Mephisto revisited

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Anyone who knows me, understands I love gambits, Morphy, Blackburn and chess-automatons.  Upon reflection, I believe Ajeeb is possibly my favorite, but I must admit the Faustian Mephisto has its good points.

For the most part, Isodor Gunsberg, left, was the director of Mephisto, but toward the end Jean Taubenhaus, below, held the position.


In resarching this posting, I was more than a little disconcerted that my pages on Mephisto didn't show up in the first several dozen Google pages. So, I'll put the links below:
                        Mephisto the Magnificent 
                        How Mephisto Was Caught: Chess Legend 
                         Mephisto - promotional material

What I want to present here is mostly contemporary media reaction to Mephisto. Most of this attention was through chess periodicals,  but other media also noted the automaton (or mechanical chess-player, as it like to be called).

Since this promises to be a rather long entry, I'll clearly mark each contribution for those who like to skim.





Westminster Papers  1878

Chess automata from the days of Maria Theresa downwards have excited the amazement of potentates, princes, and other unwise personages. To the eye of common sense they bore the outward signs of an interior man, but credulity refused to accept such an obvious and therefore unsatisfactory explanation of what it persisted in holding to be a mystery. However, no one now denies that Wolfgang de Kempelen's world famous automaton was directed by a person inside, and we take leave to place all later Chess playing machines in the same category. So considered, there is nothing in them worthy of notice, and the only wonder is, that for more than a hundred years there have never been wanting persons who have looked upon them as wonderful. Now it is evident that a lay figure constructed with such bona fide skill as that, while guided by an outward will only, it should be able to play at Chess, would be a different affair altogether. This want is apparently claimable by a gentleman not unknown in Chess circles, and noted in the mechanical world for various ingenious inventions. He conceived the idea of constructing a genuine automaton, if we may call it so, for he himself refuses to give it that name ; perhaps his scruples will be met by calling the article a machine-figure. He has, as he informs us, been working at the notion for the last seven years, there being various difficulties to surmount, but his efforts have been at last rewarded with success, and a creature has been produced whose first public appearance will be at the Paris Exhibition. Having been invited to a private view, we willingly accepted the offer, and on arriving at the inventor's house, were shewn into a room where sat a being, one of whose feet suggested alarming ideas, but he had, nevertheless, not a very unkindly expression of countenance. Monsieur Mephisto, such we were informed was the name, is a slim personage, with well shaped hands, and his one human foot was also of a neat proportion. Before him was an ordinary Chess table, and his attitude as he sat upon a cushion was perfectly natural. He might have a penchant for winning souls by means of his Chess skill, but seemed in a general way an honest fellow enough, and one not likely to be guilty of any trick or subterfuge. We had a couple of games with him, and found ourselves obliged to come to the conclusion that he did all his own work in making the various moves. His anatomy was fully equal to every form of manipulation that the various exigencies of the game might require, there seemed no doubt about that. He could reach to any piece, and convey it to any square, and the bold sweep of his arm when making a long lateral move was very admirable. The Chessmen, unlike those used by the Crystal Palace automaton, were of various sizes, and the only part of the affair that suggested anything abnormal was the chessboard. It was of a large club size, and as before implied, was fitted into an ordinary table, but each square possessed a spike, and on to this Monsieur Mephisto fitted his pieces when placing them anywhere. We, as his opponent, had to do the same, but it was also our office, in accordance with instructions received, to press the piece firmly down on to the spike both of the square originally occupied, and of that whereon the piece was to be placed. These squares, on being thus pressed, went down like a pianoforte key, though only slightly, and then came up level again. The object of this performance we did not rightly understand, but concluded that in some way it operated upon interior works. At any rate when we did not press sufficiently, our unearthly opponent made no move in reply. We imagine this very curious creation will  cause some sensation at the Paris Exhibition. Mechanicians will perhaps regard it with even more interest than the ordinary public. Those of the latter who have seen other Chess automata may look upon this one as less agile. It is certainly slower in its movements, a fact not to be wondered at if, as we really believe, it is not a counterfeit. We may observe in conclusion that Monsieur Mephisto won a game of M. Delannoy and another of Mr. Potter. These gentlemen no doubt blundered rather absurdly ; but excuses would be impotent. They should have taken more care when contending against such a subtle foe.




