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The Turk: The Life and Times of the Famous 19th Century Chess-Playing Machine Hardcover – Apr 2002

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Walker & Company; 1st Edition edition (April 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0802713912
  • ISBN-13: 978-0802713919
  • Product Dimensions: 20.4 x 14.7 x 2.6 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,309,029 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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By Cosmo Baggins on 15 Jan 2014
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is an excellent book. Standadge is a great writer. For those interested in chess, in automata, and in great frauds this is a must.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Carlos Cortes on 20 Jan 2013
Format: Paperback
For chess and technology enthusiasts, this is a great book. The story of the Turk is that of the marvel of chess and the illusion of technology. Brilliant and clever people were here long before our modern prophets.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)

Amazon.com: 29 reviews
24 of 26 people found the following review helpful
Hoax or Not? 12 April 2002
By Robert Morris - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
I forget when or where but, many years ago, I first learned about a chess-playing automaton in the 19th century. In Standage's just published book, I have just learned "the rest of the story." The automaton (named "The Turk") attracted a great deal of attention and generated a great deal of controversy. Benjamin Franklin apparently played a game or two against it. In fact, "The Turk" is reputed to have defeated most of Europe's chess masters during a period which extends from 1770 until 1855. It attracted the attention of countless celebrities (e.g. Napoleon Bonaparte, Edgar Allan Poe, Catherine the Great, and Charles Babbage) and indeed, "The Turk" itself became a celebrity as did its inventor, Wolfgang von Kempelen. Was it truly a technological marvel, not only able to to move chess pieces but to formulate and then follow strategies which prevailed against most of the most skilled players? Or was it a hoax? It would be a disservice both to Standage and to his reader to say much more about this book, except that it is exceptionally well-written and combines the best features of a crackerjack detective story with the skills required of a world-class cultural anthropologist. Standage is a master storyteller; he tells the story of "The Turk" within the context of the Age of Victoria when the Industrial Revolution was well-underway and indeed thriving. Great stuff!
13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
From Maria Theresa to Kasparov, by fermed 1 Jun 2002
By Fernando Melendez - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
This is a delightful book that takes one cultural artifact (a mechanical chess playing machine that looks like a human being and is dressed in oriental opulence, "The Turk") and follows its entire life, from its conceptualization and manufacture to its final demise in a fire in Philadelphia. The period of the Turk's life lasted 85 years, and the people who somehow met and interacted with it were such luminaries Napoleon, and Charles Babbage (inventor of the first computer, sort of), and P. T. Barnum. Edgar Allan Poe started an entire genre (the short detective story) by writing "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," in part inspired by the mental exercise of trying to figure out how The Turk worked. Silas Wier Mitchell, the famous American Civil War physician and neurologist, actually owned The Turk before donating it to the Chinese museum in which it finally perished. Literally hundreds of Europe's intellectuals, and crowned heads, and glitterati of one sort or another played chess against the famous automaton, and usually (but not always) lost the game. And nobody except the operators knew the secret of the machine.
The Turk was the work of Wolfgang Kempelen, an engineer and an aid to the Austro-Hungarian Empress Maria Theresa, who called him to court so that he could explain to her the magic and the related magnetic games that were being demonstrated by a Frenchman by the name of Pelletier in the various courts of Europe. Maria Theresa, being of a scientific mind herself, wanted a respected official to uncover the trickery (if any) involved in Pelletier's performance. Mr. Kempelen explained each act as it was being performed, and was so unimpressed by the whole show that he boasted that if he had six months of free time he would be able to construct a really impressive automaton that would outclass anything then being shown in Europe. Maria Therese took him up on the challenge, and ordered him to go home, build his marvel in six months, and forget his duties to the state during that period.
Six months passed and in the Spring of 1770 Mr. Kempelen arrived in court with the Turk in tow. It was a life-size wood carving of a man wearing Turkish garb, seated at a table, with only one movable arm (the left)with dexterous fingers, and with a fixed gaze that stared down at a chess board. On the night of the first demonstration, Kempelen wheeled the figure before the audience, opened the various doors of the table, showing an impressive set of elaborate and mysterious clockwork and allowing the audience to look through the various openings, shining a candle for behind, so that they would see they were either empty or full of wheels and cogs, but free of any human being. When he convinced everyone that there was nothing hiding inside the machine, Kempelen invited one of the courtiers to sit at the table and play against the Turk. He used a large key to wind it up, and when he released a lever the Turk moved his head as if scanning the board, and suddenly reached out his arm and moved a piece. The game had began! Every ten moves or so, Kempelen would wind up the mechanism again, giving it the additional energy to proceed with the game. The Turk, of course, won the match that launched his famous career.
