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Saturday, January 17th, 2015

Ajeeb the Chess-Playing Automaton

Ajeeb (sometimes called “The Egyption”) was the name of the second chess-playing automaton to become famous, after the Turk. It was a lifesize Indian figure with mobile head, trunk, and right arm. It sat on a cushion mounted on a large box. It stood about 10 feet in height. Ajeeb means unique and beautiful in Arabic.

In 1865, Charles Alfred Hooper (1825-1900), a Bristol cabinet-maker, began to build Ajeeb as a copy to the Turk, which had been destroyed in a fire in Philadelphia in 1854. He finished building Ajeeb in 1868. It was first displayed at the London Polytechnical Institute in 1868. Between 1868 and 1876, it was on show at the London Crystal Palace.

In 1877 Ajeeb moved to the Royal Aquarium at Westminster.
Hooper and his wife then took Ajeeb to Berlin, Breslau, Dresden, Leipzig, Hanover, Magdeburg, Cologne, Elbefeld, Dusseldorf, Frankfurt, Wiesbaden, Brussels, and Paris. Over 100,000 people saw it perform in Berlin in a three-month period. Johannes Zukertort (1842-1888) is said to have played it and won. Samuel Rosenthal (1837-1902), Polish master, played it twice, winning one and losing one.

In 1878, another Ajeeb was on display in Chicago, invented by Charles Schultz. (source: Chicago Daily Tribune, Feb 21, 1878)

In 1885, the Eden Musee authorities cabled Mr. Hooper, writing that they had an interest in displaying Ajeeb. Ajeeb and Hooper came to New York and Ajeeb was displayed on the second floor in the Eden Musee (opened in March,1884 and closed in 1915) on Twenty-third Street, between Fifth and Sixth avenues, in New York. The Hoopers paid the owner (Richard Holloman) of the Musee $100 a week to exhibit Ajeeb. The cost to play Ajeeb was ten cents for a checker game and 25 cents for a chess game (admission to the Eden Musee was 50 cents for adults and 25 cents for children). Ajeeb’s hours were from 1 pm to 5 pm every afternoon and from 7 pm to 10:30 pm every evening. After deducting the salaries of a barker and the operator, and the $100 a week paid to Holloman, the Hoopers cleared over $1,000 a month.

Hooper started out as the man inside Ajeeb and played chess and checkers until 1889. He later hired chess and checker masters to be hidden inside Ajeeb. Mrs. Hooper pretended to wind Ajeeb up by turning a large key fitted in a shaft on Ajeeb’s right side. If a player tried to cheat by moving to the wrong squares or taking off one of Ajeeb’s pieces, Ajeeb would knock all the pieces off the board.

In September, 1885, President Grover Cleveland (1837-1908) and Vice-President Thomas Hendricks (1819-1885) visited Ajeeb’s chess room. Hendricks played a game against Ajeeb and lost in a smothered mate. (source: The International Chess Magazine, Sep 1885)

Hooper made another Ajeeb which performed concurrently in other cities (Minneapolis, Chicago, Milwaukee, Cincinnati, and Kansas City). The operator was paid $75 a month.

Among the masters that operated Ajeeb included Charles F. Moehle (1859-1898) of St. Paul, Minnesota, Albert Beauregard Hodges (1861-1944), Constant Ferdinand Burille (1866-1914), Charles Francis Barker (US checkers champion in 1905 and chess master) , Harry Nelson Pillsbury (1872-1906), Doc Schaefer, Peter J. Hill, and Jesse Hanson. Hodges won the U.S. championship in 1894 and was both a chess and checker master.

In 1887, Ajeeb was on display in Chicago,at the 1887 Milwaukee Exposition, in Minneapolis, and in New Orleans, playing chess or checkers. It was noted that the Ajeeb in Milwaukee was not the original Ajeeb of the Eden Musee in New York. It was also claimed that the secret of Ajeeb was stolen from time to tome by a doortender. (source: Wilkes-Barre Record, Oct 13, 1887)

In 1888, Ajeeb was giving exhibitions in Cincinnati, losing only one game of chess and drawing another. It did have several checkers losses to the local experts. (source: Columbia Chess Chronicle, 1888, p. 28). The man mostly like playing inside Ajeeb was Charles Moehle (sometimes written Charles Moeschler or Mohler). In July 1888, Moehle sued to garnish the Cincinnati Centennial exposition commissioners the sum of $75. Moehle claimed that E. J. McNeal, the manager of Ajeeb in Cincinnati, did not pay Moehle for his services inside Ajeeb. (source: Kansas City Star, July 30, 1888)

In 1888, Ajeeb was in Minneapolis and Kansas City. The operator was Charles F. Barker, who played chess and checkers. The manager of Ajeeb was John Mann,who wagered $100 for anyone who could beat Ajeeb in a checkers match.

