Competitive Chess : From Mechanical Turk to Deep Blue

They say chess is the game of games. It is certainly more sophisticated than Connect Four. Theoretically, there are 10 to the power of 120 different chess games. That’s a big number – 10 followed by 120 zeroes. Especially when you consider that there are only 10 to the power of 81 atoms in the universe.

Many of us know how to play chess, in the sense that we know how the pieces move and have a vague idea that the point is to clobber the opposing player’s king. We are casual players. Competitive chess is another thing altogether.

We have long been fascinated by competitive chess. During the 18th century during the fashion for building automata – incredibly complex mechanisms which mimicked human behaviour in a variety of ways. One automaton known as the Mechanical Turk was a chess playing machine which took on players at royal courts across Europe and America and beat them comprehensively. The Little Turk was a sensation, beating Napoleon Bonaparte and Benjamin Franklin.

mechanical turk

There was just one problem – it was a hoax. A very ingenious hoax, but a hoax nonetheless. The machine consisted of an animated figure in Turkish garb which sat atop a pedestal and moved pieces about a chess board in front of it.

Before competitions an assistant opened various doors in the cabinet on which the Mechanical Turk sat. This allowed adjudicators to vouch that no one was concealed within the contraption. In each case, it was clear that the cabinet contained nothing more than a mass of cogs, gears and wheels and too small a remaining space to house even a child.

In fact, a chess grandmaster inside the cabinet used magnets to move the pieces. The cabinet had been constructed so that he could shift position each time a door was opened thereby avoiding detection. Eventually the hoax was revealed but not before the egos of many players were damaged by the belief that they had been beaten by a machine.

Two hundred years later, IBM built a chess playing machine called Deep Blue – a parallel processing behemoth of a computer with awesome calculating power. IBM claimed that Deep Blue was capable of playing chess at grandmaster level. In 1996 the machine beat world champion Garry Kasparov in a single game. Although Kasparov went on to convincingly defeat Big Blue over the six game match this was a pivotal moment.

The win proved controversial. Kasparov contended that some of Deep Blue’s moves were too insightful to have been worked out by a computer applying brute force. He accused IBM of cheating. IBM dismantled Deep Blue shortly after.

Were these both hoaxes? 200 years apart? Or was Kasparov nursing a bruised ego after being trounced by a cabinet full of silicon chips? We will never know.


A Brief Introduction To Chess

Chess is one of the oldest rivalry games in the world. It enjoys equal reputation with I-go, Chinese Chess and Shogi of Japan. Generally, people think this kind of game emerged in northern India before 500 A.D. It was much easier to play the game then. The chess pieces represented infantry, warriors, chariots and elephants of Ancient India. On the chessboard, the king and his vizier (i.e. the present queen) reign over everything. According to most of the historians, chess was gradually spread to middle Asia, China, Persia and Europe from India. In the 11th century, it prevailed in Constantinople and became a pastime favored by Alexis Comnene, the king of Byzantium.

Since the game was brought to the West, names and designs of some chess pieces were connected to the strata of the feudal Europe. The king and the pawns were certainly unchanged. But the elephant, which was a kind of heavy force in the Indian army, was replaced by the bishop in the West. Bishops were powerful in churches of the middle ages while nobody knew the mightiness of elephants in wars. When describing the 2nd Punic War, Levy, Chess historian mentioned that Hannibal made us of beast forces in the fighting on the mainland of Italy. Warriors on the Indian chessboard were turned into knights, which was universally recognized as a representation of chivalry. Ancient chariots were turned into castles (“turn” in German, “torre” in Spanish and “tour” in French are all “castle”), which were called “rook” in English (castle-shape chess piece). This word originates from “ruhk” in Persian (meaning chariot) or from “rocco” in Italian (meaning castle). Finally vizier was renamed queen, who was an important role in the royal court in the middle ages.

Late in the 15th century, the rules of chess underwent a spontaneous change in Europe.


The most important change was that the queen took on a thrillingly powerful role on the chess board rather than leeching off the king. Besides, pawns can move 2 squares at the start; bishops can freely move on the bias; the king can exchange location with rooks. Those changes show that the rules of chess in the 150 countries and regions of today’s world are alike. These rules have been recognized by the 5 million FIDE registered chess players. Till the 20th century, chess was always regarded as the game for the noble and the rich with leisure. However, since the October Revolution in 1917, the Soviet Government attached importance to chess and promoted it with much effort. The game has become popular gradually. There are 5 million registered chess players at FIDE and hundreds of millions of people who can play chess (according to the statistics of FIDE at the 1990s, the number was around 3 hundred million all over the world), and most of them are fans of this game except for the limited number of top players who regard chess as art and lifelong career.

It is true that in USSR and Russia, which took over the flag of “Chess Kingdom” from USSR, chess is a national sport and respected as the “National Board Game”. It is even more popular than football. With the drive of the country and its people, since 1940s, grandmasters of USSR had more or less controlled the chess circles worldwide, though their superiority were soon challenged by power chess countries like the UK and the USA.

Among all board games, chess is an ideal game that integrates strategies and skills. By comparison, we can see the victory of backgammon is dependent on the throw of dices, which is involuntary; the scale of draughts restrains the technical victory. Only I-go, Chinese Chess and Shogi of Japan can run parallel with chess in terms of idea, science and depth.

Chess can be regarded as a game integrating art, science, knowledge and inspiration as a whole. When analyzing chess games, we practice logic. When playing the game and utilizing strategies, we need a creative inspiration. But unlike crossword, chess is not a purely test of character intelligence. The rivalry of chess plunges the two parties into a bloodless war, which is an intense fight of their thoughts and will and a fortitudinous contest of their physical strength.

