Deal Me In, Week 12 ~ Maelzel’s Chess Player

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Hosted by Jay @ Bibliophilopolis

“Maelzel’s Chess Player” by Edgar Allan Poe

Card picked: Jack of Diamonds

From: Originally published in Southern Literary Messenger in April 1836. I read it online.

Review: Actually not a short story but one of Poe’s essays, published early in his prose career while a staff writer at the Southern Literary Messenger. Better known as the Turk, the mechanical chess player had been an attraction for over 60 years when Johann Maelzel brought it to the US.

Poe begins with an introduction to some other fantastic automatons and computers of the age including the duck of Vaucanson*, and Babbage’s difference engine. The Turk is different from these, he argues, because both are obviously machines and, though Poe doesn’t use these words, obviously programmed to perform specific functions.

He then gives a very short history of the Turk and an account of its current exhibition in Richmond. Proposing “solutions” to the chess player was a bit of a rage at the time.  I think that, in light of the phantasmagoria of Poe’s later works and his rather ignominious end, we forget that he was a fairly smart guy. Based on his research and personal observations, he comes to his own conclusions about the Turk. On some counts, he’s even correct and chides previous explanations for being overly complicated when a simpler answer suffices.

Most of Poe’s conclusions I had already read about in Tom Standage’s excellent book about the Turk. Still there were a couple of things that interested me about his essay.

One of Poe’s presumptions was that a pure machine would always win at chess:

A little consideration will convince any one that the difficulty of making a machine beat all games, is not in the least degree greater, as regards the principle of the operations necessary, than that of making it beat a single game.

As is often the case with AI, the intelligence isn’t necessarily smarter than its programmers. It wasn’t until over 100 years later that man created a machine that could outplay the best chess players.

I was also intrigued by Poe’s notion of false machinery — that many aspects of The Turk were meant to be more machine-like than they needed to be to prove that it was a machine. Considering that Poe often played with the notions of false life and false death, this sort of rounds out the paradigm.

* Duck of Vaucanson may be one of my favorite things of all time. Mostly, because I have a theory that ducks are inherently funny. The concept of an 18th century robotic duck is utterly ridiculous in that “of course, this is what humans do when they can” kind of way. There is also some mention of the magician Joseffy creating an improved faux duck that presumably could function on it own without a base.

Is This Your Card?
I had a card trick for the Jack of Diamonds, but then I figured that a video about the Turk would be better. This Turk was rebuilt by magic engineer John Gaughan.

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7 thoughts on “Deal Me In, Week 12 ~ Maelzel’s Chess Player

  1. Edgar Allan Poe and chess. I think I know someone who would find this very interesting. Even though I’ve read a lot of Poe’s stories, I haven’t read any of his essays. I have a feeling they would be rather interesting. This one sounds great!
    -Dale

    1. Poe is a little verbose at times. I’m not sure I would have totally followed his description of the Turk if I hadn’t already been familiar with its workings. At least not without a little rereading.

  2. Pingback: Deal Me In – Week 12 Wrap Up | Bibliophilopolis

  3. I can’t imagine who Dale is referring to… Just kidding – that’d be me. 🙂 I also own the Standage book as part of my vast (not exaggerating; probably > 500 books – I used to have a problem) chess library. I also served as editor of “Chess in Indiana” magazine for several years back in the day, including the year when a machine finally defeated the best human player at the time, Garry Kasparov.

    I re-read this Poe piece when I saw you mention it in your ‘what am I reading’ post early in the week. I was worried that you’d be disappointed that it wasn’t fiction, but I see my fears were unnecessary. It does help that you already had some background info on the story.

    It’s totally unsurprising that Poe would be fascinated by automata in general and this machine in particular. I read his biography a couple years ago and, along with cyphers and word puzzles, this would be right up his alley.

    Great post!

    1. I’ll read any Poe and I’m intrigued by him as a non-fiction writer. I had put together my Deal Me In list not long after finishing Standage’s book and was happy this essay came up sooner rather than later. I’m in the midst of a lull in other work, so it sparked a nice little research bender this weekend.

      No comment on your chess library. If my interest in magic and Victorian/Edwardian technology continues, I’m going to need a bigger apartment…

  4. I’ve read various pieces about the Turk, but I don’t think I’ve read Poe’s take. Such a fascinating apparatus!

    (I have never heard of the Duck, but for whatever reason I am immediately reminded of the giant yellow rubber duck sculptures by Dutch artist Florentijn Hofman that were placed in waterways around the world, in that they fall into both the categories of “fake ducks” and “this is what humans do because they can.”) (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rubber_Duck_(sculpture))

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