“To keep your secret is wisdom, but to expect others to keep it is folly.” ― Samuel Johnson

The greatest hoax of the 18th Century.

The Secrets of the Chess Machine ― Robert Löhr


1770 Vienna and German-Hungarian court secretary Baron Wolfgang von Kempelen, unsatisfied with his current position, is determined increase his standing in the court.  In his mind there is just one way to show his true worth, with the creation of a machine so stunning it will wow the whole of Europe, an ingenious speaking machine, the first of it’s kind. In order to sufficiently impress the empress, and help ensure himself the funding and time to eventually create his masterpiece, Kempelen embarks first upon creating a device many would consider far superior to a speaking machine, an automation device capable of playing chess so perfectly that it can defeat any opponent.

The creation is stunning to behold, a large wooden chess cabinet, complete with hand crafted chess pieces, and an elaborately dressed mechanical Turk responsible for the expert execution of the game. The device does wonders to impress, not just the empress, but the whole of Europe, who believe Kempelen to have completed a feat previously thought impossible, the creation of a machine that can think for itself.

In reality the automation is nothing but an elaborate hoax. Behind the expertly crafted wooden doors of the device, is housed not the mechanics which power this amazing machine, but a dwarf named Tibor, whose lack of money and expert chess skills have lead him into the centre of the greatest hoax of the century.

As the Turks popularity escalates, and Kempelen strides unhindered to the front stage of stardom, the speaking machine moves further and  further into the back of a long forgotten cupboard.

Meanwhile the promise of rapidly escalating wages does little to motivate Tibor, who begins to crave the outside world, and most of all a church in which to confess his sins. He finds a close companion in Jakob, Kempelen’s Jewish assistant, who delights in sneaking the dwarf from the Baron’s house to partake in illicit adventures involving women and alcohol.

Kempelen’s blue skies are quickly marred by grey clouds, when following a performance of the much admired chess machine, a beautiful baroness is discovered dead beneath the balcony of a room where only the mechanical Turk resides. News of the ‘Curse of the Turk’ spreads quickly throughout Europe, and Kempelen’s carefully constructed secret seems of the cusp of ruin. Suddenly freedom is all that Tibor craves, as he desperately attempts to free himself from Kempelen’s ever tightening shackles, for anyone who knows the secret of the chess machine must be kept under close watch. 

I read ‘The Secrets of the Chess Machine’ in a few short days, that is to say, I was sufficiently gripped by the story, and found it easy to sit and read for a good few hours at a time. The story is amusing and enjoyable, and is made all the more intriguing by the fact that it is based on actual events. That is to say, that Baron von Kempelen was a real man who really did create a mechanical chess playing Turk and dupe the whole of Europe into believing he was an ingenious inventor. This fact alone gives some meat to the story.

I felt that the main characters within the book were colourful, diverse and well rounded. As a reader you get a good feel of each personality quite quickly, and are able to develop sort of relationship with the characters. The brains behind the chess machine, Tibor is a god natured, devoutly religious dwarf, with a terrible temperament to let his passions run away with him, and is often overcome by guilt and a desire to confess. Kempelen’s assistant Jakob, continuously referred to as ‘the Jew’ is comical, fun loving and eager to impress the women in each of the cities the group visit. There is one character who’s true personality is only revealed as the book wears on, however, and that is Kempelen himself. Who’s friendly disposition is slowly replaced by an increasingly dark identity from the moment the future of his beloved mechanical Turk is threatened.

Now on to the somewhat less positive notes, while there was nothing wrong with the writing itself per se, there is nothing particularly special about it either. Although perhaps it is the translation, rather then the writing itself which has this effect, I am unsure actually if the book was originally written in English or German, and don’t seem to be able to find a straight answer. Either way, the style of of this novel is not to be admired, it is sufficient, but certainly not exceptional.

Another, slightly bothersome aspect of this novel is it’s attempt at over the top raunchiness. Many of the centre characters seem positively obsessed with sex. Our beloved dwarf Tibor so much so that he at one point finds himself lusting after a statue of the Virgin Mary. Needless to say that this novel is not one for those people who find fairly intricate descriptions of sexual encounters somewhat embarrassing. Indeed many of these scenes are just that, embarrassing, be it Tibor receiving somewhat awkward oral favours from a street walker, or a slightly inebriated baroness, using the mechanical Turk as a highly inappropriate play thing.

Overall, I would recommend ‘The Secrets of the Chess Machine’ to those who like to read to relax, or as a distraction from everyday life. This is something which the novel does well, it is an interesting story, which will keep you entertained through to the end. However, it does not stand as one of the books on my bookcase that I will go back to time and time again.

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