(urth) Short Story 67: The Marvelous Brass Chess Playing Automaton

Marc Aramini marcaramini at gmail.com
Thu Jul 17 09:45:22 PDT 2014

The Marvelous Brass Chessplaying Automaton*

*I am almost finished with my “Silhouette” write up but still need to
finish reading two novels mentioned in the text for research to see if any
new connections arise, so I am proceeding with a few of the short stories
to more quickly close out the 1970s.

“The Marvelous Brass Chess Playing Automaton”, reprinted in Storeys From
The Old Hotel, was first published in 1977 in *Universe 7. *

SUMMARY WITH SOME GEOGRAPHICAL DETAILS: The story begins with Lame Hans in
jail with his knees up against the bars, playing the machine, pitied by the
narrator, the man who brings him food in jail. It is clear that there are
some remnants of high technology, with weather satellites still in the air
even in a post-nuclear war era characterized by arid, hot droughts. The
women form lines and circles to supplicate for rain on the remains of the
Schlossberg (Castle Hill – historically the site of a fortress and tree
covered hill in Graz, Austria, though the village is called Oder in the
story and is most probably Frankfurt, whose fortress-like nature was
intended to block the Red Army's advance to Berlin). During a truce in the
current German-Russian war, Herr Heitzmann comes (it is still hot after
dark) with his chess painted wagon and Lame Hans. That night, in a
candlelit inn, Heitzmann challenges the learned men of the town, Baumeister
and Eckardt, if they know of any of the great computers of the past age to
have survived. When they reply in the negative, he boasts he has the only
one, which, instead of controlling human affairs, plays chess. He indicates
he is taking it to Dresden, then avers that it cannot be defeated.

Baumeister accepts his challenge and six men carry in the machine. As the
game begins, after Baumeister makes the first move and before he can sit,
the machine responds with a smooth movement of its own piece. Its reactions
are instantaneous. After ten moves Baumeister believes a man must be inside
and demands a look. Heitzmann removes both panels so that the machine can
be seen through, with its circuit cards and innards exposed, and when they
are replaced and the game resumes, Baumeister loses in 22 moves. Albricht
the moneylender then bets and loses in 14 moves.

Baumeister offers to buy it, and Heitzmann gets him up to 750 kilomarks as
is. Doctor Eckardt continues to play with the machine into the night,
losing 3 games. The dwarf Lame Hans limps in and rents a garret for ten
marks. Here our narrator reveals that from here many things rely on the
testimony of Lame Hans, who has no reason to lie, and that somehow Gretchen
and the dwarf Hans fell in love that night.

In the morning, the machine will not play chess for Baumeister. He talks
with Lame Hans, who reveals some insight into Baumeister's chess
weaknesses. Knowing he was swindled, Baumeister believes he can sell two of
his houses to recover the purchase price of the machine (giving us a fairly
good idea of how expensive the machine is, though the ability of Herr
Heitzmann to front 2000 kilomarks later is a bit astonishing). Baumeister
acknowledges, “I would be willing to believe that you know a great deal
about anything. You play like the devil himself,” of Hans.

A flyer is released with a challenge in the village of Oder Spree in front
of the Inn of the Golden Apples for prospective players to wager against
the machine. Hans meets Heitzmann at the Scharzthor in Furthenwald to
extend the challenge. Hans offers to defeat the machine if Baumeister can
get it operational for the challenge, boasting, “I can beat anybody – you
know that.” Heitzmann fronts Hans 2000 kilomarks and then follows him in a
plastiskin mask.

Hans plans to open a tobacco shop with Gretchen, and he and Baumeister
decide Gretchen can operate the machine according to a preset game. He
contemplates the sounds of the artillery and the marching of the German
forces against the Russians trapped at Kostrzyn (a Polish town – most
definitely Kostrzyn nad Odra on the Polish German border rather than the
more centrally located Kostrzyn) as they go over the preset strategy,
Gretchen stating she is not afraid, since for the prospect of marriage and
a shop, she “would do much worse things than to hide in this thing that
looks like a stove, and play a game.”

Hans shows Baumeister how he hides in the machine, where a panel provides
coverage when the chessboard is unfolded as he lifts his body up to avoid
detection when the machine is open. The iron black pieces are magnetic, and
Gretchen has a hard time getting in the machine. She must remove her gown
and shift to get inside.

The machine is carried out, and the men of the street are glad they aren't
in the army who “serve one of those big guns, which get hot enough to poach
an egg after half a dozen shots, even in ordinary weather.”