The rules of playing chess are changeful and fun. It is good for the intelligence development of the youth. Therefore, there are many countries that have placed chess on the primary school curriculum.

The Prince of Puzzle-Makers

It was like renewing my youth to meet him – to hear him ask me if I remembered the “Fourteen-Fifteen” puzzle, or the trick donkeys, or “Get Off the Earth.” And to hear how those old friends of boyhood’s days came to exist and something of their history since I first knew them – that was like meeting an old, old friend and hearing him tell the story of his life. Yet one can never speak of the “Fourteen – Fifteen” puzzle or “Get Off the Earth” as old. They are perennially new. Long after the brain that gave them life is quieted – and may that be many, many years hence – a new generation will be watching the Chinaman fade away at the movement of the pivoted card; or shifting the counters so as to compel Fourteen and Fifteen to take their places in serial relation. Sam Loyd is not of one generation any more than he is of one country – he is universal and everlasting.

A quiet man, with a ready tongue and a quick wit showing through a twinkling eye – that is what first impresses you about the famous puzzle – man. He is reputed to have made a million dollars out of that active brain; yet he is as modest of demeanour and as quiet of dress as though he were a clerk in a business establishment at twenty-five dollars a week. His moustache is white now and his head a little bald – for has he not been entertaining the world for fifty-five years with his odd conceptions? But I can fancy him when he made his first puzzle fifty-five years ago, younger-looking but no more acute mentally than he is now, when he handles sometimes one hundred thousand letters a day from his correspondents, eager to share in the prizes he offers for the solution of his puzzles.

Out of his side-pocket, as he sat down in the wicker rocking-chair in my private office, he took something round, and looked at it with an amused smile.

“I didn’t bring it along to show you,” he said, “but perhaps it would amuse you.”

I took it from him and examined it. You have doubtless seen what the Chinese have done upon the same lines – carving a ball within a ball, or a fully-rigged ship in a bottle. This was a wooden ball, perhaps two inches in diameter, with a careful reticulation, within which appeared another reticulated ball, moving freely, and within that another and another and another – five in all.

“I did it last week,” he said, “out of a croquet-ball.

Again the hand went into the capacious pocket, and a curious bit of carving came out. It was a forked twig, taken just as Nature made it; and, with a face carved under a natural hat at one end and two feet outlined at the other, it was Rip Van Winkle to the life. Mr. Loyd said he had found it in the Catskills Rip’s own country. “Doesn’t he look as though he had been asleep a long time?” he asked. Certainly Rip’s wooden legs were warped as though he had been out in the night air a long time. Mr. Loyd made another exploration, and brought out a snake – red-mouthed, coiled for a spring. “I found that piece of wood up at Ticonderoga, where it is said Ethan Allen killed the rattlesnake,” he said. “I haven’t changed it at all. I am always coming on odd things like that. I have a cabinet at home full of them.”

Evidently Mr. Loyd’s faculty of observation is acute. You or I would not have seen the rattlesnake in the root, or the little old man in the forked twig.

He does not tell it of himself, but Mr. Loyd as a boy had a power of imitation and an aptness at ventriloquism which made trouble for all who came within his mischievous activities’ range. He was just a keen-minded vigorous boy, as alert physically as he was mentally. And of this material they tried to make a civil engineer. He look the course and started on the practice of the profession. But already Nature had begun to point out to him the sphere in which he was spend his life. With the talent for creating puzzles half developed in his brain, what had he to do with civil engineering and its slow road to success and wealth? When he was still only seventeen, and just beginning to be an engineer, he devised a puzzle which made for him in a few weeks ten thousand dollars. It decided him abruptly not to spoil a good puzzle-maker for a poor civil engineer. This puzzle is one which will live always, I believe, for it is as great a favourite today as it was half a century ago. It is the puzzle of the trick donkeys.

trick_Donkeysjpg“Fancy!” as Hedda Gabler’s husband so often reiterates, that not millions but thousands of millions of these have been sold, and you will understand in what a curious way Mr. Loyd found the key to success – not in great things, but in little things often multiplied. In fact, it is his theory, verified so well in his own experience, that it is the little and not the great thing that is most often profitable.

“I am still taking orders for those donkeys in million lots,” he said. “When I first sold them I had my own printing outfit; but now I have the printing done by someone else. Of course, my legal rights in all my early devices have lapsed by this time, but copyrights and patents mean very little to me. People don’t care for my puzzles unless they can have them with my name on them. Those trick donkeys have been associated with a great many incidents in the lives of business houses and business men. There is a big dry goods arid department store in New York which uses a star as a sort of trade-mark. The donkeys were responsible for that. When the firm started in business they gave me an order for a million copies to give away. When I was setting up the card, I noticed that there was a space between the donkeys which looked blank, so I stuck in a star. When I saw the head of the house later, he said to me, ‘What is the meaning of that star, Mr. Loyd ?’ ‘To make little boys ask questions,’ I answered. He laughed and said, ‘You see, it made me ask one.’ His partner came up at this moment and said, ‘We’ve used that star now in connection with these million cards; why not use it hereafter as a trade mark?’ And that was the origin of an emblem which has since become famous in the world of trade.

“I recall another incident of the donkeys’ career. P. T. Barnum, who was running his circus when the donkeys were most popular, asked me if I would take ten thousand dollars and call them ‘P. T. Barnum’s trick donkeys.’ I said I would, and about that time I was filling an order from a big Philadelphia concern for a large number. So I shipped them the cards with Barnum’s name on them. Back came a letter from the head of the house, saying, ‘We have several tons of advertising literature of P. T. Barnum on hand, awaiting your orders. I’m enough of a humbug myself without advertising through my store that much greater humbug Barnum.’ For a time I was afraid I should lose my cards, but I went to Philadelphia, explained the matter, and persuaded the house to take the cards and use them.”