This next entry is was usurped word-for-word from one of the best chess club history sites I've encountered, the Brighton and Hove Chess Club. The entire site is an interesting read and I'd recommend visiting it.

     An interesting phenomenon was the arrival in Brighton of the automaton called Mephisto in the second half of 1879. Mephisto had been  introduced to London chess circles in 1878 and now found a base at 79 King’s Road, Brighton (if this address existed today it would be  close to the Brighton Centre). The automaton was opened to the general public on Saturday 23 August and soon proved popular with  local chess players. It regularly gave three performances per day, from 11am to 2pm, 3pm to 6pm and 7pm to 10pm. Admission fees  were one shilling for adults and sixpence for children, though in the evening session the charge was sixpence for everyone.
     According to the Brighton Herald of 30 August 1879 Mephisto was a ‘beautifully made “counterfeit presentment” of the Mephistopheles  rendered familiar by the dramatic adaptations of Goethe’s “Faust”. Although the automaton was a caricature of the devil it was not  unpleasing in appearance. The slim figure was dressed in red velvet trimmed with black and wore a pink hat with a black border and two  magnificent pink feathers. It was seated at an ordinary table containing a chess board and pieces.
     There had been chess playing automata before and one might have expected to find a chess player concealed inside it. In the case of  Mephisto, however, it was not easy to see where such a player could hide himself. Bradley Ewart writing in Chess: Man vs Machine  (1980) puts forward an interesting theory that an operator was concealed in the automaton’s chair. This idea is, however, considered  impossible by the Brighton Herald of 30 August 1879 which states:

     ‘Mephisto’ is seated on an easy chair, the bottom of which is too small to hide a person even of the dimensions of General Tom Thumb,  and the figure, though of life-size, cannot conceal the operator, as it is shown to be hollow, even in the act of playing.
     An alternative theory is that Mephisto was operated by some form of remote control. The figures on the board were originally supported  by spikes (also called ‘springs’) which were thought to provide a clue to the method of operation. Later a change was made, and the  new board contained depressions but no spikes. The exact method by which the machine was operated still appears to be in doubt, but  according to The Oxford Companion to Chess by David Hooper and Kenneth Whyld (1984) it was guided from another room by ‘electro -mechanical means’. Certainly the controlling power appears to have been close to the board, as Mephisto could play its moves quickly  if it wanted to. According to the previously mentioned Brighton Herald article the automaton frequently looked round the audience and  smiled. It also nodded assent or gave disapproving signs, depending on whether a good or bad move had been played.
     Although the chess players of the time could not penetrate the mystery of Mephisto’s operation, they probably did not believe that a robot  had been created. In the Illustrated London News of 6 April 1878 it was stated: ‘A genuine automaton chessplayer is of course an  impossibility for no mere mechanical contrivance can ever be made capable of creating and directing the multiform variations incident  to a game of chess’. It would have been interesting to have presented the writer with a modern chess computer and to have watched his  face!
     There has been some speculation as to who actually operated the automaton. During the machine’s earlier career in London it was  generally believed that Isidor Gunsberg, who later challenged for the World Championship, was responsible for selecting the moves. The  chess historians are, however, less certain as to whether Gunsberg came to Brighton. It is interesting that in the Sussex Chess Archives  for 1879 H.W. Butler wrote: ‘The C.P.C. [Chess Player’s Chronicle] of November announced that “Mephisto” had taken up residence at  79 King’s Road, Brighton. It was at this period that the writer was first introduced to Mr Gunsberg’. The mention of Gunsberg  immediately following an announcement that the machine had moved to Brighton makes it likely that the two events were connected. We  also have the evidence of the standard of play reached by the automaton. It would seem that there was not a great deal of difference in  the machine’s performance in London and in Brighton.
     Mephisto provided an interesting challenge for the promising young players of the public chess room. It could, however, be defeated, as  the following game shows:



