Reports | May 15, 2009 22:03

"We will improve our software", says CEO of DGT

DGTThis week three major chess tournaments had problems with the live broadcast of the games on their websites. Is it the fault of the organizers, or should we blame DGT, the company that produces the hardware and software? Albert Vasse, CEO of DGT, thinks the truth lies somewhere in between.

Last week at the President's Cup in Baku, the rapid games of the world's best players couldn't be broadcast on the official website because of technical problems. Almost simultaneously, the organizers of the US Championship experienced problems and decided to switch from the DGT boards to the Monroi system for their live coverage. And Tuesday the M-Tel Masters in Sofia followed suit: the live broadcast of the games failed throughout the day. A trend or just coincidence?

In our last report on the President's Cup we hinted that it might be the material. Almost all chess tournaments these days use electronical boards provided by DGT (originally standing for Digital Game Timer, but these days for Digital Game Technology), a Dutch company that already developed an electronical chess clock back in the eighties of the last century. In the early nineties DGT convinced FIDE about their product and since May 1994 they are the official provider of the chess clock that is recognized by the World Chess Federation.

Old DGT clock

The first DGT clock was built in the mid-'80s by Ben Bulsink. At that time, he was a student at the Technical University Twente in Enschede, the Netherlands; now he is R&D manager of DGT Projects.

Soon DGT started developing more chess related products and at the Olympiad in Elista in 1998, their electronical boards were used for the first time. Back then still with Tasc software; in 2001 DGT launched the first version of their own software called TOMA. While there's nothing wrong with the nice, wooden boards and well-designed pieces, the software is known to be of lesser quality. It's difficult to use, especially when something unexpected happens.

We asked Albert Vasse, who is one of the two CEOs of DGT and responsible for marketing and sales, to comment one the recent problems tournaments are having with their software. Vasse: "We know that it's not the easiest software around, and we're working on a new version of TOMA, which should be ready this summer. It will be more user-friendly."

Tuesday the live broadcast of the first round of M-Tel failed completely. According to Chessdom, the problems arose when the mayor of Sofia, Boiko Borisov, who was supposed to make the first move in the game Carlsen-Topalov, made a joke and played 1.b3 and then put the queen's bishop on b2, creating an illegal move. What's your comment on this?
"It's a pity that they didn't have someone around who could solve the problems immediately. There's always the possibility to contact us, 24/7, but we didn't receive a phone call. We always say two things: firstly, the person who operates the system should be of the level of a system controller, and secondly, it's important to test in advance – setting up everything on the day of the first round might be too late."

DGT board

An electronic chess board by DGT

But we can assume that it's been tested; it's the tournament's 5th edition.
"Yes. But it's always bit different with such a ritual at the start of a first round, at World Championships and other big events. It's a certain cycle of acts, and there should be a clear communication between the arbiter and the operator. It's the operator who should give the signal that the round can start."

Why do you think they couldn't solve the problem for the whole day?
"That's truly surprising to me. Very strange. We hope to hear from the people in Sofia what was going on. Normally when something goes wrong, an illegal move, or a move that was missed by the board, it's not too difficult to solve. The boards have an internal memory and can save up to 500 moves so restarting TOMA and entering one or two moves manually should do the trick. However, the fact that all three boards were not working indicates that the joke of the mayor had nothing to do with it, and that there was something wrong with the basic connection between TOMA and the boards."

How do you explain the recent problems at three top tournaments?
"I cannot comment on the President's Cup and Sofia, but I know that at the US Championship there are people looking after the live games who have never worked with our material before. Weeks ago already I strongly urged the organizers to hire an experienced operator, since we're talking about a very prestigeous event. Instead they preferred to work with their own people. Then, when problems popped up, they only decided to call us when the second round had already started. Why not test, and give us a call, beforehand?"

DGT logoBut isn't the DGT material a bit counterintuitive sometimes? For instance, many wrong PGN files appear on websites because arbiters make mistakes at the end of the game. We're talking about wrong results or last moves, not unimportant details.
"Yes, I admit that our boards and software contain a number of pitfalls. That's why big events should work with experienced people. For instance there's the famous kings problem. A 1-0 result is entered by putting the two kings on the squares e4 and d5, a 0-1 by putting them on d4 and e5 while in the case of a draw the kings should be put on e4 and e5. But many arbiters don't check whether putting a king on e4 might be a legal move. For instance, when the White king was on f3, and the arbiter starts with the white king, the board will registrate the legal move Kf3-e4 as the last move of the game. To prevent this, it's enough to execute any illegal move first, and only then put the kings. It's one example why the PGN files that are created by the boards should always be checked by humans afterwards, before they're put on a website. At Corus, after each round the arbiter and the webmaster check the results and last moves for all 42 games played in the A, B and C groups."

