Beyond the Book: Background information when reading The Chess Machine

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The Chess Machine

A Novel

by Robert Lohr

The Chess Machine by Robert Lohr
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  • First Published:
    Jul 2007, 352 pages
    Paperback:
    Sep 2008, 352 pages

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Chess is thought to have originated in northern India or Afghanistan. The earliest written references are from around 600 AD but there is some evidence that the game could have existed as early as 100 AD. Interest in chess spread along the trade routes from India, with different variations found in different countries, such as Shogi in Japan and Xiangqi in China.

The variation known to Europeans and Americans today (Western Chess or International Chess) traveled through Iran to Italy and Spain with the Moors in the early 11th century, and from there to Scandinavia and Iceland with sea-faring "Vikings". By the early 15th century, chess was well established across Europe.

The six different chess pieces represent a cross section of medieval life:

  • The pawns are the serfs - in the majority but easily sacrificed.
  • The knights represent the professional soldiers, they are more important than pawns but less important than the other pieces.
  • The bishops represent the church, a rich and powerful force in medieval Europe.
  • Originally, the rook symbolized a chariot (the Persian word for chariot is rokh), but in the West the rook has come to represent a fortified castle (perhaps rokh was interpreted as rocca when the game arrived in Italy - rocca meaning fortress)
  • The queen is the most powerful piece on the board representing a medieval queen's powerful but precarious position - capable of playing games of intrigue at court to exert her power but ultimately vulnerable to the king's will.
  • The king is the most important, but not the most powerful. In medieval times, the surrender of the king meant the loss of the kingdom to the invading army; thus it was to everyone's advantage to protect the king.

Automatons (self-operating machines) were all the rage in 18th century Europe during the "Age of Enlightenment". Two of the most famous examples, referenced in The Chess Machine are Freidrich Knaus's writing machine and Jacques de Vaucanson's digesting duck, which stretched its neck to take grain, swallowed and then defecated the apparently digested grain; the digestion process was a fraud - a secondary device triggered the sphincter to release a separately stored piece of poop!

Robert Lohr (rhymes with more) acknowledges taking liberties with the story of von Kempelen's career - in real life von Kempelen (self portrait) was ambitious but not to the point shown in The Chess Machine. After the Mechanical Turk, Kempelen went on to build a speaking machine which is now stored in the Deutsches Museum in Munich. Kempelen's original Mechanical Turk was destroyed in a fire in the mid 1800s but a few copies still exist such as the one in the Heinz Nixdorf Museum in Paderborn.


MTurk.com: Today, the concept of the Mechanical Turk has taken on a new lease of life in the form of MTurk.com (now part of Amazon) which offers "artificial artificial intelligence" in the form of humans who earn micro payments for carrying out "human intelligence tasks" (HITs) that are easy for humans but difficult for computers, such as categorizing the color of items in catalogs.

This article was originally published in August 2007, and has been updated for the September 2008 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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