The Chess-Player's Chronicle 1879
     We are requested by Mr. Marks to state that Ajeeb, described as " the Original World-famed Automaton Chess Player," has taken up  his quarters at the Royal Aquarium, where those who are curious to compare the styles of the rival Chess playing figures now exhibiting  to the public can have the opportunity daily in the Gallery lately vacated by Mephisto. Ajeeb is also an expert draught player.
An interesting pamphlet has appeared under the title of "A Chapter on Automatic Androids," having especial reference to " Mephisto,"  and purporting to show in what manner the performances of the so-called Automata, his predecessors, were accomplished.
     The Committee of the late West End Chess Club have disposed of the property of the Club to the proprietor of Mephisto's Chess  Rooms, No. 9, Strand, and the tourney of the Kt Class, left unfinished in September 1877, will now be played out there. An annual ticket  of admission will be issued to all members of the late Club at the price of £1 Is, the charge to non-members being £1 11s 6d. The  balance of about £15, arising from the proceeds of the late Club's property, will, as intimated in our last, be given in prizes for a  Handicap Tourney, open to the Club members on payment of an entrance fee of 5s. As soon as the entry list is complete, the final  arrangements will be made public.



Belgravia  1879

Mechanical Chess-Players
by Richard A. Proctor

     I have already noticed the first and in reality the most important circumstance in which the exhibition of Mephisto differs from that of M.  De Kempelen's figure. Mephisto is described as a mechanical chess-player, not as an automaton. In other words, Mephisto is correctly  described, whereas De Kempelen's figure was incorrectly described. We may include with this general description the special remarks  about the construction of the objects exhibited. Throughout the interior of the so-called automaton, the spectators were deceived.  Everything said and done was intended to carry the false impression that no person was concealed within the figure or the chest. The  assistant who exhibits the interior of Mephisto simply shows what he purports to show, that there can be no concealed player in the  figure of Mephisto, in the seat, or in the table, and it is certain there is none.
     But we may fairly consider Mephisto with special reference to the ingenuity with which the secret of the arrangement by which the figure  conducts his game is concealed. The maker distinctly admits that the figure is worked by a concealed player, nay, he is perfectly ready  in conversation with friends who may visit Mephisto's room to admit a number of other matters, a knowledge of which should go a long  way towards explaining the mystery. Yet he leaves a most ingenious riddle for them to answer, a very pretty problem for them to solve.
     In the first place, we may dismiss the notion that, as in all other cases, a player is concealed within the figure and appurtenances  exhibited to the public. The figure of Mephisto is that of a lean man of about the medium height. The head is movable in a number of  ways. It nods, turns round, moves backwards, and on close inspection one can see, in some of these movements, where the waxen  representation of a head and neck terminates behind the ornamental collar clothing the bust. The bust itself can be examined, prodded  with a stick, and generally maltreated (in appearance) as freely and with as little real injury as the Mephistopheles of Goethe received  from the sword of Marguerite's enraged brother. The largeness of the seat attracts some attention at first, and undoubtedly if the seat  and the lower half of Mephisto's body formed one enclosure, a small human figure could be concealed therein. But the assistant passes  a book between the two, even while the play is going on, and while also the upper half of the bust, from which the board could alone be  seen by a player concealed in the figure, is open to inspection. The table on which the board is set is shaped precisely like an ordinary  club chess-table; the board is also precisely like the ordinary chess-board except that there is a shallow circular depression in the  middle of each square, for the men to be set in. The assistant, be it noted, is very careful to set any man straight which has not been  properly placed in its circular hollow; but there is good reason for this when we remember that if a man is not set right the top is not  central, and the hands of the figure therefore would be apt to strike the head instead of grasping it. This is the more to be considered  because the men are not, as has hitherto been the case, of forms specially designed for mechanical play (as all of the same height and  so forth) but have the forms of the ordinary Staunton chessmen.
     It is next to be noticed that the concealed player does not survey the board set before Mephisto. There are mirrors in the room, and there  is nothing in the ordinary arrangements which would forbid the belief that the concealed player sees a reflected image of board and men  in an adjacent room : but as games have been played with the figure and board entirely screened under paper covers, this explanation  must be summarily dismissed.
     The concealed player does not see his adversary, though he can hear him, if he speaks pretty loud and clearly. I infer this partly from  what M. Gümpel has mentioned to me (not privately, lor he was aware when he spoke that I was so interested in his ingenious work that I  might probably write about it), partly from the behaviour of Mephisto under the control of the concealed player. Thus on the second day of  my playing with him, after a most disastrous series of defeats on the first (1 was never much of a chess-player, and more than twenty years have passed since I was in practice), I remarked as I sat down that Mephisto would soon dispose of a pair of games with me,  saying this for the information of those waiting their turn. On this Mephisto raised his head as if to look at me, and then nodded three or  four times as though pleasantly indicating his recognition of my compliment to his skill. I may as well take the opportunity of mentioning  here that among nearly a score, I should say, of games which I have played with Mephisto, I have only won one; though it is but fair to  myself to say that I have never yet played with him as I should play if I wanted to have a chance of winning. Moreover, it must be  remembered that a player who day after day plays continuously for eight hours at what may be called skittling chess, would acquire, even  if he had it not at starting, a habitude for rapid play, which would give him an advantage against good players, far more against one who,  within the last twenty years, has often passed a year, and has once passed five years, without opening a chess-board. On the other  hand, however, it must be remembered that the concealed player has disadvantages to contend against. If a good player set down to a  regular match game, steadily played, with Mephisto, I imagine that the concealed player would be handicapped by these disadvantages  to the extent of a pawn and move, at least. Such is, I am told, the opinion of the great chess-player Steinitz respecting the player who—to  his knowledge—conducts the games of the mechanical chess-player.
