Background

E-board of a different kind

Another electronic board project is succeeding in crowdfunding. Conrad Schormann introduces ChessUp and looks back at the Regium scam.

ChessUp promises a didactic electronic board and app
ChessUp promises a didactic electronic board and app (photo: Kickstarter)

Electronic chess boards remain a hot item. Even the clunky, rattling, error-prone Square-Off board has raised $2 million via crowdfunding. One year ago Regium’s alleged miracle board with self-moving pieces generated lots of attention. Established manufacturers such as Millennium 2000 and DGT, as well as various hobbyists, have been sounding out whether the chess player’s dream can be realized. The verdict is clear: a board with self-moving pieces cannot be constructed at a reasonable price.

Nevertheless, there is a market for electronic boards, be it for online chess at the board instead of in front of the screen, for hybrid competitions, for live broadcasts, for playing against an engine or for teaching and training purposes. A stream of product ideas has been popping up on crowdfunding platforms. SmartChess and In2chess have fallen through in spite of their cool names.

On 16 March, another electronic chess board appeared on the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter. Within four days it collected pledges of close to $400,000. Within ten days it has collected $800,000. Another Regium? Certainly not. The target group is different, the product itself is quite different.

The ChessUp board is aimed at beginners and less advanced players who want to learn chess and get better with the help of their electronic board. It allows you to play with help. When a player presses a piece on its square in help mode, the squares to which this piece can move light up in different colours: red = bad move, green = good move. The help level can be modified. Beginners can start playing on this board without blundering lots of material before they can get a meaningful game. Even somewhat advanced players can learn from this board.

Squares blinking in different colours for didactic purposes hasn’t been incorporated on a high-tech board before, but it is not new to ChessBase users.

Behind this stands a new approach: bringing teacher and student on an equal footing, as shown in the promo video. The father may have just taught his daughter chess, but with the support of the ChessUp board she can be a worthy opponent from her first games. This teaching approach hasn’t been incorporated on a high-tech board before, but it is not altogether new. ChessBase users know squares blinking in different colours from the “Assisted Analysis”. This function was not developed for beginners, but for experienced players to avoid blunders while analysing. ChessUp is now adopting this principle in the development of a board with a built-in chess school.

Only the future can show if such a board will really be used intensively or if it will soon land unnoticed in a corner. What is certain is that the board with its luminous squares and its excellent Kickstarter pitch has triggered enormous interest. Behind ChessUp is the start-up Bryght Labs with its CEO Jeff Wigh, who has been answering all questions in detail and rather convincingly.

Apart from the teaching and training functions, the new board is also intended to serve as a normal chess board for two players. However, the board is way too small for competitive play. Part of the package is an app with a clock function. The app also allows the board to connect to Lichess. Bryght Labs is working on connecting the board to Chess.com, as well. The Kickstarter campaign is still running until 22 April. The first boards are expected to be delivered in November 2021 and shall retail from $389. Early backers will get the same basic package at a hefty discount for $249.

While ChessUp is in the starting blocks, Regium seems to be finally withdrawing. Until recently, the Regium website had a self-made fake crowdfunding page online and kept inducing people to give money to Regium. There had never been such a miracle product, nor a similar scam in chess before. Regium started with some fanfare by signing sponsorship deals with two of the big chess sites. Regium supported one of Chess.com’s flagship tournaments, the Speed Chess Championship, and the Banter Blitz Cup on chess24, where the Regium logo was displayed next to the head of the World Chess Champion.

There had never been such a miracle product, nor a similar scam in chess before.

Regium also published videos showing the wonder board in action. The chess community immediately pounced on them. In the Lichess forum users pointed out that someone had technically helped the pieces to glide across the board as if by magic. If Regium had remained silent at this point until its Kickstarter campaign began, the scam might have worked. Instead, Lichess received an email threatening legal action if “defamatory” forum posts were not deleted. Instead of giving in, Lichess published an article that exposed the fraudulent nature of Regium. Among other things, it was about the manipulated video and the unsubstantiated claim that anyone could play with the board on any of the big sites – with a board, mind you, that no one had ever seen outside the videos and that Regium could not demonstrate even when Chess.com and chess24 asked for it in the weeks afterwards.

Regium didn’t give up yet. Fake accounts appeared in the Lichess forum that tried in vain to refute the accusations, and a Regium representative also ranted in the Reddit chess forum with its six-figure user base. He advised critics to go back to school and spoke of lies and fantasies. On top of that, Regium produced more videos to prove the authenticity of the wonder board. The Reddit controversy culminated in a wonderful parody video that made fun of the Regium videos.

The climax of the miracle board scam was the Regium logo displayed next to the world champion.
The climax of the miracle board scam was the Regium logo displayed next to the world champion.

After first taking money from Regium, eventually Chess.com and chess24 backed down. Both warned not to trust Regium’s product announcement and ended their cooperations. But these warning did not spread as widely as the previous Regium videos had spread. And so Regium’s crowdfunding campaign got off to a rocket-like start. A high six-figure amount may have been raised quickly if this matter had not imploded as well. Numerous warnings about the dubious project appeared in the comments, first backers withdrew their money, and finally Kickstarter pulled the plug on the Regium campaign.

After the Kickstarter campaign failed, Regium claimed a successful campaign for the wonder board in Japan – where few people play international chess.

The story was still not over. After the Kickstarter campaign failed, Regium sent out a newsletter that claimed a successful campaign for the wonder board in Japan. This was astonishing: few people play international chess in Japan, shogi is the game of choice there, and a market for electronic boards for international chess does not really exist in Japan. Nevertheless, Regium announced that the campaign would be rolled out globally after its successful start in Japan. Those who want a wonder board should go to the Regium website and benefit from preferential prices for early supporters.

By mid 2020 visitors of the Regium website found a crowdfunding campaign right there. The Regium makers had bought this from Thrinacia and installed it on their own site. They made this campaign look exactly like the one on Kickstarter. There was one significant difference though: those who left money there did not give it to a trustworthy intermediary, who would return it if the campaign fails, but directly to the inventors of a non-existent wonder board. The website has now disappeared, and Regium has either deleted all its social media profiles or removed all its content. How much money the fake crowdfunding page has netted is not known.