One of Poe’s more odd but interesting stories isn’t fiction at all, but an essay. ‘Maelzel’s Chess Player’ is an article Poe wrote in 1836, attempting to debunk the amazing but fraudulent chess-playing automaton called ‘The Turk’ that was touring Europe and America during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Poe opens with:
PERHAPS no exhibition of the kind has ever elicited so general attention as the Chess-Player of Maelzel. Wherever seen it has been an object of intense curiosity, to all persons who think. Yet the question of its modus operandi is still undetermined. Nothing has been written on this topic which can be considered as decisive—and accordingly we find every where men of mechanical genius, of great general acuteness, and discriminative understanding, who make no scruple in pronouncing the Automaton a pure machine, unconnected with human agency in its movements, and consequently, beyond all comparison, the most astonishing of the inventions of mankind.
Unfortunately, I think this essay is a failure; it goes on too long, becomes too detailed and in the end doesn’t correctly explain how the fraud really worked. However, this essay did some other amazing things:
- It helped Poe develop his science of ‘ratiocination’–that is, a kind of deductive reasoning what would premiere in 1841 with ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’, and continue in ‘The Purloined Letter’ and ‘The Mystery of the Rue Morgue.’ And ratiocination continues to this very day. The whole modern real world science as well as the fictional genre of the crime detective owe their births to Poe’s ideas.
- Poe was right, ‘The Turk’ was a fraud, hiding a small ‘director’–that is, a human chess player–deep within its recesses, even if Poe didn’t get all the details right.
- This essay bolstered Poe’s reputation as a genius at ciphers, further enhancing the aura of The Raven–the ingeniously brilliant but deeply troubled Romantic.
The image comes from a contemporary engraving of the magical and mystical chess automaton, ‘The Turk’.