by Brad Stone
the virtual chess halls of the Internet, the gambit
gladiators emerge at night, brandishing their slick
graphical interfaces and flexing their high ratings in
"shouts" to other members. It's a nightly
ritual: the search for a high-stakes match that can bump
the rating of a player past the 2200 mark and into the
esteemed company of the masters.
ambitious players crowd around a particular game to
observe two experts squaring off, or huddle in one of the
many talk channels to gossip or chat about such weighty
matters as the weaknesses of the Sicilian Defense. To the
uninitiated, this could be mistaken for unabashed
geekdom. But to the thousands of enthusiasts on the
Internet, online chess has revolutionized the game.
Where else can a
novice in Los Angeles get advice from an expert in
Denmark? How else could a die-hard in New York swap
opening strategies with a grandmaster from Russia? For
many Netters, Internet chess is nothing less than a way
Which goes a long
way toward explaining how, on March 1, 1995, the online
chess world was thrown into chaos. That was when the
Internet Chess Server (ICS) -- the premier chess site on
the Net -- suddenly announced it would become the
Internet Chess Club (ICC) and begin charging members $49
In the resulting
uproar, players lost their tempers and were exiled from
the server, opposition groups were formed, lawsuits were
threatened, ICC administrators were harassed, and plans
to erect alternative servers were formed. A new type of
chess match was started among Internet players -- one
that has yet to end. Its commercial ramifications may
portend the future of the Internet itself.
Daniel Sleator, a
professor of computer science at Carnegie-Mellon
University, first involved himself with the Internet
Chess Server in the fall of 1992. "When I first
found it," he says, "it was being run by a
couple of undergraduate students at CMU." Sleator's
first contribution to the server's code was to have it
restore a certain amount of time to a player's game clock
to compensate for transmission time. That change led to
many others. "After I had familiarized myself with
the code, I saw a vast number of other problems with
it," Sleator says. "Things ranging from false
checkmates to games where you could have two kings
running around the board until time ran out."
He took control of
the ICS and, over the next two-and-a-half years,
gradually worked to rewrite the system. He also recruited
volunteer administrators to help run the server, and
implemented suggestions from members to improve different
aspects of the game.
During that time
the total number of accounts on the server exploded, from
about 2,000 in 1993 to 10,000 in January 1995. As
membership grew, ICS moved to different sites until it
came to rest at its current location, chess.lm.com 5000,
a commercial site in Pittsburgh capable of maintaining
the higher load. The cost was $300 a month, which came
directly from Sleator's pocket.
In the fall of
1994, Sleator copyrighted the Internet Chess Server under
his own name. Around that time, he started receiving
offers from outside parties to buy the server. These
bidders all planned to charge extraordinary fees for
membership, including registration charges and hourly
rates. The members, Sleator knew, would not be pleased.
But Sleator was
tired of devoting his time, effort, and money to the ICS
for no compensation. He started talking to other ICS
administrators about the possibility of making the
service commercial themselves. Two of them agreed to form
a partnership with Sleator and his wife Lilya. First they
consulted with a lawyer about the legality of
commercializing a server that was, technically, created
by someone else. Then they got down to business. Expenses
and profits were to be divided on a sliding scale, with
Sleator standing to take the most risk and reap the most
The partnership is
the model of a virtual business -- comprised of four
people based in three different cities, who communicate
mostly through e-mail and over the phone. As partners do
in any successful business, the four determined their
costs and plotted potential revenues.
various estimates of how many members would stay, how
many new people would join, and decided that even in the
most pessimistic projections it would be worth
doing," says one of the partners, Eric Peterson, a
research geophysicist from Dallas.
decided to charge $49 a year for registered members.
Unregistered players could continue to log in to the
server, but would not be able to keep a rating or have
full access to ICS capabilities. There would be a grace
period for all members, equal to the time they had been
members of the ICS, for up to six months.
The 45 members
whom Sleator identified as having made a significant
contribution to the ICS were given free accounts. They
included users like Andy McFarland, a computer programmer
from Kentucky who developed a widely used graphical
interface. In addition, grandmasters and all
administrators were given free membership.
The partners also
planned additional services, such as scheduled
grandmaster speeches and games, tournaments and lessons,
discounts on chess merchandise, a program to reduce time
lag, and introductory disks to be sent directly to new
On March 1,
players telnetting to the ICS received this message:
"Important announcement for all members: Today, ICS
has become the Internet Chess Club (ICC). Please type
'help announce' for all the details." Michael
Gradman, a computer science and math major at the New
Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, joined the ICS
in August 1994. In the following six months, he managed
to play more than 600 games of online chess -- about
three games per day.