Hans does not appear until the last possible second to play the scheduled
game, arriving right at the strike of 9. After five moves, the queen pauses
in its movement, stopping a square short, and then Hans adapts so that he
should lose regardless. The machine proceeds to attack him in an original
fashion, and he hears the guns attacking the Russians booming, and
hesitates at the final move which would consign him to the planned loss.
Hans considers that Gretchen has kicked and made the machine work.

The desire to play chess with someone skillful begins to overtake him as
more attractive than a tobacco shop. He begins to play to win, and the
machine proves capable of defeating him. At this point Herr Heitzmann in
his disguise calls out “Cheat, Cheat”. When the policemen go to open the
machine, they are careful not to burn their hands. They pull out Gretchen,
who has been dead some time and is getting stiff.

Baumeister and Hans are arrested, and Hans plays the machine every day,
which no longer functions, moving both sides by hand and always letting the
black side win. The narrator says, “Sometimes when he is not quick enough
to move the black queen, I see her begin to rock and to slide herself, and
the dials and the console lights to glow with impatience and then Hans must
reach out and take her to her new position … I have heard that many who
have been twisted by the old wars have these psychokinetic abilities
without knowing it; and Professor Baumeister, who is in the cell next to
his, says that someday a technology may be founded on them.”

DISCUSSION: For all its small details of a post nuclear and technologically
regressed society which seems to have the class structure of 18th-19th
century Europe, this particular story is very straightforward in that the
solution posited by the narrator at the end actually fits better to explain
events than several other possibilities: Lame Hans has some kind of
psychokinetic and telepathic abilities with his giant head attached to that
small body.

Two other possibilities are that the machine actually worked for one day,
though the original premise is of course that a machine didn't survive
which was believed to have done so. The other is a quite literal Deus ex
machina: the ghost of Gretchen in the machine. Unfortunately, she doesn't
know how to play chess, and whatever is operating the machine is quite
skilled, as skilled as Hans, who can “beat anyone”. He considers that
Gretchen might have merely been pretending not to know how to play “(But he
knew that she had not been deceiving him.)”

It is easy to buy the mental powers of Hans not only because of his huge
head, but because he never loses at Chess until that final match. He moves
immediately, as if he knows what his opponent is going to do. This
intellect seems more akin to intuition – why is he so good at chess, “like
the Devil”? Because his mental powers extend beyond himself, into the minds
of others. With nascent but subconscious telepathy and psychokinesis, we
can explain his great talent at chess and the motions of the machine. Hans
also winds up playing himself over and over at the end, always losing to
the black “machine” side.

The small details of the story, like the remains of Schlossburg and the
extent satellites in a clearly technologically regressed society, as well
as the extreme heat even after the sun sets, portrays a thorough picture of
a society which has stepped backwards, and presages some of the better plot
and style effects of New Sun, though the old technology still operates more
reliably in that setting.

SETTING: The technology mentioned in attacking the Russians trapped in
Kostrzyn involves wood-fired steam tractors, as they explore the
possibility of turning them into tanks with armor and a canon, the narrator
thinking “ so that the knights of the chessboard would exist in reality
once more.” The Russians are using powered balloons, and the still air of
the summer grants them an aerial advantage. Since it has been almost a
hundred years since computer parts were mass produced, the earliest that
the story could take place would probably be the end of the 21st century
and is probably a bit later. The action is set in the state of Brandenburg,
Germany on the Polish-German border


“[The ancient computers] based their extrapolations on numbers. That worked
well enough as long as money, which is easily measured numerically, was the
principal motivating force in human affairs. But as time progressed, human
actions became responsive instead to a multitude of incommensurable
vectors; the computer’s predictions failed, the civilizations they had
shaped collapsed, and parts for the machines were no longer obtainable or


The inn is named after the Golden Apples, but in this case I do not think
it refers to the apple of discord which began the Trojan War when Paris
decided to award it to Aphrodite and start the Trojan War, but rather the
three golden apples given to Hippomenes which allowed him to distract
Atalanta so that he could win a race against her and marry her, indicating
the triumph of intellect and trickery over raw speed and power, which fits
with Lame Hans' character a bit better (note the plural apples in the name
of the inn).


