Of all the chess playing machines throughout time, Ajeeb, the chess & checker champion of the Eden Musée and Coney Island, is my favorite. Besides a few other operators, Ajeeb had been manned by two U.S. champions-to-be: Albert B. Hodges and Harry N. Pillsbury.
The Pacific Monthly ran this anecdotal blurb in 1900:
Ajeeb, or Pillsbury.
Nearly every one has heard of "Ajeeb," the automatic Chess-player. He was
supposed to be able to beat anyone who sat on the other side of the board. There is a story going the rounds, to the effect that when the Masters were busy at Hastings, a chess-player, name not given, tackled Ajeeb, and beat the Turk several games.
The stranger remarked: "I can easily beat Ajeeb." Then the automaton became very angry, and from his "insides" there was heard a loud voice, saying: "Oh! you can, can you? Well, just wait till Pillsbury gets back."
And in 1925 the American Mercury Magazine published an article by Walt McDougall called, Memories of a Cartoonist which contained this minor incident:
In the Musée was a wonder. This was "Ajeeb the Mechanical Chess Player," inside which was concealed the great Pillsbury, afterward the great chess champion. The figure was wrapped in mystery and the belief that it was unbeatable was firmly established in the minds of chess addicts. I remember Vice President Henricks gloating over the fact that he "almost" won a game from this "purely mechanical" effigy. I knew Pillsbury very well, and occasionally wasted my time playing in order to induce shy hayseeds to come forward and get something to brag about afterward.
On one of these occasions I had him cornered, with but two moves, either of which, properly met, meant defeat. His wife used to stand beside the figure and remind slow players that even in the Eden Musée time had a habit of passing. She sourly cautioned me, as I pondered, that the rule was "a move a minute," although her husband behind the concealing wires had devoted several minutes to the previous move. In my exasperation I looked Ajeeb in the eyes and bleated out, "See here, Pill, your wife keeps me down to the limit, but you took a nap over that last move! All I want is a square deal and only a little of that!"
Instantly all the bystanders fled from the room convinced that I had gone crazy, thus enabling Mrs. Pillsbury to reprove me sharply for risking exposure of the secret. I lost the game, which I have always believed was owing to her interference. Pillsbury confessed that I had him guessing and showed me how I could have beaten him. Coming from the unbeaten champion has always been something to be proud of.
Ajeeb had lots of tricks up his sleeve to keep from losing.
Life of Adolph Spaeth, D.D., LL.D by Harriett Reynolds and Krauth Spaeth - 1916 - tells us:
In games of skill, especially in chess, he was quite proficient, and usually won the game from ordinary players. Once he tried his fate with the automaton chess player, Ajeeb, in New York, and was quite astonished when he was dismissed with the courteous bow by which Ajeeb announced that his opponent was beaten. Dr. Spaeth would have liked to play that game out, but by a curious fatality, when, at rare intervals, Ajeeb seemed to be in danger of losing a game, there was a click and a whirr in the mechanism and, most unfortunately, everything came to a stop.
As mentioned, Ajeeb played checkers and well as chess. The following article from the August 8, 1891 issue of The Illustrated American deals with that aspect of the automaton:
Draughts In The Far West.
A Correspondent favors us with another extract from the Colorado Boot-Jack, which is given below :
We admire Major Albro—in fact, we did respect him until two weeks ago, when he turned up at Corn-Cob Babbitt's funeral in a razzle-dazzled condition, yellow pants stuck in his boots, and his rusty black stock tied under his left ear. The next day he was still on the tear. We were having the editorial chin scraped in Jack Weinheimer's barber shop, when he entered and opened on us with :
" You advertise that you can beat any man in the State at checkers ?" he began.
" We think so," we gently replied.
" I've got fifty dollars to twenty-five that says you can't!"
The Boot-Jack never likes to he Muffed in a barber's shop, so we put up the greenbacks in Jake's hands.
" Who is your man ? we inquired.
" He's now at Denver ; he'll be at the public hotel next Monday night. His name's 'Ajeeb,' the automaton chess and checker-player—he's a wooden man, but he'll scoop you."
For once we had been a little too previous. We suddenly remembered that either Jimmy Reed or Charley Barker (two old friends of ours, by the way) was working this automaton. We felt scared—things looked decidedly blue. We waited with no little anxiety for Monday night.
Our cadaverous contemporary sent Judge Limit to put up another fifty at the same odds. Sooner than be bluffed by the backer of a one-horse sheet, we blew in another twenty-five. Below is our more or less esteemed contemporary's account of the contest:
" A novel checker match of six games took place at the Pueblo Hotel last Monday night, between ' Ajeeb,' the automaton, and the ex-horse-doctor who claims to edit an advertising circular in this town. The automaton man was evidently 'fixed,' for he lost five of the six games played. It is more than likely the Ajeeb man and the ex- horse-doctor were in collusion, for the former left the town early Tuesday morning, and no swindle is too contemptible for the latter."
There was no swindle or collusion. Our old friend (who shall be nameless) was simply not accustomed to playing checkers on Pueblo County whiskey, while we were ; and, as we enjoyed together the hospitality of Gus Wagner's private bar before the play began, the best man (under the conditions) won. We still live, let it be understood.
But the American Chess Bulletin of 1907 (volume 4) tells of Ajeeb being beaten back in 1885 (this was even before Hodges' stint as operator) by another US Champion-to-be, Samuel Lipschütz (called in the magazine Solomon Lipschuetz) :
LlPSCHUETZ AND THE AUTOMATON.
In looking over some old papers and letters a few days since I fell upon a small memorandum book labelled "Chess," which, upon opening, I found to contain, among other notes, the record of two games of chess played on the evening of August 7th, 1885, between "Ajeeb" —the Chess Automaton at the Eden Musée, New York City—and Solomon Lipschuetz, at that time champion of the New York Chess Club.
The recent death of Mr. Lipschuetz gave, to me, an added value to the old record, and it becama of special interest in the light of the Reminiscence of the dead Master which appeared in the Bulletin of February last.
A number of us who in 1885 were members of the New York Chess Club, with headquarters at 49 Bowery, visited the Eden Musee in a body on the occasion referred to to try conclusions with the "Automaton." Some of us succeeded in defeating "Ajeeb"—and others lost—Mr. Lipschuetz being among the successful contestants and wnning both his games.
I made a record of the games as they progressed. In playing over them now they are both very interesting to me and I trust the one which I appended will prove of interest to the readers of the Bulletin.
-A Michigan Subscriber
Port Huron, June 27, 1906
The Strange and Wondrous Ajeeb
The Mysterious Ajeeb - The Pride of the Eden Musée
The Mysterious Ajeeb - Chess Reporter 1932
Ajeeb - Odds and Ends
The Automaton Whist-player