Ajeeb "Odds and Ends"

Feb 8, 2009, 11:56 AM |

As already noted, Charles Devidé, who was a chess publisher, "veteran New York analyst and critic," editor of the American Chess Magazine around the turn of the century, was also Manager of Columbia Chess Chronicle around the end of the 1880's. One of the 1887 issue of the Columbia Chess Chroncle mentioned: " —Ajeeb, the automaton, will reach Milwaukee, Sept 21st. Whenever you miss a player from your club for a week, look for him in the automaton."

Charles Devidé also published a book entitled A Memorial to William Steinitz in 1901. I transcribed and posted the rather long opening chapter, A Biographical Sketch of William Steinitz.


In 1988 The Cincinnati Magazine published an article by Catherine Cooper about Emilie Louise Stegemeyer, a 33 yr. old woman, living with her parents, who attended the Centennial Exposition of the Ohio Valley and Central States that lasted 100 days between July 4 and Nov. 12, 1888 and recorded her impressions in her diary.

"On July 26 (the temperature reaching 90 at noon),  she spent the whole day downtown. High above  in the Twelfth Street entrance tower, the exotic figure of Ajeeb, the automatic chess player, caught her eye: 

        'The figure is dressed like a Turk and sits in Turk fashion on a large 
        cushion, placed partly on a table extending back to what looks more 
        like a money safe than anything I can think of.  On this safe rests 
        Ajeeb's feet, and above them, leaving a space between, is placed 
        the board.  At the back of this safe, near the top is what looks like 
        a small ventilator. 

        When it is Ajeeb's turn to play he will paise up his hand and move 
        his man and when he captures one he also removes it to one side, 
        then drops the arm down to his side again.  This chess player has 
        been exhibited for at least 25 years and seldom loses a game.  It is 
        not known if the figure contains a living person or not.  Lou tells us 
        that the man in charge of it was sue a short time ago for not paying
        Ajeeb his salary of $75 a month.  He said that gave him away but 
        was hushed up as soon as possible.' " 



Pollock Memories: A Collection of Chess Games, Problems, &c.
by William Henry Krause Pollock, F. F. B. Rowland (1899)


SCENE : A close Chess room over Katntnaron's saloon, Cincinnati.
Time: midsummer.
Temperature: ninety degrees.
Stakes: 100 dols.
Terms : seven games up, to be played at the rate of not less than two games a day.

Charlie Moehle, familiar of the famous automaton " Ajeeb," opened game 1 with a, slashing attack. Pollock lashed out his two Knights on second and third moves, played 4 P-Q4, gave up a Pawn on his ninth move, won it back on his sixteenth, tripped on his nineteenth, and fell on his thirty-second.

Lemon squash, cucumbers, and ice-water having been served, game 2, another two Knights' defence, opened by Pollock, rolled off the real like smoke. The "Ajeeb" man quickly went down. Score : 1 all.

Game 3.—Moehle struck out with an Evans, Pollock went down. Score: Moehle 2, Pollock 1.

Game 4.—A short Sicilian, Pollock revived, Moehle overpowered. Stop-clocks disregarded, no time to look at them. Score: 2 all.

Games 5 and 6.—Pollock's coat off, mosquitos bad, play rapid, Pollock won. Score: Pollock 4, Moehle 2.

Game 7.—Players mop down, Moehle's coat and vest off, more ice-water and melons, game drawn, draw not counted.

Game 8.—Opened by Pollock, who was met with a Petroff counter attack. Pollock knocked out of time. Score : Pollock 4, Moehle 3.

Game 9.—The Celtic blood of the ex-champion of Ireland up; more clothes off; Moehle knocked to pieces. From that out the score —close, like the room, the temperature, and the French defence, which was next played—kept rising in Pollock's favour. It was 5 to 4, 6 to 5, 6 to 6, and finally a Staunton of 18 moves sent Moehle's sponge flying, and Pollock was declared the winner by 7 to 6.



