The first chess-playing machine

We have the chess-playing computers Deep Junior and Deep Blue. Now meet the Turk, a turbaned automaton from the 1770s that not only played the game but also defeated virtually everybody it came up against in matches across Europe. In Raymond Bernard's highly entertaining 1927 silent classic The Chess Player, just released on DVD and VHS by Milestone, the vanquished include Catherine the Great, who has the device shot shortly before dawn for the crime of lese-majeste.

Bernard's film, adapted from a novel by Henry Dupuy-Mazuel, makes a wildly fanciful drama of a true story. Carved figures with machinery inside to make them move were in vogue in 1769 when an Austrian court official named Wolfgang von Kempelen announced that he would produce an automaton like no other.


The Turk was a life-size figure seated atop a wooden cabinet filled with wheels, gears and who knew what else. It moved chess pieces with its left arm. The DVD includes a radio interview with Tom Standage, author of The Turk: The Life and Times of the Famous 18th-Century Chess-Playing Machine (Walker, 2002). By the early 1800s, Standage says, there was a blurring of science and magic. Technology could do anything, or so it was thought. People knew the device had to be a trick, but they also wanted to believe that a machine could think like a human.

In life the Turk was a sensation. On the road, Standage says, it won 98 percent of the time. In Paris it defeated Benjamin Franklin. Every now and then it lost to a master. The world champion beat the Turk but said afterward that he felt exhausted in a peculiar way, possibly, Standage says, because he was unsure if he was playing a person or a machine, fracturing his focus.


In the film the Turk becomes a player in European politics. Polish Lithuania is in the hands of the Russians, and troops and officers brawl in the bars and streets. In the uprising that follows, the Polish nobleman and patriot Boleslas Vorowski (Pierre Blanchar) is badly wounded and hidden by Baron von Kempelen (Charles Dullin), the pre-eminent maker of automatons. How to keep Boleslas from falling into the hands of the Russians?

The baron has his light bulb of an idea while watching Boleslas, a top chess player, in a match with young Sophie Novinska (Edith Jehanne), a champion of freedom and the movie's love interest. So the baron builds the Turk, and poor Boleslas is trucked around concealed inside.

In life the skeptical gathered around the Turk as it played. Theories had a child chess prodigy hidden away, or a chess-playing monkey. (The Sultan of Baghdad reportedly had one.) But other than the machinery the Turk appeared empty.

In the film Catherine (Marcelle Charles), a renowned player, is losing when she makes an unexpected move. "I do believe Mamoutcha has cheated," murmurs a courtier. Actually she is trying to throw the machine off by making an illogical move. Napoleon tried the same tactic when he lost to the Turk in 1809.

The DVD is distributed by Image Entertainment. Both disc and cassette can be ordered from Milestone at 800-603-1104.