In August, 1888, the manager of Ajeeb, E. J. McNeal, was arrested at the Cincinnati Exposition and charged with embezzlement by Ajeeb’s owner. The figure was seized by the police. The owner, John Mann, of Chicago, claimed that McNeil, who borrowed Ajeeb, agreed to pay Mann $60 a week out of the $100 per week that McNeal received for exhibiting Ajeeb at the Cincinnati Centennial Exhibition. Mann claimed that McNeal owed him $240. (source: Cincinnati Enquirer, Aug 12, 1888, p. 9).

In August 1888, Ajeeb defeated Professor Bacharach, a strong local chess player in Cincinnati, best 2 out of 3 games, Ajeeb winning the first two games. The wager was $100 a side. (source: Lima News, Aug 16, 1888, p. 3)

Ajeeb spent 5 weeks in Cincinnati, losing only four games of chess. It lost to James Burns of Dayton, S. Euphrat of Cincinnati, G. Bracher, and J.W. Showlater. (source: Cincinnati Enquirer, Aug 18, 1888, p. 8 and Columbia Chess Chronicle, 1888, p. 71)

In October 1888, Moehle left as Ajeeb’s chess player, saying that he was going to build himself a machine and start into the business. After October, Ajeeb was confined to checkers and did not play chess. (source: Leavenworth Times, Oct 10, 1888, p. 1).

In October 1888, Ajeeb was on display at the Kansas City exposition, but only played checkers until December. In December, 1888, Eric M. Cobb was a chess operator in Ajeeb at Kansas City (source: Kansas City Star, Dec 28, 1888).

In January 1889, Ajeeb was on display in Chicago and Minneapolis. The new owner was John Mann and he changed Ajeeb so that it could play either chess or checkers. (source: Saint Paul Globe, Jan 13, 1889, p. 9)

In 1889, Max Judd was offered to be an operator of Ajeeb, but Judd did not want to leave St. Louis. Instead, Albert Hodges was hired by Hooper to play chess inside Ajeeb. Hodges was a 29-year old statistician from Nashville, Tennessee, working as a government employee in St. Louis. Hodges was too tall for the automaton and he lasted only 6 months. He was succeeded by Burille. The pay was $50 to $75 a week. Hodges went on to win the US chess championship in 1894.

In 1889, there were two Ajeebs in the field. The original was at the Eden Musee in New York. A copy was on tour in Cincinnati, Chicago, and Atlanta. The weakest operator was in Atlanta, run by Mr. L.B. Cobb of Kansas City. In January 1889, he lost the majority of his games and a replacement was being sought.

Burille, from Boston, was said to have played over 900 chess games and losing only three games. He never lost a checkers game.

In March 1889, Ajeeb was displayed at Worth’s Museum in New York. The automaton had a record of only two losses when Captain George Mackenzie (1837-1891) beat it in two games. William Steinitz (1836-1900) drew three games and lost one to Ajeeb. (source: New York Herald, March 1889).

In October 1889, Ajeeb was displayed in Portland, Oregon. It lost one game of chess and one game of checkers while on display. (source: Daily Morning Astoria, Oct 29, 1889, p. 3)

Between 1893 and 1900, Ajeeb was operated by Harry Nelson Pillsbury in the Eden Museum.