The Hill Mystery 

Almost 80 years ago to the day, February 04, 1929, Time magazine gave the simple notice:
          Died. Peter J. Hill, onetime chess champion; of old age; in 
          Worcester, Mass. Small of stature, concealed within the "chess 
          automaton," Ajeeb, at the oldtime Eden Musée, Manhattan, Peter 
          J. Hill used to baffle and beat chess champions of international 
          fame. Sometimes he suffered violence in his niche. One defeated 
          chess-woman, enraged, stuck a hatpin into the mouth of the robot,
          wounded the body of silent Peter J. Hill.

This notice mirrored the NY Times:
             HILL ,  CHESS  EXPERT ,  DIES.
             Brains of Ajeeb, the Automaton 
                   Player in Eden Musee
Special to the New York Times
             WORCESTER,  Mass., Jan. 23. --
          Peter J. Hill, formerly well known
        as  a   chess  player,  who  for  nine
        years was the brain of  Ajeeb,   the
        automaton  chess player  in  the old
        Eden Musee on Twenty-third Street,
        was buried here today, forgotten by
        his  friends  of  other days,  but car-
        ried  to  his  grave  by friends in  St.
        Francis's  Home  for  Aged  Catholics,
        where he had lived for the last year.
        He died on Sunday.
           Dr.  William A. Bryan,  superinten-
        dent of the Worcester State Hospital
        for the Care of the Insane,  revealed
        his  identity  after  death.   Hill  was
        a former  patient  under  his  care in
        New York State, and was employed
        by him at the Worcester  institution
        for several years.
           Hill,  being scarcely five feet tall, 
        used to be concealed within the au-
        tomaton and manipulated the chess
        pieces on the board, playing against
        all comers.   He defeated  many  of
        the   internationally   known   chess
        players there; and on two occasions,
        according to his story, was wounded
        by infuriated players  who had been
        beaten.    A   woman  stabbed   him
        through the mouth of the automaton
        with a  hat pin  on one occasion and
        a Westerner shot him in the shoulder
        by  empying a  six-shooter  into  the


Apparently the Jan. 23, 1929 edition of the Worcester Evening Gazette also carried the story using the headline: “Renowned Chess Player Dies in Obscurity Here.”   Thanks to Stephen Dann of Worcester who had also attempted to research Hill, we learn that the story of Hill having operated Ajeeb for nine years came from Dr. Bryan and that he "received $25 per week for his afternoon and evening performances, a high rate of pay at the turn of the century." Mr. Dann also notes that Dr. Bryan "said that Hill was unbeaten competing in the Worcester area, even though he was nearly 60 years old when he died."  Mr. Dan further  states that chess archivist Jeremy Gaige claims that Hill was born on June 9, 1870.

More about Hill:

Simultaneous Chess.
The Harvard Crimson of  April 03, 1895 noted:  At a meeting of the Harvard Chess Club in 7 Little's last night, Mr. P. J. Hill of New York, formerly a member of the Boston Chess Club played simultaneous games with twelve members of the Harvard Chess Club. Mr. Hill intended to play blindfolded, but as he had just finished a journey it was thought best to abandon this plan. Of the twelve games which were played, Mr. Hill won nine and lost three. The games with the openings, the names of the Harvard men and the winners are given below:
   Opponent .   Opening.   Winner.

1. Southard,     French,    Southard.
2. Davis,          French,    Davis.
3. Dunn,           Sicilian,    Hill.
4. Ryder,          French,    Hill.
5. Peck,           French,     Hill.
6. Ffoulke.        Evans,      Hill.
7. Barnard,       Irregular,   Hill.
8. Johnson,       QG,          Hill.
9. Elson,           English,     Hill.
10. Hewins,       KGD.         Hill.
11. Van Kleeck,  Irregular,  Hill.
12. Ballou,         G. Piano,  Ballou.
This feat was significant enough to be also mentioned in the April 8, 1895 edition of the NY Times.


The Harvard Crimson of March 10, 1896 noted: 
R. C. DAVIS, 20 Ware Hall.CHESS CLUB.- Meeting at 7 in 1 Thayer Hall. Annual election of officers.  Mr. P. J. Hill of the Manhattan Chess Club will play against the members of the club in a simultaneous match.

the American Chess Bulletin in 1914 wrote
"THE BOSTON CHESS CLUB. The Boston Chess Club's plan to hold open house once a week is proving popular. The stronger players of the club have volunteered to furnish entertainment in the way of simultaneous play against all comers. On November 14, H.B. Daly ran into a hard bunch, losing five games and winning eight on thirteen boards; perhaps it was a case of hoodoo...
   PJ Hill, better known as 'Little Hill,' on November 26, fell down hard, losing nearly all his games.
   Mr. Hill, however, had just recovered from a severe illness, and deserved credit for his effort to fill the date which had been assigned to him. ...."