The author follows this career carefully and only after the Turk's life was ended does he reveal the method used by Kempelen (and others that owned the automaton). That is fair enough, giving the book the measure of suspense it should have in order to keep the reader excited and able to create his or her theory about how the machine operated and hold it until the end of the book.
The book does not end with the demise of the Turk, but it extends into the realm of the Kasparov - Deep Blue matches of 1996 (Kasparov won) and 1997 (D B won). It is a thoroughly delightful book to get into, and a hard one to put down. Even after the secrets of the machine are revealed, one is left in utter amazement about the Turk and its rambunctious life.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
An unsung gem 20 Dec 2002
By Steve R - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
Although a familiarity with chess will help, you don't need to be an enthusiast to enjoy this excellent book. Lovers of magic, mysteries, showmanship, mechanical engineering, computers, game theory, psychology, math and history will all find this a fascinating and engrossing story, as will anyone with a smattering of intellectual curiosity. Standege has created a faithful history that is also a page turner. The tale of The Turk is amazing; for its celebrated encounters with formidable intellects ranging from Napolean to Edgar Allan Poe; for its effect on the fortunes and misfortunes of its inventor and promoters; for its role as an inspirer of modern computing; and also for the sad fact that few people today have heard of the automaton that once enthralled and baffled people in dozens of countries through two centuries. Even more compelling is the book's subtext about credulity and the public's ready willingness to believe what what their eyes show them, even when their brains know that it is not possible.
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
Intriguing Mystery, Fascinating History 8 Sep 2002
By L. S. Jorgensen - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
I had never heard of the Turk before reading a short blurb elsewhere about this book, nor do I play chess, but I was intrigued enough by what I read to order it and am glad I did. A relatively short book with some occasional (in my opinion) awkward writing, it provides a fascinating look at 18th century automata in general as well as a detailed history of the Turk. What was the Turk? As the title and book jacket indicate, a famous chess playing machine designed as a Turkish man sitting at a cabinet with a chessboard on top. The Turk moved its own pieces, could roll its eyes and shake its head, and, having put its opponent in check, say "Check" (or, later, "Echec", the equivalent in French). It could even detect cheating, at which it would return the offending piece to its previous position and then continue with its own turn, forcing the cheater to lose his. Cheat again and the piece would be confiscated; cheat thrice and the Turk would shake his head and sweep all the pieces to the floor.
Although not unbeatable, the Turk won the great majority of its games and defeated some of the best players of its day. It was shown throughout Europe, made its way to the United States, and was even displayed in Cuba. During its travels it played against Napoleon Bonaparte-according to his valet, Napoleon cheated and was duly caught-and Benjamin Franklin, a rumored sore loser. Edgar Allen Poe saw The Turk play and wrote an exposé as to how he thought it worked. Its fame and indeed its life outlasted that of its creator, who rued that it overshadowed his other considerable achievements, and in all its 85 years of existence its secret remained just that. Was it really a machine? Or was there some trick that allowed human intelligence to guide it? If so, how? And what ultimately became of it? Along with the answers to these questions read contemporary theories as to how it worked, and how the genius that went into producing the automata of the time was the precursor to the Industrial Revolution and even today's computer. From early talking machines, mechanical ducks and elephants, and fabulously elaborate clocks and diorama man progressed to mightier machines and thus changed the world.
At the end of the book the author reveals the secret of the Turk, plus tacks on to me a superfluous history of Deep Blue, today's modern equivalent. I stayed up until 1:30 a.m. to finish the book because I wanted so badly to know how The Turk worked and I was afraid I'd cheat otherwise and skip to the end. If you want an entertaining read for a couple evenings, I would highly recommend this book. One doesn't have to play chess to admire The Turk or enjoy its wonderful story.
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
The "original" chess playing machine 26 May 2003
By J. Carroll - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
Tom Standage investigates one of the 18th century's most interesting mysteries, the chess playing automaton "The Turk." Part detective story and part technological history, THE TURK combines a tale of man's fascination with the concept of "thinking machines" with the story of how the pursuit of that ideal led to the creation of one of the greatest ruses in history. By gradually (a bit too gradually) introducing the reader to the time period and the public's preoccupation with all things mechanical, Standage shows the reader a world waiting to be amazed; even if the amazement comes by way of an ingenious form of misdirection. With appearances by a number of figures who were intimately involved with The Turk's "performances to the interaction of such luminaries as Napoleon and Poe, Standage keeps the reader interested in each and every twist of The Turk's rather bizarre history. It is only when Standage takes on the philosophy of the "thinking machine" does the book make a wrong turn; it slows down the pace and interrupts the flow of what is otherwise an intriguing look this amazing example of man's ingenuity.
P.S. You will find out how it works!
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