Chess Computers - The UK Story
David Levy 6

As this website is called ChessComputerUK.com this is perhaps as good a place as any to recall the three decades of UK contribution to our chess computer hobby.

That this contribution depends a great deal on David Levy (left and below right) is certainly an understatement. Whether as a chess player challenging computer programmers, as an author on computer chess, as a promoter of tournaments, a speaker and President of the International Computer Games Association, a chess programming expert, a recruiter and employer of chess programmers or as an entrepreneur Levy seems to have been involved in chess computers in almost every role possible.

In 1975 Levy joined forces with another prolific author and professional chess player Irishman, Kevin O’Connell to found the Philidor Press. Their first involvement with a commercial chess program came at the end of 1977.

Kevin O'Connell 34th Chess Olympiad 1 50 x 50

Kevin O’Connell at the 2000 Olympiad

Texas Instruments was planning to launch the TI 99/4 personal computer and wanted consultancy support in the design of a chess program. Levy had expertise in chess algorithms and programming opening books and was well qualified to carry out the task. He wrote a detailed specification and over an extended period, involving many visits to Texas, he provided advice to their development group. The program had many original features and the resulting Chess cartridge is believed to be the most successful sold for the TI99/4.

Then Eric Winkler approached Levy at the end of 1978 wanting help with software. The initial collaboration between Winkler and Levy/O’Connell was through Winkler & Co, a company owned by Winkler’s father. As the project advanced Eric Winkler set up SciSys-W Ltd.

David Levy 1

To help with the project Levy and O’Connell went out and hired a programmer, Mike Johnson. They had discovered Johnson’s programming talents at the 1st Personal Computer World Microcomputer Chess Championships (PCW-MCC) held in London in September 1978. Johnson’s program Mike had won the tournament after a play-off with Boris, a commercially available chess computer released at the beginning of the year. The hardware used by Mike (also known as M6800 Chess) was a Motorola 6800 8-bit cpu running at 1 MHz, with 16KB of memory and the program loaded by cassette recorder. Full tournament report here (link).

Mike Johnson 5  80 x 80
Mike Johnson 2  30 x 30

Mike, the chess program, followed up with a creditable performance against tough opposition at the North American Computer Chess Championships held in Washington in December 1978. There it achieved three draws and was only beaten by World Champion in waiting Belle running on a mainframe. In the photo (below left) Mike is seen fighting out a draw with Sargon 2.0 in a rather unconventional Centre Game/King’s Gambit Declined. Kathe Spracklen writes down the last unlikely move and Mike Johnson sees the funny side of it.

Information on the early tournaments, which were so influential in the first few years of chess computers can be found on the ICGA website www.icga.org, on the old Dutch CSVN website, and on Computerschaak.

Mike Johnson 1 40 x 40

PCW tournaments were to provide Levy and O’Connell with a fertile recruiting ground for proven chess programmers. For the time being though other avenues were explored. At the bottom of his article entitled ‘Chess Programming: Before You Begin’ published in the May 1979 edition of Personal Computer World, David Levy added an advertisement for programmers. At this point the Philidor Software company was born.

Philidor Software 1979 Advert 1 70 x 70

The result of collaboration with Mike Johnson during 1979 was the Chess System III (right). It was designed and programmed in the UK, and manufactured by SciSys and Novag in Hong Kong (see SciSys and Novag : The Early Years). The System III was based on a 6502 cpu but Mike Johnson also wrote programs for the Fairchild F8 chip. These went into the Chess Champion Pocket Chess (and clones) and also the Chess Partner 2000, another Novag/SciSys joint venture in 1980. Philidor Software are believed to have produced the program for the SciSys Executive (and Senator) models which are also thought to be based on Fairchild 3870 compatible cpus.

Meanwhile Philidor Software had been involved in another project, the Intelligent Chess chess computer, a development of the Tolinka chess display system. This was also designed and programmed in the UK and manufactured for Intelligent Games Ltd by SciSys. It included an innovative combination of features for playing and displaying chess games on a TV integrating audio and data from the built-in tape recorder. Following Intelligent Chess Kevin O’Connell continued to be involved in the use and development of Intelligent Chess boards for many years providing equipment at tournaments such as Linares and the Olympiads.

At about this time Mark Taylor was recruited from outside the computer chess tournament circuit. A 6502 cpu expert, he developed his programs on a Commodore Pet. Working with Levy he produced a program for a Hitachi 4 bit singlechip (ROM, RAM and cpu all on one chip). This chip from the HMCS40 series had 2K x 10 ROM, 160 nibbles (80 bytes) of RAM and ran at about 400 KHz. Levy developed a chess playing algorithm for this chip which played fully legal chess including pawn promotion, en passant capturing, castling and even managed mate with KR v K in some versions all in 160 nibbles of RAM. A piece of work that he is still rightly proud of today. This Hitachi chip, the HD44801, went into a series of small portable SciSys machines - Mini Chess, Junior Chess and Graduate Chess and the first chess product of CXG, the Sensor Computachess, all released in 1981.

