Background

Robot magic is back

25 May 2020

Chess automatons that move the pieces have been a fascination since the Mechanical Turk of Wolfgang von Kempelen. A recently announced wonder board turned out to be too good to be true, but it has triggered activities and ambition by other producers, developers and platform providers, reports Conrad Schormann.

The Square Off board: a fine product, but miles away from the perfect dream Regium presented.
The Square Off board: a fine product, but miles away from the perfect dream Regium presented.

It was too good to be true, finely crafted and a technical marvel in one: an electronic chessboard, on which the pieces move by themselves, smoothly and so quickly that even blitz games are possible. Compatible with every online chess platform, also nice to look at like a tournament board of the highest category. Regium was the name of this hi-tech board that caused a stir in the chess scene for weeks – until it turned out to be a scam that was most likely devised to pull money out of the pockets of potential funders.

The Regium board was fake, the demand for it was real. And it did not go unnoticed. Instead, it made producers, online chess providers and potential customers wonder: Could such a board be produced at a reasonable price? If it could, it would be a bestseller.

Machines that move chess pieces have fascinated people ever since Wolfgang von Kempelen presented his Mechanical Turk to Emperor Joseph II and Grand Duke Paul I in Vienna in 1781. Even though the moves were made by a master hidden inside, the Mechanical Turk was an engineering masterpiece. Two hundred years later, chess computer manufacturers remembered this fascination and tried to monetize it. In 1982, the “Novag Robot Adversary” came onto the market for a hefty 1,500 euros, a futuristic device that used a robot arm to move the pieces. The following year, the American board game producer Milton Bradley presented the “Grandmaster” with a magnetic plotter technique under the board to draw the pieces. Both machines were considered revolutionary at their time.

„Mechanics wear out“: The plastic arm of the Novag 2Robot.
„Mechanics wear out“: The plastic arm of the Novag 2Robot. (Photo: topschach.de)

Over the years several producers put robot chess computers onto the market. None of them was a commercial success, because none of them did their job reliably. “Mechanics wear out. The cheaper it is produced, the sooner it happens,” says chess computer expert Benjamin Aldag. In the latest device with a robot arm, the “Novag 2Robot” that came out in 2008, the calibration of the plastic arm usually fails after some time. In devices that work with plotter technology and magnets under the board, the tension spring tires. Aldag says: “Reliable mechanical solutions could be constructed, but they would make the machines so expensive that nobody would buy them.”

A different approach appeared in 2016: not just a traditional chess computer, but primarily an electronic board that is suitable to play online chess. In order to build a chessboard with a Bluetooth interface that connects with its app Square Off raised more than $ 750,000 through crowdfunding via Kickstarter and Indiegogo. It was more than ten times the original goal of the Bangalore-based company that has offices in Mumbai and San Francisco. The development was delayed due to technical difficulties, but the devices were delivered in 2018.

All developers I ask raise their hands in defense

Like its predecessors, the Square Off board has a potential weak spot with the tiring tension spring. The machine works reliably – but it is slow and chunky compared to the perfect board that Regium presented in its now-infamous video. Yet Square Off has also benefited from the attention Regium created. When it became apparent that the Regium wonder board would remain a dream for the foreseeable future, Square Off initiated an “open box sale”. Square Off boards that were officially sold out, became miraculously available again. The Indian company has initiated a second round of financing for new products and raised more than $ 600,000.

DGT CEO Hans Pees
DGT CEO Hans Pees (Photo: Amruta Mokal/ChessBase India)

Startled by the attention Regium had created, other producers of electronic boards put their developers on the subject. Benjamin Aldag with his German company topschach.de tried to recreate the technology for the Dutch company DGT. After some fiddling around he concluded that the required electromagnets would make a board with the Regium functionality into a 20-centimeter-high and very expensive block. Is there a viable version that DGT is going to build? CEO Hans Pees says: “There are always dynamics in the market, and we are always working on innovations. But we do not respond publicly to product ideas that are currently in the news.“

Another company that got interested is chess computer developer Millennium 2000 from Germany. “The idea of Regium was brilliant,” says COO Thomas Karkosch. “Self-moving pieces, that’s great per se – if it works quickly, flawlessly and doesn’t break.” In principle, he would like to tackle such a project. “But all the developers I have asked raise their hands in defense.” Nevertheless, Millennium 2000 wants to offer its customers an electronic board to play online chess as comfortably as possible. However, it will remain without self-moving pieces in the foreseeable future.

Millennium COO Thomas Karkosch
Millennium COO Thomas Karkosch (Photo: Millennium)

Regium has triggered momentum among online chess providers, too. Priorily, Lichess founder Thibault Duplessis refused to allow electronic boards access to his platform, as he saw it as a possible entry point for cheaters. Just recently Lichess opened its interface and suggested that users could now try to actually develop their dream board for online chess.

The interface between an electronic board and a playing platform is also topical at chess24. On occasion of the Magnus Carlsen Invitational, chess24 entered into a partnership with Millennium 2000. Will chess24 open its currently developed “Playzone” exclusively for Millennium boards, open it completely or go for yet another solution? “Nothing has been decided yet,” chess24 CEO Sebastian Kuhnert said on request.

Meanwhile, the next board with self-moving pieces has been announced. Another team of developers in Bangalore is working to create an inexpensive alternative to the DGT board. As an extra to the board, the Rolling Pawn Project, recently presented by ChessBase India, will include a robot arm that can pull the pieces and is based on the plotter principle. Developer Jaydeep Chakrabarty sees potential mechanical errors as a challenge: “If we fail, we have at least tried and can learn from it. A first failure in the development of a robot arm will not generally hinder the progress and development of new features of our electronic board.“