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"If you have a gut response to a story, you are not responding to something new ..you are really responding to a story you were told when you were six or seven…"
- Samuel R. Delany

Automaton Chessplayer  
  The first chess-playing computer.  

This famous story was written by Ambrose Bierce in 1910. In it, you encounter the first chess playing automaton - a fully automated chess machine. You also first encounter the problems that humans have when they face superior machines.

Moxon sat facing me at the farther side of a small table upon which a single candle made all the light that was in the room. Opposite him, his back toward me, sat another person. On the table between the two was a chessboard; the men were playing. I knew little about chess, but as only a few pieces were on the board it was obvious that the game was near its close. Moxon was intensely interested—not so much, it seemed to me, in the game as in his antagonist, upon whom he had fixed so intent a look that, standing though I did directly in the line of his vision, I was altogether unobserved. His face was ghastly white, and his eyes glittered like diamonds. Of his antagonist I had only a back view, but that was sufficient; I should not have cared to see his face.

He was apparently not more than five feet in height, with proportions suggesting those of a gorilla—tremendous breadth of shoulders, thick, short neck and broad, squat head, which had a tangled growth of black hair and was topped by a crimson fez. A tunic of the same color, belted tightly to the waist, reached the seat—apparently a box—upon which he sat; his legs and feet were not seen. His left forearm appeared to rest in his lap; he moved his pieces with his right hand, which seemed disproportionately long.

I had shrunk back and now stood a little to one side of the doorway and in shadow. If Moxon had looked farther than the face of his opponent he could have observed nothing now, excepting that the door was open. Something forbade me either to enter or retire, a feeling—I know not how it came—that I was in the presence of imminent tragedy and might serve my friend by remaining. With a scarcely conscious rebellion against the indelicacy of the act I remained.

The play was rapid. Moxon hardly glanced at the board before making his moves, and to my unskilled eye seemed to move the piece most convenient to his hand, his motions in doing so being quick, nervous and lacking in precision. The response of his antagonist, while equally prompt in the inception, was made with a slow, uniform, mechanical and, I thought, somewhat theatrical movement of the arm, that was a sore trial to my patience. There was something unearthly about it all, and I caught myself shuddering. But I was wet and cold.

Two or three times after moving a piece the stranger slightly inclined his head, and each time I observed that Moxon shifted his king. All at once the thought came to me that the man was dumb. And then that he was a machine—an automaton chessplayer! Then I remembered that Moxon had once spoken to me of having invented such a piece of mechanism, though I did not understand that it had actually been constructed. Was all his talk about the consciousness and intelligence of machines merely a prelude to eventual exhibition of this device—only a trick to intensify the effect of its mechanical action upon me in my ignorance of its secret?

From Moxon's Master, by Ambrose Bierce.
Published by Unknown in 1910
Additional resources -

Read it if you like; Moxon's Master is available on the web (in the public domain).

This story may have been inspired by Wolfgang von Kempelen's remarkable mechanical chess player, which was created in 1770. Incredibly, it beat a number of chess experts in public matches. However, the real genius behind the automaton chess player was an assistant concealed inside the cabinet.

The first references to chess-playing computers by scientists were made by Konrad Zuse in the early 1940's and by Alan Turing in 1945. Zuse reputedly wrote a chess program in the early 1940's using PlanKalkuel, the first high-level computer language (also created by Zuse). Claude Shannon described in 1949 how to program a computer for chess, proposing basic strategies for limiting the number of possibilities to be considered ("trimming the tree"). Turing wrote a computer chess program in 1950 (Turing was a relatively weak player); this was the same year that he proposed what came to be known as the Turing Test for machine intelligence. Dietrich Prinz wrote a chess-playing program for a general purpose computer (the Manchester Ferranti) in 1951.

Computer chess was implemented on the Univac MANIAC I computer (80K storage, 2400 vacuum tubes, using a six-by-six chessboard and limited players (no bishops). The 11Khz processor (11,000 operations-per-second) took 12 minutes to search 4 moves deep.

The first chess program with a complete board and set of pieces was written in 1957 by Alex Bernstein at MIT on an IBM 704 (a 47Khz processor looked 4 moves deep in 8 minutes). Read more at Computer chess history.

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Additional resources:
  More Ideas and Technology from Moxon's Master
  More Ideas and Technology by Ambrose Bierce
  Tech news articles related to Moxon's Master
  Tech news articles related to works by Ambrose Bierce

Automaton Chessplayer-related news articles:
  - Chess Computer Ties Kasparov
  - REEM-A Chess-Playing Robot
  - DIY Robochess Robot From Iran
  - Robotic Arm Plays Chess In Our World
  - Blitz Chess Terminator's Speedy Robot Arm

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