The Turk at Odds

The Turk at Odds

Jan 16, 2009, 2:33 AM |

I do love the Turk. Almost singlehandedly, and mostly unintentionally, the Turk exposed the general public in many nations to the joys of chess. It's only rivalry was that with Philidor who, with his blindfold exhibitions, vied with the Turk for the same paying audience for a time in London.  But that was back when the Turk was displayed by its inventor, Von Kempeln. After the turn of the 18th century, the Turk was bought by Johann Maelzel and displayed in mainland Europe,  then England and finally America. But it's England that I wish to talk about. 

The Turk was in England from 1819 to 1825. During that time it had three operators, or Directors, as they were called. Two of them, Peter Unger Williams and William Lewis had been students of the recently departed JH Sarratt, while the third, Jacques-Francis Mouret was the house master from the Café de la Régence in Paris.

Let's talk about Mouret.

According to The Living Age, 1856

Mouret, chess-teacher to the family of Louis-Philippe, was one of the most amusing of the later frequenters of the Regence. It was he who, shut up in a drawer barely sufficient to contain a good-sized cat, for many years conducted the moves of the celebrated, but improperly termed, automaton chess-player, in almost all of the principal towns of Europe. Many were the amusing anecdotes he used to relate, when subsequently revealing the secrets of his prison-house. Though the slightest noise, the least audible intimation of a living creature being concealed in the chest--apparently filled with wheels and other mechanism, upon which the automaton played--would have been fatal to the deception, Mouret never lost his presence of mind, save on one occasion. It happened thus: The automaton was exhibiting in the capital of one of the minor German principalities, and, as usual, drawing crowded audiences. A professor of legerdemain--everybody is a professor now-a-days--who was performing in the same place, finding his occupation gone through the superior attractions of the wooden chess-player, determined to discover, and expose the secret. Aided by his long professional experience of the deceptive art, he soon saw through the trick, which more learned persons had only distantly guessed at; and, assisted by an accomplice, raised a sudden outcry of fire, just as the automaton was in the midst of an interesting game. The noise of the alarmed spectators rushing from the room struck a momentary panic to the heart of Mouret, who, believing himself about to be burned alive, struggled so violently to release himself from his concealed bondage, that he rolled the automaton, turban, cushion, and all, over the floor. Maezel, the viable exhibitor, instantly flying to the rescue, dropped the curtain; but next day the automaton left the town, and the astute conjuror remained master of the field.

In justice to chess, it must be added of poor Mouret, the most amusing story-teller, that he was the only first-class chess-player I have ever met with who extinguished fine abilities, sacrificed character, and destroyed life, by over-indulgence in strong waters.



In 1887, the BMC published the following 1837 letter (translated from French)  from Bourdonnais to George Walker, the brackets containing BMC's own comments :


Rue Richelieu 89, 17 Janvier, 1837.
Mon cher Monsieur Walker,

I thank you much for the excellent article you have had the kindness to send me ; it will appear well translated in the February number. I shall always receive thankfully any articles you may be pleased to send me, and will have them inserted at once. I regard this [i.e. having G. W. as a regular contributor] as a piece of good fortune. I will return your article at the first opportunity I find. I have sent to Messrs. Bossange [the publishers in Great Marlborough Street, afterwards known as Barthès and Lowell], instead of the 6 numbers in stock, 20 of the December number, which is, I think, interesting enough ; I will continue this if they wish it, and they can sell the numbers separately ; I beg you to arrange the price with them. I shall also be much obliged if you will be so good as to send me the best and latest books on whist [the Palamèede, like the Westminster Papers, combined whist with Chess], as also a subscription [i.e. a copy in return for a subscription mentioned below] to Bell's Life in London for the Paris Chess Club, 1 Rue de Menars or 89 Rue Richelieu. Please to give us in your next letter some particulars about M. Szen ; I think that you have players at least of his strength. St. Amant would not play with him : he declared he was too busy with a law-suit which our manager of the old club is bringing against us. Our new club is going on capitally. But we get few fine games here. St. Amant and Boncourt have almost given up playing ; Mouret is dying : and few strong players are coming on. [Jacques François Mouret had long conducted the Automaton when Maelzel was its exhibitor : he died soon after the date of this letter, and we are sorry to add that his life was shortened by drink.] I thank you for the characters : I have not yet made up my mind. [This allusion is obscure.] I have in my library some very curious manuscripts which will support me for some time. I thank you for your good advice, and will follow it. [Doubtless as to care of his health and taking exercise, which Labourdonnais habitually neglected.] I do not know how I shall reckon with Messrs. Bossange : they might take the subscription to Bell's Li(e and the whist books on my account.
   Receive, my dear Mr. Walker, the assurance of the sincere attachment of your devoted friend



In 1850 the same George Walker wrote in his book Chess and Chess-players :

Leaving Bavaria with the Automaton, Maelzel was once more en route, as travelling showman of the wooden genius. Other automata were adopted into the family, and a handsome income was realized by their ingenious proprietor. Himself an inferior player, he called the assistance of first-rate talent to the field as his ally. Our limits compel us to skip over some interval of time here, during which M. Boncourt (we believe) was Maelzel's chef in Paris, where the machine was received with all its former favour ; and we take up the subject in 1819, when Maelzel again appeared with the Chess Automaton in London.  Here the exhibition drew crowds of visitors, and excited universal admiration. The press teemed with compliments to the wooden player; and its success, as a curiosity, was considerably enhanced by the circumstance of its almost universally coming off victorious. Maelzel well knew that the effect produced by the exhibition would be incalculably greater in proportion to the skill displayed by the figure. He engaged the powerful assistance of a first-rate English player (Mr. Lewis), who conducted the Automaton for something like a twelvemonth; at the end of which time he was relieved from his laborious duty by the celebrated Mouret, one of the first players in France.