In 1888 the BCM wote: 
        Mr. Haskell, the editor of the Minneapolis Tribune, so obfuscated 
        the automaton "Ajeeb" the other day with the fumes of a very rank
        cigar, that he won the only game he played with him.

We learned through the American Chess Magazine that Hill was a member of the Boston Chess Club at the same time as Pillsbury, also an Ajeeb operator. Burille had also been a member of the Boston Chess Club. 

After discussing the meaning of all of the about with fellow researcher gretagarbo, we concluded we had a definite mystery on our hands. So many things don't add up, yet the possiblitiy still exsts that Hill was indeed a director of Ajeeb:

 1. No mention of Hill as an operator in any source whatsoever except for his obit could be found.
 2. The person who related this story was Dr. Bryan who had been treating Hill in his Asylum for the Insane. - meaning Hill was unsound of mind.
 3. That Hill would relate the story of being wounded by a lady's hat pit stuch into Ajeeb's mouth indicates his ignorance of Ajeeb. The operator's head was in Ajeeb's midsection where a hole enabled the operator to see outside. A hat pin would have had to have been several feet long to injure the operator.

On the postive side are the facts that Hill was indeed a master-strength player and knew other operators of Ajeeb - either he got the job through them . . . or pilfered their stories.

However . . .

American Chess Magazine 1898
"A large clothing firm in Providence, " says the Draughts Department of the Sunday Journal, of that city, " had on exhibition recently an automaton chess and checker player. Several beat it at checkers. Ex-Senator A. N. Cunningham, of East Providence, chess editor of the Providence Journal, won a chess game from 'Kado,' and the clothing firm gave him the prize, a suit of clothes, overcoat, etc., valued at $60. A man by the name of Hills was behind the neat-looking ' wooden man.' "

A clothing firm of Lynn, Mass., has a chess automaton bearing the name of Kado, which, it is stated, plays chess equal to Pillsbury or Showalter. The firm offered a suit of clothes or an overcoat to the first person winning a game of chess from the effigy.


It's all a mystery.


Three letters-to-the-editor replying to a 1952 article about the Turk called The Robot's Gambit, mention personal experience with Ajeeb in less than flattering circumstances. 

Letter #1:
To the Editor:
     Jorge Joveyn's "Robot Gambit" (May 4) brings up some recolections of a half-century ago.  Surely you must have many readers who can remember a very simier contrivance exhibited at the old EdenMusee, on West Twenty-third Street, around the turn of the century.
     That Robot looked much like your illustration, turban and all.  A friend and I each playeda game with it, and lost;  and I guessed that it must have been operated by an expert chess player concealed somewhere above, who manipulated the necessary gears or levers in the figure's arms.
     If I remember correctly, it cost us 10 cents to see ot and an additional 10 cents for each game.
          Roland M. Harper
          University, Ala.

Letter #2
To the Editor:
     I read Roland M. Harper's letter in your June 8 issue [referring to Jorge Joveyn's "Robot Gambit"  published May 4].  I also remember the automaton which played chess at the eden Musee years ago.
     A friend of mine was abut to checkmate him when the automaton with one sweep of his hand pushed the entire chess outfit off the board onto the floor.
            H. Lemcke
            New York

 Letter #3
Tricks in Eden
To the Editor:
     Letters in your recent columns about automaton chess players interested me.  My experience when playing Ajeeb in the Eden Musee many years ago was not a pleasant one.
     The figure say squat of a platform above the board, the visiting player standing at a hand rail below it.  Before play, the attendant announced that the automaton had never been defeated.  Having made my move assuring me a mate in three, the figurine's head swayed from side to side denoting, as I was sharply told, that my move could not be made.
     Insisting that it was a simple and perfectly legal one, I was accused with the words, "In some way you must have cheated," whereupon with one sweep of my hand, I "transferred" the chessmen from the board to the floor.
     The man operating the machine at that time was a famous player and an honorary member of my chess club whom I had defeated there the night before in a match game.
            Albert A. Arnheim
            New York



Brooklyn Eagle March 3, 1898

The Automaton Was Laboring Hard
When Lights Went Out.