While Bierce's “Moxon's Machine” deals with a murderous chess playing
construct, the actual machine more closely resembles the situation
discussed in Poe's “Maelzel's Chess Player”, an essay examining why the
historical mechanical chess player known as The Turk was fraudulent. He
mentions theories that involve a dwarf and a thin tall child, but
eventually settles on a solution that involves the pattern the operator
displays the internal workings of the machine to his audience, relying on
shadow at times to hide the movement of the possibly full sized operator

“For example, he has been known to open, first of all, the drawer — but he
never opens the main compartment without first closing the back door of
cupboard No. 1 — he never opens the main compartment without first pulling
out the drawer — he never shuts the drawer without first shutting the main
compartment — he never opens the back door of cupboard No. 1 while the main
compartment is open — and the game of chess is never commenced until the
whole machine is closed.”

He concludes that the automaton uses its left hand because the mechanism to
control its movement is inside the shoulder, accessible by the right hand
of the person inside it. Some of the description Hans gives about holding
his body above in a compartment and the natural darkness inside the machine
concealing him from view at a certain point matches Poe's essay closely,
though the Brass Chess Playing Automaton does not seem to have an
anthropomorphic attachment.

Poe's essay mentions other automatons such as the Magician of Maillardet
and the duck of Vaucanson.


The names in general seem to have little bearing on the actual plot, but
for the sake of completion:

Lame Hans: A form of John, meaning “gift from God”. He uses the pseudonym
Herr Zimmer, which means “room or chamber”.

Albricht the moneylender: his name is a derivation of the word meaning
“noble” and “shining or bright”, one of the oldest names in Germany. Ironic
that he is a moneylender, perhaps showing the regression of the society.

Father Karl - meaning “free man” or “strong”, he runs the church.

Doctor Eckardt – a name indicating “the strong point of a sword” or “brave
edge”, though this version is missing the h.

Burgermeister Landsteiner (also the name of the scientist who originally
categorized blood types). Could mean land-stone.

Gretchen – described as “the fat blond serving girl who usually cracked
jokes with the soldiers and banged down their plates”, her name means
“pearl” and can be derived from Margaret (the popularity of this name
increased after Goethe's* Faust*, and the similarity in publication date of
this story to “Silhouette”, with its dominant German future, shows Wolfe's
interest in German names and themes at this time). Also interesting in
light of the statement that Lame Hans “plays like the devil himself”.

Professor Baumeister - the distinguished visitor, his name means “master

Scheer the innkeeper- someone who makes scissors – the cutting connotation
might resonate in the story in the manner that he prices his various

Von Koblenz – leader of the German Army, attacking the Russians and
marching up the Oder Valley. Hans believes he should advance only to
Glogow. Koblenz is a place name which means “confluence”, where two rivers

Willi Schacht the strong smith’s apprentice – an occupational name for
someone who makes shafts for tools.

UNANSWERED QUESTIONS: There seem to be very few in this, save for whether
or not the jailer's assumption that Hans does indeed play himself are true,
which seems to fit the evidence. Perhaps the close metaphorical association
of the chess game with the war between Germany and Russia (makeshift tanks
as knights) gives some indication of who will actually win the battle at
the Polish-German border, considering that Hans tells Baumeister he should
use his knights more carefully and then thinks later that he would run
things differently than those in charge of Von Koblenz' army, but this is
mere speculation.

CONNECTION WITH OTHER WORKS: This is a pretty straightforward story for
Wolfe for all its fine detail, but the future resembling the past is a
fairly consistent motif in his writing.

We should note the limp of Lame Hans, evidenced in the walk of the devil in
Wolfe's very early “Easter Sunday” and also present in the main character
of “Silhouette”, Johann, (which also features women whose names are based
off of Margaret from Faust). Castle (from *Operation Ares)*, Severian, and
Silk will also share this feature. The strange dwarf twisted by science and
radiation to develop mental powers is perhaps present in “Tracking Song”,
while the dwarf in “King Under the Mountain”, even though he exercises
great control over the surface, lurks beneath like a shrunken and repressed
id seizing control. There is definitely this tension between the conscious
and subconscious in Lame Hans, who probably loses the chess match with his
subconscious powers (and contemplates that perhaps the tobacco shop won't
make him happy, as a worthy chess adversary would – but he might be good at
chess primarily because of his unknown mental powers). Eventually in this
short story project, we will discuss the false leg of Wolfe's grandfather
in conjunction with the limp, as it is specifically referenced in “How I
Got Three Zip Codes.”