What's the status of Foidos, the software system that was used during the Anand-Kramnik match, with live commentary, videos, and game analysis?
"We didn't make profit with it in Bonn, to put it mildly. If you cannot even earn back the investment at a World Championship, than it's clear that going to be very difficult. So we decided to put the project on hold for the moment. Although we still like it, and want to continue tweaking and improving its technology. In general we try to utilize and further improve the available technology, and by doing that we try to improve and modernize the game of chess."

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Peter Doggers's picture
Author: Peter Doggers

Founder and editor-in-chief of ChessVibes.com, Peter is responsible for most of the chess news and tournament reports. Often visiting top events, he also provides photos and videos for the site. He's a 1.e4 player himself, likes Thai food and the Stones.

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Comments

Harish Srinivasan's picture

With so many sites covering the world championship in Bonn, the only unique thing about foidos was it contained live video feed and the different camera angles. It is that alone that they should have promoted. Most of serious chess fans are always member of some chess site or the other and hence they can always follow the games with commentary. They only dont see the video. So if the video alone had been made available by foidos at a much lesser price, they would have had several fans registering at foidos.

MattinSTL's picture

The DGT boards used at the US Championship were stress-tested tens of times in the weeks and months leading up to the tournament. The software failed, and Monroi came up huge, not only in the customer service department but also the software and hardware department. DGT's stranglehold on world events has made them complacent.

Bartleby's picture

Thanks for the interview, it makes an interesting read. I don't know the DGT software, but the CEO guy paints a bleak picture.
"should be of the level of a system controller", "the operator who should give the signal that the round can start", "Instead they preferred to work with their own people", ...
That's the language UNIX used to lose the PC market in the 90's. In the meantime, we had to acknowledge the fact that successful software tends to be used by what we now call "users" and not by system controllers with years of experience. Talk about improving the interface, not about how your users failed your software.

SDX's picture

At the Leiden Chess Tournament (The Netherlands) we use 5 digital boards. Almost every round after one hour of play the hardware ( the boards) sends incorrect data to the software, which results in errors and a 'hanging' program. Sometimes we're lucky and can continue another hour. Otherwise / eventually we have to enter the moves manually.

We suspect something outside the building is interfering with the digital boards, but we don't know how to prove it or to solve it.

The problem is not the intuitiveness of the software, because anyone clever enough to purchase something on the Internet can handle it.

I do like the products, even if it gives me sleepless nights...

Mark Perrin's picture

While I am a chess player, I know little about how a tournament should be run or otherwise interfaced with a computer. I have, on the other hand, built computer systems from scratch. I really mean scratch. My brother and I didn't have printed circuit boards so we took the parts for memory, the CPU, the clock drive and various other electonic parts and we wrapped the wires from each terminal on the part and wrapped the other end of the wire to the appropriate place. That is a lot of wires with color codes, etc. We used the same method to build a television display monitor but taking a television and bypassing the channel selector (my brother did that one so I don't know the details) in some manner to get the display screen. The thing I am trying to say here is that we did that all by hand and it worked without any problems when we were done. We had one of only two home built computers in Washington State that worked at that time and unlike the competitor, we didn't use fancy printed circuit boards. It worked the first time we turned it on. With that experience came the realization that the project could not get done without making some mistakes along the way. But in the end, simplicity rather than technology is what helped us hit pay dirt. There is a famous, world-wide electronics chain store that uses a catch phrase to sell their products in their advertising. It goes something like "Add a digital channel selector to simplify you video system". They try to tell you to add yet another complex device to an already complex system so you can simplify it somehow. You don't simplify a complex system by adding more complex units. It seems, from my viewpoint, that DGT has over-simplified their chessboard by adding complex hardware and software that do not match up with the users' needs. I'm running out of time and space, but all areas of life has become "over-simplified" so to speak, by adding overly complex gizmos. The computer is a device that is suppose to save us time and money. If that is not what is happening then we have "Over Simplified" with complex high tech devices and software and need to take another look at the situation for a better answer to our problems. Maybe the answer is something simpler for the time being.
Mark Perrin

Manuel Pintor's picture

At the Women Chess Portuguese Championship (Gaia, Porto, Portugal) we did experienced the same scenario as at Leiden Chess Tournament (see SDX comment), using only 8 digital boards.
As Bartleby stands, DGT must improve the interface, or we'll give up using it, sooner or later.
Manuel Pintor

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