1981 was to be an important year for SciSys as the market expanded and the competition to develop ever stronger chess computers intensified.

Chess Champion Super System III  13 20x20
Intelligent Chess 2 20x20

The innovative and intriguing Intelligent Chess

 

PCW MCCC London 1979  1  25 x 25
Super System IV 4 20x20

David Broughton’s program Vega had finished 2nd to Sargon at the PCW-MCC tournament held in London in November 1979, beating good programs in Mychess and Mike II. As such he was the amateur winner of the tournament. He was recruited into Philidor Software soon after and was to work on the project that resulted in the SciSys Chess Champion Mark V. Vega was written on a North Star Horizon, a Z80 cpu machine, and Broughton’s work for the Mark V was in the form of Z80 programs. As the Mark V had a 6502 cpu the program had to be extensively translated and rewritten. So credit for the Mark V program has to go both to Mark Taylor and David Broughton, though David Levy is known to credit the Mark V to Taylor.

Meanwhile further development of the System III, probably  with a Mike Johnson program, had produced a SciSys Chess Champion Super System IV (left) which was also designed in the UK. Mark Taylor wrote PetChess for the Commodore Pet 3000, 4000 and 8000 series and Commodore 64/128. David Broughton was also occupied in writing a chess program for the IBM PC.

SciSys had undergone a period of rapid growth in 1980/81 with many new models in production and reaching the market. As the marketing side took over, the R & D side went quiet. Having delivered the Mark V module to SciSys in the summer of 1981 Levy and O’Connell decided to loosen their relationship with SciSys and look for business elsewhere. They renamed their software company Intelligent Software.

In June 1981 the toy company Milton Bradley rang David Levy wanting advice about chess computers. They asked Levy to go to see them in the USA. The story of Intelligent Software’s development of the Milton Bradley robot chess computer is told on my Milton Bradley Phantom webpage, so I will not repeat it here.

 

One of the highlights of the UK contribution to the chess computer industry was undoubtedly the Chess Champion Mark V. The Mark V was designed and programmed in the UK and manufactured by SciSys in Hong Kong. For the chess player it was a interesting product offering a strong program (for 1981) combined with a number of excellent features, some of which were entirely new to chess computers. The design was modern, striking and very different from anything that had gone before.
The Mark V used the LCD chessboard to good effect combining it with a LCD message display. Amongst it’s features was the ability to retain up to 12 games in memory, recall and display them on the LCD chessboard, with replay and analysis features. There were infinitely adjustable time controls and strong problem solving capabilities. It also obeyed all the rules of chess, a characteristic given some importance by it’s designers and by no means common at that time.

Chess Champion Mark V (English) 5 20x20

Perhaps the Mark V would have sold well anyway but it’s initial success was assured by winning the commercial group at the 2nd World Microcomputer Chess Championships held at Travemunde, Hamburg in September 1981. Whilst there was only a small number of  chess computers competing four of the five main players - Fidelity, Novag, SciSys and Applied Concepts - were there, meeting each other four times each. Despite sour grapes from some quarters, with the Mark V losing to the Champion Sensory Challenger 1.5 - 2.5, the Mark V was a worthy winner overall.

Unfortunately the initial success could not be sustained with a strong upgrade. The Mark VI/Philidor module that followed a year later was only marginally stronger than the Mark V. A piece recognition sensory board was planned and patented but after much delay SciSys released a flawed auto sensory board instead. The Mark VI and Sensory Board were a commercial flop.

World MCCC Travemunde 1981
SciSys Chess Champion Mark V Box 5

 

PCW London 1984

At the PCW-European MCC held in London in September 1981 Richard Lang’s Cyrus program was a clear winner from the Advance 2.0 program of Mike Johnson and Dave Wilson. Logichess by the 17-year-old Danish schoolboy Kaare Danielsen was 3rd, with Philidor Software programs by Mark Taylor/David Broughton finishing 4th and 5th. Cyrus made a big impact, not only because of it’s standard of play, but also because of it’s lean code. The author Richard Lang had only spent six months of his spare time on the project and was already thinking about a stronger Version 2. In the tournament Cyrus ran on a Nascom microcomputer using a Z80 cpu running at 4 MHz.

Cyrus was particularly effective at blitz. Shortly after PCW Show an improved version of Cyrus appeared at the ACM Blitz Tournament running on an Osborne microcomputer matched against mainframe computers. Cyrus excelled itself beating Cray Blitz and Chess 4.5, and only losing to the world’s strongest mainframe program Belle.

