Saturday, 14 April 2007

Electronic Chess Wars

England number one Mickey Adams now writes an excellent weekly column in the Saturday Daily Telegraph and it has become part of my essential chess reading for the week. Sadly, it doesn't appear on the web so the only way to get it is visit a newsagent and buy a copy of the paper. It's well worth it, and of course you would get Malcolm Pein's equally excellent daily column for your money (though you can get that one online too).

In his column for 14 April, Mickey mentions the Monroi electronic game recording system, which he had the chance to sample in Gibraltar. Here's what he has to say:

"Considering the quality of the handwriting of many chess players, this idea definitely has potential. Sadly for technophobes like myself it is quite fiddly and, particularly when you are under some pressure from the clock, it is easy to enter the wrong move. In my first experience with it, I had resorted to pen and paper by round two."

I've never used a Monroi for real myself, but I have examined one closely and know what he means. It is basically a PDA [pocket computer] and you have to position your face right over it to see what you are doing, avoid reflections, etc. With a paper scoresheet, you don't have to change your body position at the board; you just turn your head sideways, look and scribble - about all you have time for if you are playing to the FIDE time control. But Mickey's right, it has potential. He goes on:

"One other feature of the MonRoi system is that the moves can be fed directly to the internet without the need for a sensitive board. This attribute, which is achieved by making the entire playing hall a wi-fi zone, is distinctly double edged and has led to concerns about cheating."

Mickey doesn't go into detail and, I must admit, I've not heard anyone else mentioning a concern about cheating. How would that work, I wonder?

"On the plus side, it has enabled me to bring you some games from the Foxwoods Open in Connecticut..."

Mickey goes on to annotate a couple of games from the US tournament. Buy the paper if you want to read his annotations. This was of interest in another direction as I had just been reading (on the Chessvibes blog) about a hassle in the USA about provincial newspapers refusing to publish a chess column because it contained a Monroi-input game which was allegedly copyrighted by the MonRoi company. Mickey mentions nothing about this in his column, so presumably the Daily Telegraph is not expecting to get slapped with a writ for breach of Monroi's copyright.

I've got the feeling that someone has got the wrong end of the stick here. I think what MonRoi may be trying to do is to ensure that their live games transmissions are kept exclusive, and that other chessplaying sites don't provide simultaneous webcasts of live play. That seems a reasonable aspiration on Monroi's part, though it may be hard to enforce legally. What I don't think they are trying to do is to slap a copyright on individual game scores to stop journalists using them after the event for columns and magazines. That would be unreasonable and unworkable. It is also out of line with accepted legal precedent for unannotated chess game scores.

At present, there seem to be two competing systems for automating the capture and dissemination of chess games. One is the DGT Electronic Board and the other is the MonRoi electronic scoresheet. One system captures the moves as they are made on the board, the other as the players record them.

It rather depends on your role in the tournament as to which system you are likely to prefer. As a player, you are probably more likely to prefer an electronic board as you don't have to do much - apart from that little ritual at the end when you put your kings on squares in the centre to indicate the result. Then you retain your duplicate scoresheet, throw the signed one on the arbiter's desk and leave. With the MonRoi system, you have to ask the operator for a print-out of the moves - and there might be a queue for this.

If you are a tournament organiser, you might just prefer an electronic scoresheet-based system. For one thing, you don't have to organise the moving of ton-loads of heavy wooden boards and sets, complicated wiring, hiring operators to run the system for it (and it is not straightforward, believe me). Of course, MonRoi needs an operator too, but there are no wires and the dinky handheld gadgets take up less space. To be fair, I understand that the DGT system is now capable of being run wirelessly too.

I've no doubt there are lots of other factors too. This last fortnight has provided an opportunity to see the two systems running in tandem, at the 2007 European Championships in Dresden. The electronic board method has been used for the men's/open championship, while the MonRoi has been sued for the women. I'm not quite sure why there has been this gender division; perhaps it is because the MonRoi system usually comes with women operators - or because they feel that women players will be more amenable to technological change (Mickey Adams is not the only super-GM MonRoi refusenik).

Anyway, it has been interesting to compare notes on the competing systems. I've already written something about the outbreak of 'Mad Gamescore Disease' in Dresden, and at the time I was referring to the open championship games, i.e. DGT-generated scores. Things have not improved much on this front. Every round seems to have featured a crazy gamescore which have sometimes been withdrawn from the web screen in mid-transmission.

I've only sampled the Dresden MonRoi transmission a couple of times. I was watching while Tatiana Kosintseva was completing her overwhelming victory in the penultimate round of the women's event. Towards the end of the game, there was a mad episode when she suddenly put her rook en prise, but Atalik didn't take it but put her own rook en prise. Just as I was suspecting a new strain of MGD, there was a flurry of pieces on the board, the MonRoi ship righted itself and the correct moves suddenly appeared.

So, based on a small sample of games, it looks rather as if MonRoi is scoring slightly over DGT on the accuracy and reliability stakes. But that is not the end of the story. I'm sure this technological war still has a long way to run. In truth, both systems have their drawbacks. One of them is that they both rely on the same inputter: the stressed-out, time-troubled - and unpaid - chessplayer. Here's an idea for all you technophobe chessplayers out there, to be used the next time you are confronted with a bit of unfamiliar technology during a tournament: at the end of the game, as you are reporting the result to the arbiter, why not also hand over an invoice for your services - "For Data Input Services - £5 per game - please make cheque payable to 'A Chess-Player'".

1 comment:

  1. In my role as a "chess tourist" I had the opportunity to experience the Monroi system in the recent Zagreb Open. (This seems to have been included in the female grand prix solely due to a Croatian Monroi employee - but it was extremely unsuccessful in attracting extra female participation in the tournament apart from 2 Turkish girls.) Like Mickey Adams, I found it extremely fiddly and being an old dog stuck with my scoresheet. We only had 30 second increments and I was also unsure about being able to claim 3-fold repetitions if I hadn't got a scoresheet (although I guess it must be possible to switch screens to show a scoresheet). The games were only broadcast live if at least one of the players was using Monroi, and the only games that have been published from the tournament are those entered onto Monroi. These include one of my games that I entered after the game had finished, that I didn't mind the rest of the world seeing(!) They do not include my round 2 game against a Croatian GM in which I knew he was attempting to follow a 4NCL game of mine from 5 years ago, but I was able to get my improvement in first (on move 16!)
    My concerns over cheating would also apply to DGT. It would have been quite easy for me to leave the tournament hall and phone a friend following the game live for some advice. Others would no doubt be able to use concealed bluetooth devices instead. The best way to stop this, in my view, would be for a delay in transmission of 20 minutes or so.
    I had one specific Monroi problem in Round 4, a 70 move game that I was losing from around move 35 after which I never had more than 2 minutes left. I became aware that my opponent was attempting to blitz me (despite the 30 second increments) and not keeping his machine up-to-date. On the 2nd occasion I spotted this I stopped the clock, summoned an English speaking arbiter and explained that if the tournament was indeed being played under FIDE rules, my opponent had to have entered his last move before making his next move. I thought the arbiter had explained this to my Croatian opponent, so I got very annoyed when the same thing happened 3 moves later! The arbiter said that he had given my opponent an official warning, which seemed to do the trick, and I duly lost eventually. My problem throughout all this was that from my side of the board it was quite difficult to see whether the position on my opponent's Monroi was up to date, due to a combination of reflections and distance. In timetrouble, I was concentrating on the board in front of me so didn't always notice if he was entering moves. With scoresheets it is relatively easy to tell, even reading upside down, if the score is up-to-date. I know that I don't have a right to be able to see my opponent's scoresheet (unlike the arbiter) but there is clearly scope for abuse!
    I do wonder what the Monroi business plan is. Are they really going to make enough money by selling the machines? Or, as Chessvibes touches on, do they eventually hope to be able to charge for game scores?