Malzberg and Jack Dann used this as the basis for their sequel, “Tourist
Trap” in *Shadows of the New Sun*. It is worth analyzing this story briefly
so that I can talk about the intrinsic destabilization of a more postmodern
work. I am not certain that the same logical approach I always take to
Wolfe, where hypothesis that are implied but perhaps not overtly stated are
used to explain other gaps in the narrative, will work on a writer like
Malzberg, who seems to begin with the premise of insanity as a
presupposition and favors extremely subjective but inconsistent viewpoints
in many of his works, such as *Beyond Apollo*.

Their story is also narrated by a man bringing Hans his food as a jailer.
Here Hans claims the computer is moving by itself, though it is not plugged
in, though the jailer denies it. The Black Queen moves when Hans goes to
demonstrate it. The narrator checks to make sure no one is inside. The
narrator claims that Hans is ahead of the machine by 160 games to 22. This
jailer sees it as “a dull refraction of Lame Hans's madness.” The narrator
claims that he is in the state of Bavaria, though the original seems to be
set in Brandenburg. He does imagine that Hans has created a persona to
inflate his own ego, since jailers “see aspects of prisoners that they do
not see themselves.” In this story, Hans calls his jail cell Plato's Cave,
which “has something to do with idealization as opposed to the grim
actuality furnished within the Bavarian compass”. Hans invites his jailer
to play as the white side, since he has eliminated the machine after 160
victories, saying the jailer has now taken the machine's place in the
second series.

It is here revealed that Hans is something of a tourist attraction,
reenacting the tournament that resulted in Gretchen's death, and the
narrator's own attempt to flee to the north ended by being detained at the
border, resulting in being sentenced to the role of Han's jailer, with more
freedom than Hans, who is occasionally interrogated (for what?).

“The good aspect of totalitarianism is that it grinds all of its subjects
into a monotony of feeling and circumstance” - the story seems to flirt
with criticism of a totalitarian state almost totally absent in the
original Wolfe story, with its professor owning two houses and using
university money as well as the possibility of Hans owning a store … the
operating system of the community seems completely different in this story.

Our narrator continues:

“The question of who is the prisoner, who the guardian, seems quite
abstract at this moment. 'Gretchen suffocated,' I observed pointlessly. 'So
she did. Life itself is a dismal affliction, an imposition upon us. We
breath, we do not breathe; it is all the same. Like totalitarianism. Life
itself is a species of suffocation. We are now on the clock. An imaginary
clock of course, but no less determinant for all of this.'”

At this point our narrator realizes that “Bavaria is more than Bavarian: It
is the world itself.” As the game continues, the narrative spins outwards
from an objective viewpoint:

“'Mate in ten moves,' he said. 'By the way,' he added, 'all of this is in
your imagination.' As if from a great distance, gasps and throttles come
from somewhere behind him, deep in his cell. Gretchen is suffocating again.”

 This ending might resemble the disintegration at the culmination of Wolfe
stories such as “Melting”, where the narrative point of view simply
disappears into something much more subjective, but I contend that Wolfe
operates slightly differently than Malzberg (not sure how much of Dann's
style is in the ending). Malzberg's reliance on subjective immersion almost
always creates a sea of insuperable insanity from which we cannot claw
free, whereas in “Melting”, the name John Edwards shows a theological
perspective to that angry disintegration of our character and the
appearance of a previously unknown “I” claiming that it is getting tired of
everyone in the wake of our viewpoint character simply melting: Buddhist
principals and Christian sermons create sense of this melting. In Wolfe,
reality still has some objective explanation, even if it is in the mind of
an angered deity and vessels who temporarily have physical existence before
returning to purely spiritual reservoirs.

“Tourist Trap” is completely different, indicating that a totalitarian
existence destroys individuality and blurs the line between jailer and
jailed, but giving us little to contextualize this “imaginary” ending.
Malzberg and Dann may have latched onto the mental powers of Hans, but it
seems that society itself is under attack for creating this system without
liberty that leads only to insanity. Is our narrator trapped inside the
machine and suffocating? Yes, but it might not be the chess playing
machine, but the machine of the jail and of a society without freedom, with
no egress. Hans, too, seems trapped by the memory of Gretchen suffocating,
an ideal that he might be projecting upon reality here. Whether the story
indicates that our jailer is suffocating, literally trapped in the machine,
or simply trapped in a restrictive social system that effectively makes
life an illusory dream, it is difficult to ascribe an objective reality to
the story in light of the last two paragraphs. For this reason, I feel that
Wolfe's stories might often parade as postmodern, but only in the rarest of
instances does thematic closure require a complete overthrowing of basic
plot and story elements as if they don't matter or exist in an objective
framework that is ultimately more or less discernible.
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