When the March 1
announcement appeared on his screen, Gradman, like many
other ICSers, was surprised. "We were given little
warning. It was a total shock to us all," he said
furiously. So he and his cohorts took to channel 2 -- an
ICS chat room that was cordoned off for discussion of the
changes. An air of tumult reigned. Administrators
attempting to field questions were overwhelmed.
"The world of
chess has been dealt a severe blow," complained one
"What is the
Internet becoming?" asked another member. "Now
we have to pay extra for a game of chess? When will this
A few players went
overboard and began harassing the administrators. Partner
Eric Peterson estimates that eight members were banned
for becoming "verbally abusive in a personal manner
toward us." Because the users could simply reenter
the club under different handles, the administrators
decided to "filter" their sites for several
days -- in effect, preventing anyone from accessing the
chess service from those Internet locales.
The debate over
the commercialization of the chess server also spilled
into Usenet newsgroups. Rec.games.chess, a usually
soporific bulletin board where Netters discuss the latest
news from the chess world, began receiving an average of
100 messages a day.
In this forum,
opposition to the ICS's commercialization was most
clearly elucidated. Many members simply thought the fees
were too high, especially for college students who
comprised a large part of the user base. One player
compared the fee to that of the United States Chess
Federation (USCF), which charges members $40 a year.
"For that membership we get a magazine and the right
to play nationally rated tournament chess," he
argued. "Can the benefits of the ICC honestly be
considered greater than the USCF?"
Some people said
they were offended by the so-called "cash-grab"
by Sleator and his partners, who admitted online that
their site cost only $300 a month. One poster wondered
why they didn't just ask for donations. "Many users
would have been happy to help Sleator cover his expenses,
but now feel completely offended by an attempt to reap an
unreasonably large profit."
complained that many players had contributed their
expertise and guidance to the ICS but that one small
group was now capitalizing on it. "The ICS was
developed by people who volunteered their time and
effort. It was intended that this forever be the status
of ICS," a player argued.
On the ICC, the
administrators listened to the uproar. One week after the
initial announcement was made, a discount of 50 percent
was offered to all students. But that didn't mollify
members like Michael Gradman. He was helping to start an
e-mail list for disgruntled users who had decided they
would fight the ICC by launching a chess server of their
Henrik Gram, a
computer science student at the University of Aarhus in
Denmark, had helped code the ICS. For his efforts, he was
among those who received a complimentary ICC account.
But Gram was
opposed to the commercialization of chess on the Net. He
felt the community, which he described as the "good
and friendly spirit," would be destroyed by user
fees. "Many people come to play a bit of chess and
talk," he said. "They will not pay for that.
Only the elite will willingly pay."
So Gram and a
group of like-minded programmers revived an old rival
chess server and found a home for it with Chris Petroff,
a fellow ex-ICSer and network analyst for Oklahoma's
State Regents for Higher Education. Petroff arranged to
have the new server installed on his department's network
(chess.onenet.net 5000), and Gram started recruiting
other experts who were unhappy with the commercial ICC.
It took only a few
days to put the team together, and Gram expressed
optimism at their prospects. He estimated it would take a
month for the new server's code to catch up with the
ICC's. "Sleator isn't the only one who can program a
chess server," he said.
Gram, Petroff, and
their team also had help from some of the former
administrators of the ICS. Aviv Freidman, a chess teacher
in Teaneck, N.J., was among them. Freidman first joined
the ICS in September 1993, serving as what he described
as an "online manager" who settled disputes,
brought in masters, and made sure members played
When Sleator began
planning to take the ICS commercial, he made an offer to
Freidman -- one that ended up creating a rift instead of
a new partner. "Not only was the offer low,"
said Freidman, "but I think he was showing a lot of
greed. I wasn't planning to become rich. I really loved
After failing to
negotiate a higher stake for himself, Freidman declined
to join the partnership. The resulting exchange of e-mail
grew increasingly unfriendly and culminated in a message
from Sleator asking Freidman to promise not to sue or to
damage the server in any way. Freidman responded by
saying he had no intention of harming the server, but he
reserved his right to press legal action -- something he
has not yet decided to attempt. In March, Freidman was
relieved of his position as an administrator on the ICC.
