BookBrowse Reviews The Chess Machine by Robert Lohr

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The Chess Machine

A Novel

by Robert Lohr

The Chess Machine by Robert Lohr X
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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An historical adventure based on the true story of a legendary invention

It is estimated that 300 million TV viewers watched Garry Kasparov lose to IBM's Deep Blue in 1997*. The audience was a lot smaller when Wolfgang von Kempelen unveiled his Mechanical Turk to The Empress Maria Theresia and her court in 1770, but they were no less surprised to witness a machine beat a man at chess. Little did they know that the Turk was a very clever fraud, one of the most elaborate hoaxes in history.

Although a fair amount is known about the life of Wolfgang von Kempelen, nothing is known about the chess player(s) who hid inside the machine, so Lohr has liberally played with the known facts to create the central character of Tibor, a deeply religious and honest dwarf who, through circumstances beyond his control finds himself in league with Kempelen and on a slippery slope to defraud the high and mighty of Europe.

Robert Lohr's attention to detail when describing the sights, sounds and science of 18th century Vienna and Pressburg (modern day Bratislava, capital of Slovakia) is excellent. However, there were one or two tiny slips that this reviewer (who is no expert on the period) spotted. For example, when the Mechanical Turk is first introduced to us through the eyes of Tibor, the author refers to the Turk's eyes hanging on two strings like useless optic nerves. This is such an incongruous detail (considering that a basic understanding of the nervous system did not develop for another 100 years) that it caused this reader to read on from that point with considerably more circumspection than before.

Although the pacing is slow at times and some parts could have been trimmed without loss to the main flow, there is much to enjoy in The Chess Machine. We experience moments of high drama and humor, sometimes on the same page; swordfights and court intrigues; plus a growing connection with and concern for the big hearted man inside the little body who has only his faith to hang on to as he is drawn further and further into Kempelen's deception and delusions of grandeur.

*Kasparov vs. Deep Blue: Former World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov defeated IBM's Deep Thought easily in 1989. Seven years later, a new improved computer, Deep Blue, won the first of six games against Kasparov but Kasparov fought back to win overall with three wins and two draws.

A year later, in May 1997, Kasparov took on an enhanced Deep Blue in a six game match; Deep Blue won with two wins to one against, with 3 draws. After the loss, Kasparov said that he saw signs of deep intelligence and creativity in the machine's moves, indicating human intervention during the match. IBM denied any intervention during the games so Kasparov requested printouts of the machine's logs, which IBM refused to provide at the time (they were later published on the web). Kasparov demanded a rematch but IBM declined and retired Deep Blue.

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in August 2007, and has been updated for the October 2008 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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