Intelligent Software hired Richard Lang immediately following the PCW tournament. He was offered two contracts. One for his program Cyrus and the other to go to work for the company as a programmer. Martin Bryant, the author of White Knight, which finished 10th in the tournament, was also hired. Intelligent Software went looking for clients and work. As people began to discover that they were no longer writing programs exclusively for SciSys, work began to look for them.

Richard Lang 3  50 x 50
Martin Bryant 7
Mark Taylor 1
David Broughton 1 70 x 70
Richard Lang 2
Mike Johnson 7 30 x 30

The Intelligent Software chess programmers - Martin Bryant, Richard Lang, Mike Johnson, David Broughton and Mark Taylor

In January 1982, as the Milton Bradley project (right) was reaching completion, O’Connell and Levy visited the Las Vegas Electronics Fair. There they started talking to some people who distributed chess sets in Paris. Intelligent Software had become interested in marketing an improved version of Cyrus in a sensory board. Frederic Ries could provide manufacturing facilities for such a machine. So the concept of La Regence was born. La Regence went on sale in France in November 1982 priced at 3,900 francs (about 400). The hardware was a Z80 cpu running at 4 MHz, with 12KB ROM and 1KB RAM. At the 1982 PCW Show (The 3rd European MCC) La Regence (Richard Lang) finished second to Advance 2.4 (Mike Johnson and Dave Wilson). La Regence (below) was thwarted in the final round by it’s own stablemate Philidor!

MB Phantom  3  20 x 20
PCW-MCC 1983
La Regence 2  50 x 51

 

As examples of its broadening software interests Intelligent Software produced a bridge-tutor program for the Tandy Colour Computer. Also in 1982 Richard Lang wrote a very strong program for the Oriental game Gomoko Renju, which was sold at some point to Tandy. Cyrus appeared first as Cyrus-IS-Chess for the Sinclair Spectrum and then on other platforms including the IBM-PC.
 
Towards the end of 1982 the Mark VI/Philidor module was delivered to SciSys, which appears to have been the final new program produced for the Hong Kong company. However the old programs still continued to appear in some new products, such as the Intercontinental Traveler, Chess Partner 3000 and Travel Mate

PCW -4th  European MCC 2
Martin Bryant 2  50 x 51

Martin Bryant’s White Knight program was developed as a microcomputer program on the Apple II (6502 cpu) and in October 1982 was bought by the BBC for the new BBC Micro. Following this achievement Bryant set about developing a program called Colossus which had great success on the Commodore 64, BBC, Sinclair Spectrum, IBM PC, Amstrad, Atari, Amiga, MSX etc. Colossus has gone on to become one of the best selling chess programs of all time. Both programs competed in the 4th European MCC held at the PCW show in September/October 1983 (see above). White Knight 11, running on a BBC, finished equal best of the home computer programs with Cyrus 2.5.

Later, in 1990, Colossus Draughts (Checkers) was to win the 2nd ICGA Computer Olympiad for Martin beating the famous Canadian program Chinook.

 

Advertisement Chess King Mighty Midget 80 x 80
Chess King Counter Gambit  5  20 x 20

A company called Computer Games Ltd had been importing chess computers into the UK and marketing them for some time. In 1983 they were initially interested in a joint venture with Intelligent Software Ltd to manufacture a British range of chess computers. However CGL lost interest and Intelligent Software started the business under the brand name Chess King with a Berkshire electronics manufacturer called Adam Cung. A series of chess computers were produced starting with the tiny Chess King Mighty Midget and Chess King Pocket Micro. There followed tabletop chess computers using touch sensor boards with 32 edge LEDS and keypads similar to the SciSys Mark V. These were called the Chess King Master (below), which had a version of the Cyrus program, and the Chess King Triomphe, with a Mark Taylor program. There were also De Luxe versions of the Mighty Midget and Pocket Micro. Later Chess King made the Teufelchen model for Mephisto, which is just the Chess King Pocket Micro De Luxe rebadged.

Chess King seems to have continued only until 1987 when the Chess King Counter Gambit (left) and Chess King Philidor appeared on the market.

Chess King Master  2  15 x 15

At about this time Intelligent Software developed Chess 2001 for the Hong Kong manufacturers variously known as White and Allcock*, Newcrest Technology and CXG Systems, the company of Australian Eric White and his American partner Ken Cohen. Chess 2001 (right) contained a version of the Cyrus II program. It was entered at the 11th hour by David Levy and performed well at the 4th European MCC held at the PCW show in London in September/October 1983 (see table above). It finished 2nd to Advance 3.0 (Mike Johnson/Dave Wilson), ahead of the Novag Constellation, various other versions of Cyrus and Mephisto III.  Immediately afterwards two Chess 2001s competed at the World Microcomputer Chess Championships at Budapest finishing a creditable 6th and 8th out of 18 competitors. An elaborate plastic machine with an Auto Sensory chessboard Chess 2001 was released for sale early in 1984. It was sold outside Europe as the ComputaChess Champion or the Hanimex HCG1900.