Mouret was a chess-player of the Deschapelles' school, and stood deservedly high on the list of great players. His game was, perhaps, less brilliant than sound and sure. To make the play of the Automaton still more striking, it was now resolved that it should give the odds of pawn and move to all comers. Under the inspiration of Mouret, it accomplished this, hardly losing one game in a hundred. Fifty of the games played during the Siamese-twin-like connection of Mouret and the Automaton (body and board), were taken down, in 1820, by Mr. Hunneman, and published in a small volume. These games contain a fair specimen of Mouret's great skill, and embody some beautiful emanations of genius.

Throughout the whole, he gives the pawn and move, numbering among his opponents Messrs. Brand, Cochrane, Keen, and Mercier,—some of the first chess-players of the time. Mouret, be it stated, en passant, had the honour of being chess-teacher to the family of Louis Philippe, king of the French. Every encouragement was given by the chess circle to Mouret's talent; but he unhappily formed habits of dissipation fatal to his respectability and standing in society. He burnt out his brain with brandy, and died recently in Paris, reduced to the extremest stage of misery and degradation.


In the September 18, 1841 issue of The Saturday Magazine one can read :

M. Maelzel having entered into an agreement with M. Mouret, a very eminent chess-player, to conduct the internal arrangements of the automaton, the two confederates set out on a tour for the purpose of spreading the fame of the automaton, and reaping the benefit of the deception in many towns of England, Scotland, and Holland, where it was yet only known by report. The most complete success attended this journey. Wherever they went, spectators crowded to the exhibition to witness the triumphs of the automaton, who always kept his ground against his antagonists, and came off victorious, in spite of the advantage which he permitted to his opponent in giving him the pawn and move.

    The exhibitor and his assistant went on for some time in perfect harmony: accounts were settled between them at every halting-place, and each was perfectly satisfied. It happened, however, on one of these occasions that M. Maelzel remained debtor to his assistant for a considerable sum, and as weeks and months passed by he still had some pretext for omitting its payment. At length a year had passed, without producing the desired settlement, and M. Mouret, weary of this delay, found the means of frightening his companion into his proper duty.

    The automaton was then at Amsterdam: the king of Holland sent one morning to engage the exhibition-room, at the same time ordering a sum equal to three thousand francs, to be paid to M. Maelzel. The latter went joyfully to announce the good news to his associate, they breakfasted together, and were delighted at the thought of entering the lists with a crowned head. M. Maelzel then hastened to make such preparations as should make the exhibition as brilliant as possible. The performance was to commence at half-past twelve at noon. Twelve o'clock arrives, and it is time for M. Mouret to take his station in the chest. But he has not yet arrived, and M. Maelzel hastens to find out the cause of the delay.

What is his surprise to find Mouret in bed, and seized with a convulsive trembling. "What do I see? what is the matter?" exclaimed Maelzel.
"I have a fever," said his artful assistant.
"Why, you were very well just now !"
"Yes, but this is a sudden attack."
"The king will be here presently."
"He must go back again."
"But what can I say to him ?" "
"Tell him the automaton has got the fever."
"No more of this folly."
"I don't wish to joke with you."
"Then pray get up."
"Let me call a physician."
"It is of no use."
"Is there no means of subduing this fever?"
"Yes, one only."
"What is it ?"
"To pay me the 1500 francs you owe me."
"You shall have them . . . this evening ?"
"No, no, this moment."
M. Maelzel saw too plainly that there was no alternative, and went to fetch the money. The cure was wonderful; the automaton was never so attractive before. The King did not actually play, but he advised his Minister of War, who played for him. The pair were completely beaten by the automaton, but all the blame of the defeat was, of course, thrown upon the Minister.


It is proper to state that M. Mouret himself, so long the secret colleague of M. Maelzel, furnished an account of the mysteries of the automaton, from which M. de Tournay, a member of the Paris Chess Club, has published his account in the first volume of Le Palaméde, a French periodical, devoted chiefly to Chess. It is from this source that we have derived the following information, which may, therefore, in every respect, be considered authentic.


Mouret had revealed the secret of the automaton supposedly for the price of a drink and this somewhat oblique revelation was published in  an article in "Le Magasin Pittoresque" in 1834. Mouret supposedly went insane from the alcoholism that finally killed him.


 Mouret vs. an amateur





John Cochrane beats the Turk!





Mouret vs. an amateur