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'".