After Defeating All Comers the Oriental
Figure, Which Bears the Name of
Chang's Predecessor, Was on the Point
of Resigning to the Brooklym Champion
--- Southwich and Swaffield First
Tried and Were Defeated.

   Not the least by any means among the many varied attractions offered the public at the Food Show in the Thirtieth Armory, on Flatbush Avenue, is a full fledged chess automaton, which, drawn here by yhe wodespread local interest in the game, recently took up its abode in this borough. Its name, Ajeeb, is the same as that of the dignified Turk, the predecessor to Chang, the present incumbent at the Eden Musee, who tried to hold forth for the entertainment of rural visitors to Manhattan Island. The figure, however, is not the same, and, it must be said, lacks to a certain degree the grace and stateliness of the somewhat famous original. The same announcement is made to the infallibility of the automaton in threading the intricate mazes of the scientific game.

Last night a crowd of spectators, three and four deep, surrounded the figure in the special booth occupied by it and seemed to take especial delight in the discomfiture of the different combatants who, one after the other, stepped up and offered to put their skill to the test, only to be routed with monotonous regularity that gave but slim promise of prospective excitement. About 9 o'clock a small party of men entered the booth who, from their general bearing and their conversation concerning the figure, gave evidence of more or less familiartiy with the royal pasttime. Soon, it transpired that they were members of the Brooklyn Chess Club out on a tour of investigation into the methods of play employed by the mysterious visitor and bent on making a practical test as to his playing strength.

With this object in view an early opportunity was grasped to pit on of thier number against Ajeeb, who was, as ever, ready for the fray. This new opponent of the figure proved to be W. Southwick, well known in local circles, and who boasts of havng taken more than one fall out of the redoubtable automaton across the river. He made a good long fight but finally had to succumb to the inevitable. The next one to present himself was A. E. Swaffied, one of the rising young players of this borough and much was expected of him. Boldly adopting the Petroff defense he quickly developed his game, displaying tolerable good knowledge of the opening. Ajeeb, on the other hand, was not to be outdone in the matter of dispatch and he was right on the heels of his adventuresome adversary. Swaffield appeared to be making good headway when suddenly the tide turned against him and he was seen to be hopelessly beaten.

A short recess was here taken to enable the onlookers to make a closer examination of the figure inside and out and to apply the attendant with questions. During this interval the know of club men, whose main object in life seemed to be to encompass the overthrow of this new power in their particular shpere, were observed to hold a council of war and presently it was seen that they were about to play a trump card. This turned out to be no less a person than champion W. E. Napier himself, who had concented to stand for Brooklyn's honor in this trying emergency.

No time was lost in getting down to work and Napier found himself called upon to defend the close queen's pawn opening. Seeing an opportunity to play P-K4, he quickly seized it and soon the young expert had the freer game and the initiative in his own hands. With his accustomed vigor he set sail for the opposing King which had castled on the queen's side and but for the exchange of queens which the automaton forced, would have succeded in creating a serious breach.

Nothing daunted, Napier confidently pressed the attack with rooks and bishops and with so good effect that Ajeeb appeared, even to the uninitiated, to be in troble and laboring hard. The onslaught seemed irresistible and Napier's thinking apparatus worked much more rapidly than the machine's running gear. Having effected a pretty sacrifice of the exchange, Napier was engaged in dismantling white pawns, while his vis-a-vis industriously advanced his lone QRP toward queening. The champion kept his head, made the correct moves at the proper time, and was on the point of winning out, when the attendants outside, who had for some time been clamoring for "all out," shut of the flow of electricity and plunged the proceedings into darkness, thereby sparing Ajeeb the humiliation of resigning. The game. though played in quick time, was a capital specimen of chess strategy throughout, with Napier at his best. His only slip was at the forty-second move, when R-R6 ck, followed by P-B6, would have forces a speedier win. Score: