“An access tool for online play”

Millennium 2000 was not a household name in online chess. Then the Munich-based company made a grand entry by cosponsoring the Magnus Carlsen Invitational, the first online chess world class tournament. COO Thomas Karkosch is eager to turn online chess into a haptic game: “Our devices are predestined to become an access tool for online play,” says Karkosch, interviewed by Conrad Schormann.

During the Magnus Carlsen Invitational the Millennium brand appeared in an online chess context for the first time.
During the Magnus Carlsen Invitational the Millennium brand appeared in an online chess context for the first time.
ChessTech: Chess computers are often belittled in the chess scene as a relic from far away times. Now your brand appears in online chess. Millennium 2000 cosponsored the first online world-class tournament. How does that fit together?
Thomas Karkosch: In the massive trend towards online chess we see an answer to questions that are crucial for our company: What is the future of the chess computer? Where are we going? Despite the trend of playing online, we believe that chess is primarily a haptic game. Almost all the users we speak to say that they prefer to feel a chess piece in their hands rather than a computer mouse.
Do you want to bring the haptic experience to online play?
Exactly. Chess computers, as they are on the market today, have to change. We can do a lot more with these devices than play against a machine. The integrated engines will not be abolished, they are quite useful in some areas, chess lessons for example. But in principle chess computers are predestined to become an access tool for online play. We took a first step in this direction in 2017/18: the Exclusive with its automatic piece recognition plus the ChessLink module as an open interface to the board. But when it comes to connecting to online chess, we depend on the platform providers. We need access to the interface from a chess server in order to implement it properly.
You are not the first to offer an electronic board for online chess.
I don’t think any of the existing solutions are perfect. They work, they have their value and their justification, but they also have disadvantages. We want to create a board that offers added value and is as easy to use as possible.
Thomas Karkosch (40) has been managing the chess computer and electronics manufacturer Millennium 2000 since 2016 together with Max Hegener, son of co-founder Manfred Hegener.
Thomas Karkosch (40) has been managing the chess computer and electronics manufacturer Millennium 2000 since 2016 together with Max Hegener, son of co-founder Manfred Hegener. (Photo: Millennium)
According to you, developing a board with self-moving pieces would lead to a product that’s way too expensive. But when playing online with a regular e-board, moving the pieces of your opponent takes time. And it distracts.
With three- or five-minute blitz, a board for online play reaches its limits. That is all the more true if the player is forced to keep looking at a computer screen or a separate display. Something like that would not be an acceptable solution for us. Our Exclusive with its 81 LEDs shows the moves on the board so that the player can focus on the game without distraction. Now the only thing missing is the clean online connection. This should result from our cooperation with chess24.
How did this cooperation come about?
The talks have been going on for about a year. chess24 is currently developing a new gaming platform …
… their new Playzone that is about to go live for premium members …
… and then there will also be a new API. As soon as its core functions are in place, we join in. Our app is already in development. This app will establish the connection to the chess24 server. We want it self-explanatory and as simple as possible. The users should see when their friends or clubmates are online so that they can start playing with them immediately. Our goal is to present a first solution in late summer and have it on the market before the end of the year.
The Lichess API is open, you could dock there immediately. Will your device allow play on Lichess and other platforms, or do you target to work with chess24 exclusively?
We’ll see. Exclusivity has advantages and disadvantages. We do not yet have a concrete plan for how we will align ourselves. On the one hand, our focus is on developing our technology. So we don’t want to commit ourselves too much. On the other hand, I like working with others on shared goals. I’m not just thinking about chess24 but also about DGT, for example. We only have one overlap with their product portfolio, one chess computer, but the distribution channels are completely different. We are not really in a competitive situation. We could think about doing something together. Chess is quite small, everyone talks to everyone, let’s see what happens.
For now, chess24.
Chess24 CEO Sebastian Kuhnert introduced the idea of the Magnus Carlsen Invitational to us in late March. He and his team got the tournament together in ultra-short time, really impressive. His invitation to become a cosponsor suited us. We still hear far too often that chess computers are relics from the 1980s, but that’s not the case. We just have to get it in people’s heads somehow. Chess24 is an ideal partner for this, reaching millions of people, including many young chess fans who do not yet know our products. Now we want to show: Hey, there are still desktop chess computers, they have their legitimacy, their value and something new, cool is about to be added to them. I also see an effect for chess24. We bring in a clientele that is not yet playing online or at least is not committed to one platform.

Online poker is a multi-billion-dollar industry. Why shouldn‘t that be possible in chess?

The Covid-19 crisis is driving changes in chess. How do you see the future of the game?
Chess is esports. In this regard, from our point of view, it is very much undervalued. Consider what happened in poker. Who would have thought about playing cards online twenty years ago? Today online poker is a multi-billion-dollar industry. Why shouldn’t that be possible in chess? Millions of people play, many online.
Can chess be turned into a flashy business like poker?
I see a massive transformation that is changing the image of the game. I experience this in the collaboration with chess24, but not only there. In 2018, I was in London for the World Championship. I saw the enthusiasm of the management teams, the professionalism in the presentation. And how young the people in charge are! This has nothing to do with the traditional dusty image of chess. After experiencing this match and its circumstances, I find it all the more attractive to be a part of this dynamic field. And I’m definitely not the only one.
Millennium production in Shenzhen/China near Hongkong.
Millennium production in Shenzhen/China near Hongkong. (Photo: Millennium)
Last year you supported an offline tournament series, the German Amateur Championship. Now you don’t do that anymore. Is this change of course due to your company’s new orientation towards online chess?
No. The German Amateur Championship is a great event that suits the target group. We are happy to promote amateur sports. That is why we sponsored the championship with a large number of devices, we put a significant amount of money into it. But it lacks a PR concept from the organizer. There was no media attention. We mentioned this to the German Chess Federation several times, but nothing happened. As it is, the investment is not worth it for us. We would like to continue, but something has to happen in terms of marketing. The German Chess Federation has a blatant weak point there. A pity.
Do you see your devices as learning tools as well?
I do, indeed. We’re working with chess teachers who are teaching in schools. We learn that children like online lessons, but we also see that parents are not thrilled when chess makes their children spend yet another hour in front of the screen. So, with school chess in mind, we want to create an inexpensive device that connects online chess with a real board. We are still analyzing the extent to which this can be made possible: attractively priced and with good functionality. A central question: with or without piece recognition? This feature is massively underestimated. In the classroom, it is extremely helpful because the device does not allow irregular moves. We have observed this with chess pupils: If they have a device with piece recognition, they just play, they cannot move anything wrong. Errors occur in devices without piece recognition and that leads to frustration. Unfortunately, piece recognition is the most expensive component of the device.

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Hybrid Chess – Integrating OTB and Online Chess Webinar on 22 June, 16.00–18.00 CEST