Tricks, Traps, and Illusions in the Coffeehouse Chess Game

Coffeehouse ChessThis month in St. Louis, Missouri, the US Chess Championship is taking place, which reminds us of those endless hours at the college coffeehouse we spent, lost in the luscious embrace of caffeine and Cassia, the goddess of chess.

The term “coffeehouse chess” describes a wild, trap-laden style of play that often relies on bizarre gambits and razzle-dazzle. You can see it in action at the lively chess tables in New York’s Washington Square Park, where seasoned chess sharks play each other countless blitz and bullet games, the pieces flying as each player tries to cram an immoral masterpiece on the board in 3 minutes, 2 minutes, 1 minute.

The Mecca of Chess in a Cup of Mocha

The intimate connection between coffee and chess began in Europe in the 1700s. In Paris, the cultural capital of the continent, the Cafe de la Regence near the Louvre was where all the Enlightenment geeks would hang out for hours, sipping cups of mocha while playing chess. On any given Sunday circa 1780, Voltaire, Rousseau, and Franklin could be seen there kibitzing over the rented-by-the-hour chess boards while discussing politics, science, and philosophy.

One of the regulars at the Cafe de la Regence was Francois-Andre Philidor, one of the pioneers of chess theory. Philidor was also a distinguished composer, producing more than 20 operas during his career, but his name is most associated with the royal game today. ”Pawns are the souls of chess” is his famous axiom, and he was widely considered to be the strongest player of his day, often battling his rivals at coffeehouses around Europe.

Philidor’s most curious opponent was the Turk, an elaborately designed hoax lauded as a chess-playing automaton. Built by Austrian inventor Wolfgang von Kempelen in 1770, the machine consisted of a boxy chess table with the torso of a turban-clad gentleman seated on one side. The Turks arms actually moved, lifting the pieces with startling precision.

The Kick Is in the Machine

The Turk amazed everyone who saw it. They believed they were witnessing the first chess-playing automaton, a human-beating computer, a strange visitor from 1996. Even more incredibly, the Turk won most of its games with bloodthirsty swiftness. Its inventor, however, rarely exhibited the Turk, even dismantling it, so its secrets remained a mystery for years.

In 1783, however, the Emperor Joseph II of Austria practically commanded von Kempelen to showcase the Turk in the coffeehouses of Europe. It won most of its games at the Cafe de la Regence, but Philidor easily defeated it in their much anticipated match.

The Turk was in fact an illusion—a chess master, probably one of short stature, was hiding in the box, moving the Turk’s arms with levers and magnets. After von Kempelen sold the machine, its new owners took it all over the world, where it defeated Ben Franklin and Napoleon Bonaparte before being destroyed in a Philadelphia fire in 1854.

That was about the time Cafe de la Regence moved to a different location and an era in the history of chess and coffee ended. Although chess is still played in coffeehouses today, saying your opponent has a coffeehouse style is a bit of an insult. That’s a shame.

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