He then assumed the same unpaid position for the new
server, dubbed the FICS (Free Internet Chess Server).
meanwhile, has high hopes for the FICS. He wants to
divide it into U.S. and European servers, thus reducing
the lag for overseas players who have to connect to U.S.
And because the
FICS -- unlike the ICC -- publishes its code on the Net,
anyone can copy it and start their own free service. Gram
hopes to make it possible for members of all the free
servers to play one another. And he plans to establish a
central ratings database so members can maintain the same
rating wherever they play.
That, he says,
should make the FICS just as attractive as the ICC -- and
$49 a year less expensive. In August, when the six-month
grace period ends for long-time members of the ICS, the
FICS administrators expect to take 75 percent of them
away from Sleator's site.
The ICC partners
say they aren't worried by the efforts of the FICS
programmers. They express the belief that the servers can
coexist. "I think there is room for both free and
commercial chess on the Net," says Sleator.
"There are things we will do that no free service
aside the accusation that he was greedy. "The
quality of the service people were getting from my server
was at the level that I felt they should be willing to
pay for it. We've spent a lot of time working on
this," he argues.
Responding to the
charge that a $49 fee was excessive, Sleator makes no
excuses. "This is not a nonprofit
organization," he says. "It's a little unfair
to establish criteria that treat it differently [than
addressing the tenacity of the opposition does Sleator
begin to sound frustrated. About the students who protest
a $24.50 yearly fee, he says, "If they would spend
just six hours working at McDonalds they would make that
money. Instead, they are spending six hours every day
complaining on the Internet."
Sleator and his partners have much in store for the ICC.
They will begin aggressively recruiting new members by
advertising in chess magazines, chess books, and at
tournaments. They also plan to begin bringing advertisers
onto the ICC -- in a nonintrusive and innocuous manner,
Sleator promises. And they hope to establish a presence
on the forthcoming online network of the United States
As for the users
who don't send in checks once their grace period ends,
they will cease to be members of the ICC. Sleator thinks
the inevitable outcome will be that part of the
community, most likely the less serious players, will
migrate to the free server. He is confident that his
business will flourish regardless.
These days, all is
quiet on the former battlefields of the Internet chess
war. The ranks of the ICC have swelled to more than
11,000 -- although many of the ICS accounts have yet to
expire, and not all are active. On the FICS, Gram,
Petroff, and their core of programmers continue to plug
away at improving the free server. They have 1,500
registered players and more than 500 log in each day.
criticism of Sleator and his partners has slowed to
barely a trickle. The argument that has most significance
for the renegade ICS players is the objection, put forth
by numerous members, that in commercializing a free
server that once operated under a cooperative principle,
Sleator violated the spirit of the Internet community.
that there never was any such principle involved. He
notes that the efforts of the members who contributed to
the ICS were purely voluntary, and employs the metaphor
of a textbook. "Almost every textbook has benefited
from extensive comments by those using preliminary
versions of it. Usually the author acknowledges their
contribution in the book, and perhaps gives them a free
copy, but does not share royalties with them."
But his critics
say the Internet itself is a shared commodity --
developed by people who give to the larger community and
take from it. Robert Hyatt, a professor of computer
science at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, says,
"Most of the Internet facilities are developed by
people like us. We provide free routing for TCP/IP
packets, we provide free newsfeeds for Usenet news at
many sites. There are dozens of archive sites, providing
gigabytes of free file storage. If you use these
facilities, you are honor bound to offer services to the
Sleator says this
is an unrealistic assumption. "Some people have
given a lot more than others," he notes. And his
partner, Eric Peterson, says, "I think some general
traffic on the Internet should never be charged for, but
end nodes that are privately funded should be allowed to
charge a fee for entry into their systems."
Thus, the skirmish
over Internet chess highlights two widely different
visions of the Net's future: a district of private clubs
vs. a row of Amish houses where all the citizens pound in
nails and paint the walls together.
Joel Maloff, an
Internet consultant based in Ann Arbor, Mich., thinks the
Internet's exponential growth will force many once-free
online sites to charge fees. "Some of the things
that were done in volunteer fashion when the Net was just
a small community may no longer be possible," he
says. "These services will have to go commercial to
be maintained under their increasing loads."
For proponents of a free Internet, that movement will mean checkmate to their hopes.