In 1894, a new automaton chess and checker player called Chang was displayed in New York. It is supposed to have played even a stronger game of chess and checkers than Ajeeb. Its manager was Dr. A. Schaefer, a checkers master. Chang was considered almost invincible as a checker player. (source: Kansas City Gazette, Mar 24, 1894, p. 4)

The Hoopers retired to England in 1895 after selling Ajeeb to Emma Haddera, a ticket seller at the Musee. She then married James Smith, an assistant manager at the Musee, and the two had an interest in Ajeeb. Emma died a few years later and soon afterward, Smith presented his wife’s share to a divorcee named Mrs. Hattie Elmore, an employee at the Musee who made all the costumes for the waxworks figures. Smith later died of tuberculosis and Mrs. Elmore became the sole owner of Ajeeb. She kept Ajeeb in operation until 1915. Recent research indicates that Pillsbury was also a buyer of Ajeeb in 1895 and sold it in 1898 when Pillsbury moved to Philadelphia.

In October 1895, Harry Pillsbury acknowledged that he had for the past few years played chess from within Ajeeb. Pillsbury also stated that he bought Ajeeb, paying a large sum for it. (source: Kansas City Star, Oct 20, 1895, p. 1 and Washington Morning Times, Oct 21, 1895) When Pillsbury went to Hastings in the summer of 1895, the operator was Peter J. Hill of Boston. When Pillsbury was ill or absent from the Eden Musee, the management announced that Ajeeb was temporarily laid up for repairs.

The new operator was Sam Gotski. On one occasion a sore loser took his gun out and shot into the torso of Ajeeb, wounding the operator. There is also some speculation that this sore loser killed an apprentice operator (a transient employee) inside Ajeeb. The accidental killing was then covered up.

In November 1897, a Mr. Bullitt committed suicide who had been chronically addicted to playing an automaton called Ching Chang (operated by Pillsbury) at chess and never winning. (source: The Chicago Inter Ocean, Dec 5, 1897, p. 21)

In March 1898, William E. Napier (1881-1952) played a chess game against Ajeeb in Brooklyn. However, the lights went out the game did not continue. At the time, Napier was winning the game. (source: Literary Digest, April 2, 1898)

On May 6, 1898, Charles H. Moehle, age 38, one of the operators of Ajeeb, died. (source: Chicago Inter Ocean, May 7, 1898, p. 2)

In 1898 Sam Gotski was no longer the operator of Ajeeb. He left complaining that Ajeeb was moving on its own accord.

In 1898, Martinka & Company of New York, America’s oldest magic shop, sold a chess-playing automaton, which was featured in their 1898 and 1906 catalogs.

One of the operators, Peter J. Hill, defeated a woman player. She was so enraged, she stuck a hatpin into Ajeeb, wounding Hill, who remained quite. On another occasion, Hill was shot in the shoulder when a Westerner lost his game to Ajeeb. He emptied his six-shooter into the automaton.

In 1901, Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923) played Ajeeb in a game of chess. The game was drawn.

After 1915 Ajeeb concentrated on checkers. The Eden Musee went bankrupt after the introduction of movie theaters and closed in June 1915. (source: “Eden Musee Faces Bankruptcy.” New York Times, p. 17, June 8, 1915)

In 1916 Smith set up Ajeeb at Hamid’s (owned by Sam Gumpertz) on Surf Avenue on Coney Island where the operator was Sam Gonotsky (1902-1929), a Western Union messenger and a world class checkers player. It was too hard to pay the high salaries asked by skilled chess players.

Mrs. Elmore later moved Ajeeb to the World of Wax of Coney Island.

Mrs. Elmore later married Wethereall McKeever and in 1925 she retired and took Ajeeb home with here in Brooklyn. McKeever put Ajeeb on display in his garage, then it was stored in the attic.

In 1926, Gustav Burzendt, who claimed to be a distant uncle of von Kempelen, tried to purchase Ajeeb, but couldn’t come up with the money. He then tried to steal it.

In 1928, Wethereall McKeever died.

In January 1929, Peter J. Hill (1870-1929), one of Ajeeb’s operators for 9 years, died at the age of 59 in Massachusetts. (source: New York Times, Jan 24, 1929, p. 20)

On March 15, 1929, one of the Ajeebs was destroyed in a fire at Coney Island. There had been other unauthorized copies of Ajeeb, making it history hard to trace.

In 1929, Sam Gonotsky died of tuberculosis at age 26.

In 1932 Ajeeb was sold to Jesse Henson (checker master) and Frank Frain, a short-story writer, from Hattie McKeever fort $1,000. Henson never lost a checker game and only drew 8 games in his lifetime as an Ajeeb operator. They then took it on tour in Canada. The operators took Ajeeb to Canada and had it blessed at the shrine of Saint Anne de Beaupre in Quebec.

