In the summer of 2006, on a small stage in downtown Toronto, the Emperor Napoleon was facing off in a game of chess against the “Mechanical Turk.” It was 1809, continental Europe, and Malzel, who recently purchased the legendary chess-playing automaton, was transporting this curious contraption from town to town to square off against the dubious and the delighted.
The automaton was an historical oddity – a contraption consisting of a carefully-constructed cabinet, out of which emerged the fabricated, human-like, upper-half of an exotically decked-out Ottoman chess master. It was a hoax, of course, the cabinet being designed in such a manner as to conceal an actual human – small in stature, but large in chess-playing talent. Magnets, a pantograph, and an elaborate, clockwork-like mechanism enabled the Turk’s hands and arms to grip and move chess pieces, eyes to roll, head to nod.
The play, “Napoleon vs The Turk,” written by Tom Robertson and staged by Luke Davies as part of the 2006 Toronto Fringe Festival, was my introduction to this famous hoax.
Robert Lohr’s engrossing debut novel, The Chess Machine, goes back a bit further, to 1770 and the workshop of the Turk’s actual inventor: Wolfgang von Kempelen, a Baron with connections in the court of Vienna. A work of historical fiction, The Chess Machine also introduces us to Jakob, a fictional character who Lohr imagines as Kempelen’s valuable assistant and cabinet-maker.
Above all, though, The Chess Machine tells the fictional tale of Tibor, an Italian chess-playing dwarf, recruited by Kempelen to be part of the grand deception, to spend countless stifling hours inside the automaton, monitoring the opponents’ moves, and responding accordingly.
In one wonderfully gripping episode, the dwarf, concealed in the automaton for an outdoor match and deprived of the candle that normally helps him see what he’s doing, is forced to move his chessmen simply by anticipating his opponent’s moves, by the sound and feel of the game being played above his head.
Tibor is the heart and soul of the automaton, and also the story. Rescued from a Venetian prison by Kempelen, who knew of his talents and was searching for the missing piece to his scheme, Tibor reluctantly agrees to go with Kempelen back to his workshop is Pressburg (now Bratislava). He must remain hidden from public view, on occasion venturing out incognito with Jakob for a late-night prowl around town.
The tale is a captivating one, full of dreams, schemes and spies, deception and murder, lusty, clandestine encounters with women of various levels of repute, a jealous inventor, an affronted nobleman, and at least one seriously insane sculptor.
A glance, too, at audiences of the day, and their willingness to suspend disbelief. As Tibor inquires of his master: “Are they going to believe in this?” To which Kempelen responds “The world wants to be deceived. They’ll believe in it because they’ll want to believe in it.”