Interview

A social experience

19 Dec 2020

ChessBase strives to make online play more friendly. Co-founder Matthias Wüllenweber spoke with Conrad Schormann.

In 1986 physics student Matthias Wüllenweber traveled to Basel to demonstrate his database of chess games to Garry Kasparov. The world champion loved it. The next year, Chessbase was founded and published its first version.
In 1986 physics student Matthias Wüllenweber traveled to Basel to demonstrate his database of chess games to Garry Kasparov. The world champion loved it. The next year, Chessbase was founded and published its first version. (photo: Chessbase)
ChessTech: You have recently introduced a video chat to your Playchess platform. How did you come up with that?
Matthias Wüllenweber: Chess as we know it is to a large extent a social experience: the encounters at a club evening, at a team match, at an open. Online chess hardly reflects this social. We want to change that as much as possible. The player should be able to see opponents and teammates before, during and after the team match and interact with them. When Jeroen van den Belt suggested a video chat he also had the community in our company in mind. During the pandemic colleagues work from their home offices, and even when we work together, the social experience is missing. We were the first to use the function regularly. Every Friday we play a company tournament with video chat. It’s a great experience for everyone.
ChessTech: Do you still remember when you played your first online games?
Matthias Wüllenweber: It was in September 2001 against Jeroen. He and I had just developed our Playchess server. We then activated it in the company and played online with a dozen people. It was a very special feeling for us back then, I remember that well.
ChessTech: In 2001, people were still playing against computers. Apart from ChessBase, the Fritz engine was your main product.
Matthias Wüllenweber: You can play attractive games against the machine. We’ve come a long way since then, with the “Easy play” mode in Fritz, for example, in which the programme deliberately creates tactical chances so that you can attack wonderfully. But as much as we have humanised the machine, even given it a name, Fritz, and a voice, that of the comedian Matthias Deutschmann, it remains a machine. Psychologically, it is much more appealing to know that on the other side sits a human being with emotions. This one-to-one confrontation, the adrenaline, is what chess is all about. That’s why we play. The trend to play online was foreseen by Tim Krabbé, a friend of our company. Tim always opposed playing against computers. At the beginning, we argued that he could modify the strength of the game and that an artificial opponent could be created who played humanly, but Tim always said that was nonsense. There was the Internet, where you could play against humans, and an artificially weak chess programme was the wrong direction. I finally came to the conclusion that Tim was right.
ChessTech: Was it the Dutch writer who inspired you to develop Playchess?
Matthias Wüllenweber: The inspiration was rather a visit to Israel in 1997 at the invitation of Kasparovchess, a start-up, as we would call it today, that was looking to go public. I knew the people behind it. One of the developers was co-author of the programme “Junior”, which was an important product for us at the end of the 90s. In Israel, I noticed how important the kasparovchess team found online play. And I thought we should try that too: Equipping Fritz with a chess server seemed like a sensible idea. We developed it from scratch back then, a huge project. Today, developers use modular systems, they just have to put things together so that it fits. Back then, it was much more difficult to develop a powerful server. The machines were also much slower than today.

Online chess was a business model for us in the beginning. It has became more and more a public good that is freely available.“

ChessTech: When the Playchess server was up and running, how was it received?
Matthias Wüllenweber: In the beginning we saw steep growth. After all, the competitive situation was manageable. Basically, there was the ICC, the FICS and us. That has changed a lot over the years. Online chess was a business model for us in the beginning. It has became more and more a public good that is freely available on a growing number of platforms. For us, it was still important to offer online chess in the sense of a community and our reach, but the topic receded a little into the background in view of the multitude of our offers. We then lost some ground to competitors and their sometimes considerable capital investment. Nevertheless, we still have one or two unique selling propositions. This is another reason why we continue to see constant growth, which has picked up again rapidly in recent months …
Matthias Wüllenweber is cofounder and the creative head of Chessbase. He also created the award-winning physics learning software Albert and the music composition programme Albert.
Matthias Wüllenweber is cofounder and the creative head of Chessbase. He also created the award-winning physics learning software Albert and the music composition programme Albert. (photo: private)
ChessTech: … the pandemic, Queen’s Gambit on Netflix.
Matthias Wüllenweber: Yes! People’s leisure time behaviour has changed. They are looking for options to occupy themselves meaningfully at home. Chess is ideal for that, we feel that clearly. Especially in October and November, things went up again. However, I cannot say to what extent this is due to Beth Harmon.
ChessTech: What distinguishes your online play?
Matthias Wüllenweber: Our beginners’ site learn.chess. There you can play chess with tips, get a little help, and find your way into chess with amusing instructions. That is very well received, the site has a lot of hits and the visitors stay there for a long time.
ChessTech: It has often been asserted that ChessBase has missed the trend towards web applications. Do you agree with that?
Matthias Wüllenweber: We really didn’t pick up the internet at the beginning. At the time it didn’t have much to do with what we offered. We were a year or two behind, just with creating our website. Today we offer a wide range of web applications, maybe too wide? We want to do online chess well, online tactics training, cloud databases. We have a news site with high access figures, a quiz site, a video site and so on. All in all, we are on two tracks: ChessBase and Fritz on one side, the web applications on the other.
ChessTech: Most of your competitors didn’t put up a hurdle in the form of a client when playing online chess. There you play in the browser, done.
Matthias Wüllenweber: You can do that on Playchess too since quite some time, but I will admit that we didn’t focus on that for a long time.
What is new in Chessbase 16 (€ 119,90 or €99,90 as upgrade from Chessbase 15) is explained in a [series of videos][1].


  [1]: https://en.chessbase.com/post/chessbase-16-the-new-features-part1
What is new in Chessbase 16 (€ 119,90 or €99,90 as upgrade from Chessbase 15) is explained in a series of videos.
ChessTech: In summer you have started the German Online Chess League, short DSOL. Did it play a role in making browser-play more available?
Matthias Wüllenweber: You bet. Setting up the league in cooperation with the German Chess Federation was a reason for us to intensively take care of our online chess offer. At the beginning we faced problems, for example with the team administration. We asked for a week delay to make improvements. As the season went on, it worked better and better. In retrospect, I have to say that it was fun to polish up the platform with all our might. It wasn’t planned at all, actually we had other things on our agenda for this year. The problems and the technical pressure at the beginning were not pleasant. But in the end, it was a nice community experience not only for most of the players, but also for most of our staff.

Beauty in chess is a topic that fascinates me. We are testing whether we can rate players according to how beautifully they play.”

ChessTech: How does the online league compare with an over-the-board team match?
Matthias Wüllenweber: With the greeting from the opposing team captain and the spectators meeting in the chat, it really has the atmosphere of a team match. The federation is taking the DSOL quite seriously. It lets its top referees look after it and has developed the backend for the league administration, based on how the Bundesliga works. It feels more and more like a real league operation. It’s great that it’s going ahead now.
ChessTech: You have just released ChessBase 16 – what comes next?
Matthias Wüllenweber: The mechanical part of online chess is well covered, now also the interactive part. Currently we are thinking strongly about further enriching the game experience. Beauty in chess is a topic that fascinates me. We are testing whether we can rate players according to how beautifully they play. In the medium term, this could lead to a new function of the server. In the immediate future, we have to prepare the new league season. We still have a list of improvements to work through, partly based on suggestions by the players. When the DSOL starts again in January, they should see that their ideas have been implemented.