The Chess Machine is based on actual events that occurred during 1770 in Pressburg, what is today the capital of Slovakia, Bratislava. During an era in which science and entertainment were still closely related, the Habsburg Empire became enthralled with Wolfgang von Kempelen's unexpected invention, a chess-playing automation that became known as the Mechanical Turk. This machine, fronted by a turban-wearing "mechanical Turk" who moved his own chess pieces with a life-like right arm and hand easily defeated the best chess players it encountered in exhibition matches around the empire.
Kemplen's invention brought him instant fame and seemed certain to also bring him his fortune. After all, he had invented the first machine that was capable of thought, a machine that could, in fact, think better than the human beings it encountered. But, as many of Kemplen's scientific rivals suspected, the Mechanical Turk was too good to be true. Rather than having created a thinking machine, Kemplen had instead built an automation that depended entirely on the chess-playing dwarf who was hidden inside the wooden box housing the useless clockworks that appeared to make the machine work.
Tibor Scardenelli, the Italian dwarf, hired by Kemplen to be the brains of his machine, is a remarkable chess player but he soon begins to tire of the secret life he is forced to live. Tibor comes to feel that he is living a prisoner's life, always locked away in one room of Kemplen's home or inside the chess machine itself. For the sake of keeping the illusion of a chess-playing automation alive, no one can be allowed to know of his existence. Despite Tibor's growing uneasiness with the scam that he is so large a part of, everything goes well for the chess machine until one of Kemplen's court rivals manages to place his lover, Galatea, into the Kemplen household as a spy. In time, Galatea, known to Kemplen as his house servant Elise, comes to know the truth.
But Kemplen and his team have bigger problems than Elise. After a performance at the ball celebrating the marriage of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI, a young countess is found dead. There are no witnesses to her death but she has left traces of her rouge on the Turk's face, and many come to believe that the Turk has seduced and murdered the woman. Especially taken with this notion is the young woman's brother who is determined to take revenge on the Turk and its owner.
Much like one of his own chess pieces, Wolfgang von Kemplen soon finds himself being pushed into defensive moves that require more and more ruthlessness on his part. His Mechanical Turk comes to own him in a way that he never owned the Turk.
Robert Lohr's The Chess Machine is filled with the level of period detail and unforgettable characters that can make historical fiction so rewarding. But at the same time this is a novel full of adventure and psychological insights, one with a story that will stay with the reader for a long time.