If you happen to live or stay in New York City, you have but a few days left to visit the exhibit “Making Marvels: Science & Splendor at the Courts of Europe” at the Met Museum. Its magical highlight is the display of John Gaughan‘s famous reproduction of the even more famous Chess Player automaton (also called “The Turk” due to its costume back then). More than 800 books have been written on this marvelous, deceptive machine and its travels and encounters with the likes of Napoleon.
Which reminds me of a very funny anecdote Dai Vernon once shared in his column “The Vernon Touch” in Genii Magazine:
Concerning the „Chess Player,“ years ago it was on exhibit in Coney Island in the Dreamland Circus Sideshow. This show had twenty-one exhibits. Freaks of all descriptions such as the Ossified Man, Cuckoo the Bird Girl, Half Man/Half Woman, and many others.
The last one was Al Flosso, the Coney Island Fakir. One of these exhibits was the Chess Player. Flosso told me that the person concealed within the apparatus was an escaped prisoner from Sing Sing. It happened one day that another jailbird played the Chess Player and recognized the play of his ex-inmate. Smoking a pipe, he blew smoke inside the base. Presently he heard a cough and and the concealed guy inside had to exit the apparatus. This was a perfect hiding place.
(Genii, July 1989, Vol. 53, No. 1)
It might actually have happened. Even though the original automaton was already destroyed in a Boston fire in 1854, a similar Chess Player called “Ajeeb”, built in England by Charles Hooper, came to America in 1885. Later on, it was displayed at Coney Island until 1929, when it was also destroyed by a fire.
You can read some more about the Chess Player as a popular motif on postage stamps here and find some additional links and books there.