In January 1935, Ajeeb was displayed at the Marshall Chess Club. Frank Marshall played one game with Ajeeb. The game was a draw.

In March 1935, Ajeeb was displayed in Reading, Pennsylvania at the YMCA and played checkers against all comers. (source: Reading times, Mar 18, 1935)

In 1936, Ajeeb toured America under contract with the Radio Corporation of America (RCA). Winners got a Magic Brain radio set, but there were no winners. Only eight $25 credit slips towards a radio were given out – the prize for playing Ajeeb to a draw. Frain and Hansen made $300 a week, appearing in department stores, amusement parks, and hotels. Ajeeb was called the RCA-Victor Checker Playing Robot.

Ajeeb was later displayed at Masonic temples, Rotary Clubs, and state fairs.

In 1939, Ajeeb performed in the basement of Hubert’s Museum, a penny arcade and flea circus on West 42nd Street.

In 1940, Ajeeb was featured at President Roosevelt’s Birthday Ball. It later performed at the Waldorf-Astoria for an Aid to Britain party during World War II.

By 1940, Ajeeb had appeared in every major U.S. city, Mexico, Guatemala, and Canada. Over 6 million people have seen Ajeeb. (source: Long Island Star Journal, April 3, 1940)

Some of Ajeeb’s opponents include Theodore Roosevelt, Harry Houdini, Admiral Dewey, O. Henry (William Porter), Sarah Bernhardt, William Jennings Bryan, Vice-President Hendricks, Secretary of the Navy William Whitney, Arthur Treacher, and actress Marie Dressler. O. Henry lived on 24th Street and would frequently drop in at the Musee and play a game of chess against Ajeeb. There is the story that O. Henry knew there was an operator in Ajeeb and used to slip a drink of whiskey to the operator behind the papier-mache.

Sarah Bernhardt played a game of chess against Ajeeb on each of her four trips to the United States between 1886 and 1900. Christy Mathewson, the baseball player, also liked to play chess against Ajeeb. Also, several Wall Street men would come by and play chess against Ajeeb for an hour or two in the afternoon when the Stock Exchange was quiet.

Ajeeb disappeared after 1944.

From 1868 to 1944 the operators were: Charles Francis Barker, Constant F. Burille, Eric M. Cobb, L.B. Cobb, Sam Gonotsky, Jesse Hanson, Peter J. Hill, Albert B. Hodges, Charles Edward Hooper, Charles Moehle, Harry Nelson Pillsbury, Adolph Sangg, and Doc Schaefer.

Other automatons: Ching-Chang, Mephisto, Turk, Ultimatum

Showalter – Ajeeb, New York 1887 1.e4 c5 2.Nc3 e6 3.Nf3 a6 4.d4 Nc6 5.d5 exd5 6.exd5 Qe7+ 7.Be2 Ne5 8.0-0 d6 9.Re1 Bd7 10.Bf4 0-0-0 11.Bd3 Nxf3+ 12.Qxf3 Qf6 13.Ne4 Qh4 14.Nxd6+ Bxd6 15.Bxd6 Bg4 16.Bf5+ 1-0

Ajeeb – Baez, Milwaukee 1888, 1.e4 b6 2.d4 Bb7 3.Bd3 f5 4.exf5 Bxg2 5.Qh5+ g6 6.fxg6 Nf6 7.gxh7+ Nxh5 8.Bg6#

Ajeeb – Divine, New York 1890 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Nf6 4.Ng5 Nxe4 5.Nxf7 Qh4 6.Qe2 Bc5 7.g3 Qf6 8.Qxe4 Qxf2+ 9.Kd1 d5 10.Bxd5 Bf5 11.Bxc6+ bxc6 12.Qxe5+ Kxf7 13.Qxc7+ Kg8 14.Qf4 Qxf4 15.gxf4 Bg4+ 16.Ke1 Re8+ 17.Kf1 Bh3 mate 0-1

“The Pride of the Eden Musee,” The New Yorker, Nov 20, 1943, p. 30
Batgirl articles – http://www.chess.com/blog/batgirl/chess-automatons-by-sarah-beth

– Bill Wall

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