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The Chess Machine

The Chess Machine

Author:Robert Löhr
Release Date:2007
Publisher:The Penguin Press

By Violet LeVoit | Posted 9/5/2007

Centuries before Deep Blue trounced Kasparov, the thinking machine to beat was the Mechanical Turk. This proto-automaton, built to resemble a turbaned Ottoman seated before a bulky tabletop cabinet, astounded the heads of 18th-century Europe with its ability to play-and win-complex games of chess against human opponents. While exhibitions of its abilities always began with inventor Wolfgang von Kempelen opening the machine's cabinet to reveal the intricate clockwork powering its deductions, suspicions still percolated about the Turk's true nature. Eventually the secret leaked out-the Turk was surreptitiously powered by a human chess master hunkered down in a hidden crawlspace behind the spinning gears, tracking the progress of the game overhead on his own miniature chess board, and manipulating the Turk's hand like a puppeteer.

While those facts are well-documented, there's still some mystery surrounding the Mechanical Turk. Who was the nameless master inside the machine? According to Robert Löhr's historical-fiction novel The Chess Machine, the cabinet contained one Tibor Scardanelli, a devout yet too-thirsty dwarf whose aptitude for chess fortuitously sprung him from a dismal jail cell into von Kempelen's servitude. Tibor gladly accepts his benefactor's conditions that he must remain inside his home at all times, lest observant skeptics connect von Kempelen's new half-size houseguest with the enigmatic machine, but soon temptation sets in-first in the form of von Kempelen's aristocratic mistress Ibolya, and then the lissome servant girl Elise, recently hired by the family to mind the house but in reality a secret agent hired by von Kempelen's extremely suspicious rival Knaus to uncover the device's true workings.

Although Löhr's got an opportunity to lard his story with ideas about technology, deception, or gamesmanship, he instead settles for breathless and unsophisticated daytime-drama shenanigans-one convenient accidental death for the sake of the plot is forgivable, but three?-and never shows any attempt at subtext beyond blurting out the occasional chess metaphor. Worse, his robotic prose kills any beach-read potential since every sex scene and action sequence teletypes out like a list of MapQuest directions. Tech-minded readers hoping for a steam-punk venture à la The Difference Engine will be sorely disappointed. The original Mechanical Turk was a mesmerizing triumph of engineering, as long as you didn't open the cabinet door and find the human genius inside. Opening The Chess Machine, however, reveals there's nobody home.

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