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The Turk - Re-incarnation of The Great Chess-Playing Automaton


by Joseph Wagner, M. D.


In 1769 Wolfgang von Kempelen, a brilliant 35 year old Hungarian mechanical genius, created "The Turk" - The Great Chess-Playing Automaton for entertainment of the Royal Court of Empress Maria Theresa of Austria-Hungary.  For the next 85 years it had an illustrious career facing such prominent opponents as Napoleon Bonaparte, Catherine the Great (probably fictional) and Benjamin Franklin.  Brought to America, writers including Edgar Allan Poe tried to fathom the mysteries of its' operation.



In 1840 Dr. John Mitchell, Professor of Medicine at Jefferson University and President of the Philadelphia Chess Club assessed each of it's members $10 raising sufficient funds to buy the Turk.  Delivered disassembled in a number of crates, it was not accompanied by instructions but by diligent study Dr. Mitchell discerned how it was operated and soon after it performed again in chess games played in his office.  Tragically, it was later consumed in a warehouse fire.

To-day, The Turk lives again!  Reconstructed in a 20 year labour of love, John Gaughan tracked down, purchased, and used the actual chess board from the 1769 Turk.  When I asked Mr. Gaughan how this could have survived the fire, he told me the chess board had been kept in Dr. Mitchell's office.  Incidentally, Dr. Mitchell's' son, Silas Weir Mitchell became a famous surgeon in the American Civil War and happens to be on of my favourite doctors in the history of medicine.

John Gaughan is in the business of making equipment for professional magicians.  For example, if a magician wishes to make an elephant disappear, John will make the hydraulics required for the theater stage.  To-day, his full scale working replica of The Turk gives performances that are every bit as impressive and stunning as they must have been to audiences in 1769.

At an exhibition at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles in 2002, Gaughan called four volunteers from the capacity audience in the 500 seat auditorium.  Taking a 150 year old book from the cabinet of The Turk, he handed it to the volunteers asking them to choose any of the chess problems in the collection and set up the pieces on the board.  Volunteers played the Turk, beginning with an irresistible capture of The Turk's queen whereupon, within a half dozen moves, The Turk proceeded to administer a beautiful picture book checkmate.

After each move, The Turk looked at the board, moved his head from side to side, glowered ominously at his opponents, made his move, and returned to his inscrutable erect and silent posture.  An impressive and intimidating player!

I am delighted to report The Turk will make an appearance at the National Open Chess Tournament at the Riviera Hotel in Las Vegas on Saturday, June 14, 2003.  There will be no charge for admission.  Performances are scheduled at 9 a.m. and at 4 p.m.

For those who do not know the secret of The Turk and wish to read more, I heartily recommend two recent books:

  "The Turk - The Life and Times of the Famous Eighteenth Century Chess Playing Machine" by Tom Standage.  Standage is a splendid English writer.

"The Turk, Chess Automaton" by Gerald M. Levitt.  Dr. Levitt is a retired podiatrist living in Florida and has made a prodigious effort to collect every known game played by The Turk.  See also Chess Life February 2003, page 54 for yet an additional game recently discovered by Dr. Levitt.

  Appearance of The Turk in Las Vegas is made possible by sponsorship of the Internet Chess Club, Chess.fm and the National Open Chess Tournament.