Pawn to infinity by Fred & Joan Saberhagen

“How fascinating!” Herr Heitzmann exclaimed. “Do you know, I have never heard it explained in quite that way. You have provided me, for the first time, with an explanation for the survival of my own machine.”

Doctor Eckardt said, “You have a working computer, then?”

“I do. You see, mine is a specialized device. It was not designed, like the computers the learned professor spoke of just now, to predict human actions. It plays chess.”

Professor Baumeister asked, “And where do you keep this wonderful machine?” By this time everyone else in the room had fallen silent. Even Scheer took care not to allow the glasses he was drying to clink; and Gretchen, the fat blond serving girl who usually cracked jokes with the soldiers and banged down the plates, moved through the pipesmoke among the tables as silently as a canalboat in fog.

“Outside,” Herr Heitzmann replied to the professor. “In my conveyance. I am taking it to Dresden.”

“And it plays chess.”

“It has never been defeated.”

“Are you aware,” Professor Baumeister inquired sardonically, “that to program a computer to play chess—to play well—was considered one of the most difficult problems? That many judged that it was never actually solved, and that those machines which most closely approached acceptable solutions were never so small as to be portable?”

“Nevertheless,” Herr Heitzmann declared, “I have such a machine.”

“My friend, I do not believe you.”

“I take it you are a player yourself,” Herr Heitzmann said. “Such a learned man could hardly be otherwise.

Very well. As I said a moment ago, my machine is outside.” His hand touched the table between Professor Baumeister’s glass and his own, and when it came away five gold kilomarks stood there in a neat stack. “I will lay these on the outcome of the game, if you will play my machine tonight.”

“Done,” said Professor Baumeister.

“I must see your money.”

“You will accept a draft on Streicher’s, in Furstenwald?”

And so it was settled. Doctor Eckardt held the stakes, and six men volunteered to carry the machine into the inn parlor under Herr Heitzmann’s direction.

Six were not too many, though the machine was not as large as might have been expected—not more than a hundred and twenty centimeters high, with a base, as it might be, a meter on a side. The sides and top were all of brass, set with many dials and other devices no one understood.

When it was at last in place, Professor Baumeister viewed it from all sides and smiled. “This is not a computer,” he said.

“My dear friend,” said Herr Heitzmann, “you are mistaken.”

“It is several computers. There are two keyboards and a portion of a third. There are even two nameplates, and one of these dials once belonged to a radio.”

Herr Heitzmann nodded. “It was assembled at the very close of the period, for one purpose only—to play chess.”

“You still contend that this machine can play?”

“I contend more. That it will win.”

“Very well. Bring a board.”

“That is not necessary,” Herr Heitzmann said. He pulled a knob at the front of the machine, and a whole section swung forward, as the door of a vegetable bin does in a scullery. But the top of this bin was not open as though to receive the vegetables: it was instead a chessboard, with the white squares of brass, and the black of dark glass, and on the board, standing in formation and ready to play, were two such armies of chessmen as no one in our village had ever seen, tall metal figures so stately they might have been sculptured apostles in a church, one army of brass and the other of some dark metal. “You may play white,” Herr Heitzmann said. “That is generally considered an advantage.”

Professor Baumeister nodded, advanced the white king’s pawn two squares, and drew a chair up to the board. By the time he had seated himself the machine had replied, moving so swiftly that no one saw by what mechanism the piece had been shifted.

The next time Professor Baumeister acted more slowly, and everyone watched, eager to see the machine’s countermove. It came the moment the professor had set his piece in its new position—the black queen slid forward silently, with nothing to propel it.

After ten moves Professor Baumeister said, “There is a man inside.”

Herr Heitzmann smiled. “I see why you say that, my friend. Your position on the board is precarious.”

“I insist that the machine be opened for my examination.”

“I suppose that you would say that if a man were concealed inside, the bet would be cancelled.” Herr Heitzmann had ordered a second glass of beer, and was leaning against the bar watching the game.

“Of course. My bet was that a machine could not defeat me. I am well aware that certain human players can.”

“But conversely, if there is no man in the machine, the bet stands?”


“Very well.” Herr Heitzmann walked to the machine, twisted four catches on one side, and with the help of some onlookers removed the entire panel. It was of brass, like the rest of the machine; but because the metal was thin, not so heavy as it appeared.

There was more room inside than might have been thought, yet withall a considerable amount of mechanism: things like shingles the size of little table tops, all covered with patterns like writing (Lame Hans has told me since that these are called circuit cards). And gears and motors and the like.

When Professor Baumeister had poked among all these mechanical parts for half a minute, Herr Heitzmann asked: “Are you satisfied?”

“Yes,” answered Professor Baumeister, straightening up. “There is no one in there.”

“But I am not,” said Herr Heitzmann, and he walked with long strides to the other side of the machine. Everyone crowded around him as he released the catches on that side, lifted away the panel, and stood it against the wall. “Now,” he said, “you can see completely through my machine—isn’t that right? Look, do you see Doctor Eckardt? Do you see me? Wave to us.”

“I am satisfied,” Professor Baumeister said. “Let us go on with the game.”

“The machine has already taken its move. You may think about your next one while these gentlemen help me replace the panels.”

Professor Baumeister was beaten in twenty-two moves. Albricht the moneylender then asked if he could play without betting, and when this was refused by Herr Heitzmann, bet a kilomark and was beaten in fourteen moves. Herr Heitzmann asked then if anyone else would play, and when no one replied, requested that the same men who carried the machine into the inn assist him in putting it away again.

“Wait,” said Professor Baumeister.

Herr Heitzmann smiled. “You mean to play again?”

“No. I want to buy your machine. On behalf of the University.”

Herr Heitzmann sat down and looked serious. “I doubt that I could sell it to you. I had hoped to make a good sum in Dresden before selling it there.”

“Five hundred kilomarks.”

Herr Heitzmann shook his head. “That is a fair proposition,” he said, “and I thank you for making it. But I cannot accept.”

“Seven hundred and fifty,” Professor Baumeister said. “That is my final offer.”

“In gold?”

“In a draft on an account the University maintains in Furstenwald—you can present it there for gold the first thing in the morning.”

“You must understand,” said Herr Heitzmann, “that the machine requires a certain amount of care, or it will not perform properly.”

“I am buying it as is,” said Professor Baumeister. “As it stands here before us.”

“Done, then,” said Herr Heitzmann, and he put out his hand.

The board was folded away, and six stout fellows carried the machine into the professor’s room for safekeeping, where he remained with it for an hour or more. When he returned to the inn parlor at last, Doctor Eckardt asked if he had been playing chess again.

Professor Baumeister nodded. “Three games.”

“Did you win?”

“No, I lost them all. Where is the showman?”

“Gone,” said Father Karl, who was sitting near them. “He left as soon as you took the machine to your room.”

Doctor Eckardt said, “I thought he planned to stay the night here.”

“So did I,” said Father Karl. “And I confess I believed the machine would not function without him. I was surprised to hear that our friend the professor had been playing in private.”

Just then a small, twisted man, with a large head crowned with wild black hair, limped into the inn parlor. It was Lame Hans, but no one knew that then. He asked Scheer the innkeeper for a room.

Scheer smiled. “Sitting rooms on the first floor are a hundred marks,” he said. He could see by Lame Hans’ worn clothes that he could not afford a sitting room.

“Something cheaper.”

“My regular rooms are thirty marks. Or I can let you have a garret for ten.”

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