     In playing against ladies, Mephisto displays a gallantry which could scarcely be expected from a true Mephistopheles, assuming at least  that Goethe has correctly caught the character of that prince of darkness. He has not only allowed ladies who are in reality of far inferior  force to defeat him, but has even in some cases, I am told, compelled them to do so, by a series of moves bringing on what is called '  suimate' (a barbarous hybrid which chess-players ought as quickly as possible to replace by a respects able word). After his defeat by a  lady, Mephisto offers his band to her. When he has defeated or has been defeated by a. gentleman, he nods his head pleasantly, unless  the game has presented some unusual feature. In the latter case he may be less polite. For instance, a few weeks ago he gave the form  of mate known as scholar's mate  to a player who inadvertently left the mate open. (It was not given, of course, in the usual way which  everyone knows; but still mate came at the sixth or seventh move.) [footnote for "Scolar's Mate": I mean simply that Mephisto's queen, supported by king's bishop, took the player's king's bishop's pawn (unmoved) giving mate. I  suppose, strictly speaking, to give scholar's mate would mean playing the series of moves usually given under that heading in books on chess ].  On this Mephisto took his opponent's kingfrom the board and tapped  said opponent's nose with the piece, which to say the least did not imply respect for his opponent's powers. Occasionally he makes  movements not connected with the game. Thus on one occasion a lady was standing near Mephisto who expressed laughingly some  alarm at her proximity to so terrible a being. As if to show that he could be terrible if he wished, Mephisto brought round his arm and  seized her dress, at which she shrieked in real terror. Usually, however, Mephisto's movements are all connected more or less closely  with the chess play. He surveys the board every now and then, nodding his head thoughtfully as though taking note of the relative powers  of the two colours, or considering how such and such lines of play might be pursued. If he makes a very damaging move he looks up at  his opponent with a most sardonic smile. If his opponent delays over-long, Mephisto bestows the same look upon him, but with greater  persistency. If a game which has lasted some time seems tolerably equal, Mephisto goes through the movement of counting his own  men and his opponent's, and then removes his king to the middle of the board. Nor does this always imply, as some seem to imagine,  that in reality he has rather the worst of the game. I have seen him win a game, which he had offered in vain to draw.
     I have no intention of inquiring closely here into the nature of the arrangements by which Mephisto's play is conducted. Some tolerably  safe inferences may, however, be made, and some points noticed which have come under my own observation during the course of  several visits which I have paid to Mephisto's reception room. We know that there is a concealed player; and as he hears remarks made  in a tolerably loud voice, we may infer that he is underneath the floor on which the figure is placed, for that is the only concealed place  which is sufficiently near to the players and the bystanders. Since every move made by the player above is communicated at once to the  concealed player, we can infer that as a piece is put down some corresponding indication is made on the concealed player's board. It is  not yet clear to me whether he knows or does not know when his opponent leaves hold of a man so played. If he does not know, then he  is occasionally apt to commit a mistake which in actual play only a tyro would make—moving before his opponent has in reality  completed the move. I have seen this happen two or three times; and in one case the sequel was singular and rather significant. The player who was contending with Mephisto claimed his right to move the piece  touched wheresoever he pleased (among the moves open to that piece). Accordingly he put back the piece which Mephisto had moved,  and completed his own modified move. It so happened that this move was one which could have been made by that piece from the  square to which she had been originally moved, but where she had not really been left. Mephisto proceeded to answer the move as if it  had been thus made ; that is, as though his own piece had been allowed to remain on the square to which he had moved it. He was  manifestly unconscious of the fact that his opponent had put this piece back. Finding no resistance to his fingers, he made a signal  (striking his fingers against the table) indicative of dissatisfaction or perplexity. His opponent on this resigned the game, rather than  enter into an unseemly dispute with his Satanic majesty. It became manifest in this way that the moves of the red men leave no trace on  the concealed player's board. The same circumstance was made tolerably clear in the other cases in which Mephisto played before his  opponent had, by leaving hold of the moved piece, completed the move. The assistant explained that Mephisto would take no notice of  the return of his own piece to the square from which he had moved it. Doubtless we see here the reason why Mephisto plays always with  the red men. The white men only communicate (by electrical connection, no doubt) their movements to the concealed player. His own  men's movements, being made by himself, need not be communicated to him.
     In conclusion, I would note that chess-players who like to play with a strong opponent can combine amusement with chess practice on  very moderate terms, in Mephisto's apartment (No. 9 Strand). Instead of charging heavily, as some players of not superior strength are  apt to do, he meets all opponents at sixpence a game. The room in which he plays is provided with chess-boards, so that visitors may  amuse themselves with play while waiting for their turn with Mephisto, provided they do not prefer to watch his play. Moreover, there is a  good chess library, and many of the best periodicals of the day, literary, scientific, and social, are placed on the library table. Mephisto's  sanctum, indeed, merits far more numerous visits than it receives.


