The Mysterious Ajeeb - Chess Reporter 1932

Feb 3, 2009, 10:20 PM |




     Young folks of the next generation will learn Chess by aid of robot Chess-players. Spanish inventor perfected a device whereby Mister Machine, handling White King and Rook on an electrically operated chessboard, infallibly mates Black King. The marvel's a first cousin of the Robot of the Water Tower, the Westinghouse "mechanical man," the Algebraic Equations Solver up at Mass. Tech, and other selective and therefore "judgmatic" machines. It stands to reason that the robots of the future can be taught the standard openings, traps and endings,—at the very least, showing the learner the different kinds of mates and refuting by sound play the variations that he tries against them. Looking back over the history of Chess, it is note worthy that quackery in such devices preceded the actual achievement by 150 years.

     In 1767 Baron von Kempelen of Hungary produced a dummy which he challenged the master flesh-and-blood players to beat. His tour with it in the courts of Europe was a veritable triumph. Not till long afterward was the secret of it discovered. The effigy was a full-size Terrible Turk in the robes of his country. He squatted cross-legged before a chessboard on a cabinet the doors of which were opened now and again to show a multitude of wheels, chains, pulleys, etc. The spectator assumed that these operated the motions of the arms and the fingers that handled and moved the pieces. In an age when less was known about Chess than at present and long, hard Match play was yet to come, the Automaton was practically invincible. Kempelen's Chess player out-lived the Biblical three score years and ten, being toured over two Continents after his Master's death and succumbing to a fire in Philadelphia in 1854.
     He was succeeded by the celebrated Ajeeb the Automaton, familiar to the visitors of the Eden Musée in old Twenty-third street, New York. Ajeeb was posed on a large stand at the back of the waxworks, and the lower part of him was shrouded in draperies. A girl attendant set up the pieces, saw to it that the moving was legal and expeditious, and collected a dime a game. The writer often played Ajeeb and always lost. Such also was the experience of his fellow Club members who from time to time visited the resort. But one afternoon a young member who had recently come to us from Montreal was asked to try his luck and responded: "I'm not afraid of Ajeeb! We'll show him as many tricks from the bag as he has!"  So a special expedition from Brooklyn to Manhattan was arranged for the encounter. The game started. Our paladin gave up the exchange, and we were very much worried. The more unsophisticated of the youthful party wore scared expressions as if to say: "Don't you see—you can't beat the supernatural!"  But Black, in tossing off a Rook for a mere Bishop, cramped up the Turk and ended his strong attack. A clever combination enabled the Black forces to sweep through irresistibly. White was threatened with immediate mate. In disgust Ajeeb threw down the White King, and then with a single motion of the arm and hand laid low all the rest of the pieces. 
     Our man had won!....
     Now what we really had been seeing in that famous game though we didn't all sense it till afterwards, was the first encounter twixt Frank J. Marshall (our Montreal recruit) and Harry N. Pillsbury (who was hidden beneath theTurk). In the Gay Nineties (the date of our story) it became known that Ajeeb and all similar Chess-playing devices were man-operated. The wheels, chains, belts and pulleys that the girl obligingly showed us were just hocus-pocus. The real player was in a narrow space inside whence he could look out at the board and work the arm and hand movements. It had to be a small man as well as a skilled Chess player. Pillsbury was both. It seems incredible but is none the less a fact that the winner of Hastings and the greatest Chessist America had produced since Paul Morphy, spent a goodly part of his Chess career cramped in a hidden cavity of Ajeeb and getting the transient public's dimes for his really uncanny skill! 
     The new Robots are all-metal. You couldn't pry even a doll into'em, much less a midget man. Instead, Science has in a sense put brain-work into a machine, using the principle of selectivity, i. e., making different automatic responses as the different factors ofthe problem impinge. Chasing and hog-tying a King with King and Rook is probably the simplest of such exercises. Yet who shall prophesy the limits of the Chess Robots of the Future? 



     In lightsome mood!
    An old-time sparkler with more gleaming facets than a whole "congress" of plodders could furnish.
     White was the famed Ajeeb the Automaton;
     Black, Charles Devidé, the veteran NewYork analyst and critic.








This article was excerpted from The Chess Reporter of Jan. 1932, made available for us through that wonderful California Chess History archive,  Chess Dryad