is well versed in historical studies that focus how technology impacts our everyday lives, especially those that reflect our need of magical discovery. While those books explored the development of the telegraph and the discovery of a planet in the far reaches of the solar system, THE TURK focuses on the automata marvels of the eighteenth century that amazed, deceived and inspired their audiences around Europe, but were eventually unmasked.

Wolfgang von Kempelen was a senior court official in Vienna - he toured Europe an America with The Turk. Kempelen's showpiece could automatically move the pieces with its hand, astounding all. Benjamin Franklin and even Napoleon (see Tom Robertson's play Napoleon Vs the Turk) took on the so-called 'intelligent machine.' The great player François-André Danican Philidor challenged The Turk too, winning, but strangely exhausted by his experienced, as though fear were mixed in with the peculiarity of playing a machine...

The strength of Standage's book is its wealth of associated stories. Not only does it conclude with an assessment of the modern chess-playing computer, for example the defeat of world champion Garry Kasparov by Deep Blue in 2006, but the book's style is both gripping for its innovative science - for the tech junkies, if you will - and examination of human psychology, personality, rivalry and morality. Not to over-egg the pudding, but the eighteenth century is here a hybrid of real and make-believe experience, claiming progress and showmanship, and filtered through our minds as audience. Perhaps we are far removed from this Age of Enlightenment that had its fair share of tricksters and conman and theatrical sideshow entertainment. But don't we love being tricked? Are we really that far removed? THE TURK is an intriguing examination of this human mentality: the relationship between the delighting performer and the delighted audience as something distinctly human.

Conflicting theories tried to explain the secret of The Turk, everything from Edgar Allan Poe's MAELZEL'S CHESS PLAYER (1836) to French magician Jean Robert-Houdin's theory that a Polish soldier called Worousky - a paraplegic - was inside the device. You will have to read THE TURK to find out the truth. But ultimately, how could the truth surpass the audience desire to be entertained, even once the secret is known? We need our stories, however they are packaged. THE TURK is a revelation that keeps its secret. You will be puzzled and delighted in equal measure.

Tom Standage is Digital Editor at The Economist and you can buy THE TURK from Amazon here.
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