The Games of Gunsberg's chess matches with Tchigorin and Steinitz  1891

THIS distinguished player is now in his thirty-seventh year, having been born at Buda-Pesth on 2nd November 1854. Very early in his  career—at the age of thirteen—he displayed remarkable talent at the game, in which his father had been his instructor. In 1867 he went  to Paris, and at the celebrated Cafe de la Regence Rosenthal gave him the odds of the Queen, but the thirteen-year-old boy won a  majority of the games. Nine years later the so-called Chess automaton " Mephisto " caused a general sensation in London. It was for a  long time a secret who was the controller of " Mephisto's " movements; ultimately, however, it was discovered that Gunsberg was the  real soul of the automaton.


From Modern Chess Brilliancies   1892
by George Hatfield Dingley Gossip





The Chess-monthly, vol. 3 1882

Mephisto will give an exhibition of his mysterious Chess play for the benefit of the " Guiding Spirit," on Saturday, the 8th of October, from 2 till 11 o'clock p.m , at Mephisto's rooms, 48a, Regent-street (opposite Cafe Monico). Those who have not seen this beautiful mechanical puzzle yet, ought to do so. The life-like appearance of Mephisto, the elegance and precision with which he mores the pieces, coupled with this rapidity and brilliancy of his play, are most fascinating.