During the 1980s David Levy supplied CXG with a range of programs, and in turn CXG manufactured chess computers for worldwide distribution including via major US companies Radio Shack/Tandy and Toys-R-Us.

*White and Allcock was meant to be a joke name for the partnership, the ‘all cock’ being Ken Cohen. It became a source of amusement to White and Cohen that their Chinese colleagues never realised.

L'Empereur 2
Chess 2001

In 1984 David Broughton completed a chess program for the IBM PC for Parker Brothers. Originally called Philidor, it was published simply as Chess. Also Cyrus appeared in France as BLITZ! on cartridge for the Thomson range of home computers, the MO5, TO7 and TO9. In the same year Richard Lang’s Cyrus was used in another dedicated chess computer. This was the CLJ L’Empereur (below). Unfortunately like La Regence it was a commercial failure.

L'Empereur 6  50 x 50

 

Robert Madge  1  30 x 30

With Intelligent Software going from strength to strength it had taken on it’s most ambitious project in late 1982. A Hong Kong trading company Lokumals Ltd. in collaboration with a UK company called Domicrest Ltd. commissioned Intelligent Software to develop a home computer. This was the Elan, or Enterprise, an advanced machine for it’s day aimed primarily at games players but with flexibility and exceptional connectivity in mind.

The completed machine was announced to the press, with a prototype to try, in September 1983. A release date of April 1984 was quoted. Some 80,000 machines were pre-ordered. Unfortunately the Enterprise did not ship until 1985 by which time it had largely missed the intended market.

A version of the home computer was marketed by Hegener + Glaser in 1985 as the Mephisto PHC64, but overall sales were poor. A successor machine was developed but not released as the company went under with large debts.

You can read a detailed version of the Enterprise story here (link) and the comments of one of the talented Enterprise programmers Bruce Tanner on the subject of the Enterprise and Intelligent Software on various threads here (link).

Robert Madge (left), a director at Intelligent Software for several years, with some of the IS products from 1983. This picture shows him holding the Elan (later named the Enterprise) .
(Below) Intelligent Software programmers at the launch of the Elan.

Intelligent Software Programmers   150 x 150

Much of Intelligent Software’s resources appear to have gone into the Enterprise project and when the commissioning company defaulted on a very large payment in 1986 Intelligent Software closed down. Despite this major setback it was by no means the end of the British contribution to chess computer manufacture and software.

 

Ossi Weiner, Manfred Hegener, Richard Lang 1985 70 x 71

A proud moment for Richard Lang and computer chess. It is 4pm Wednesday 31st August 1994 in London. Richard’s program ChessGenius has just beaten World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov by 1.5 - 0.5 in the Intel Speed Chess Grand Prix. In the background Ossi Weiner, who operated the computer is telling the world. In the foreground is the very rare Mephisto Wundermaschine. Only 10 were ever made. ChessGenius 2.9 was running on one of the new Pentium chips at 100 MHz.

Richard Lang  + Wundermaschine

By this time Richard Lang had moved on from Intelligent Software with the intention of writing a top program for the exciting new  Motorola 68000 processor. He was also looking for a more direct stake in the success of his programs. So in 1984 he worked with Psion to produce a program for the first mass market personal computer based on the 68000 chip, the Sinclair QL. At the 4th World Microcomputer Chess Championship held in Glasgow the new Psion 68000 program won in a four way tie with Princhess X (Conchess), Mephisto Exclusive S and Fidelity Elite X. Psion Chess became an  immediate success and was also released on the Atari ST, Apple Macintosh,  IBM-PC and Psion Organiser.

In 1985 Lang started writing programs for the Mephisto range of chess computers with Hegener+Glaser. From 1985 through to 1990 his chess programs had unparalleled success winning another six successive World Microcomputer Chess Championships   at Amsterdam, Dallas, Rome, Almeria, Portorose and Lyon. A remarkable achievement.

Lang really deserves a feature here  of his own, however his chess programming achievements over 25 years do speak for themselves. He continues his involvement in chess programming to this day with Chess Genius for computers, pdas and mobile phones. You can find his company website here (link).

An interview he gave in the summer of 1983 provides some insight into why he became the World number one chess programmer. Click on this (link) for that. Richard has sent me a copy of an informative Q&A interview he did in 2003 for a German magazine (link).

 

David Levy maintained his connections with the Hong Kong company Newcrest Technology, and Mark Taylor his association with Levy through continued development of Cyrus. His program appeared at the 5th World Computer Chess Championship at Cologne in 1986 (photo right), at the 6th World Microcomputer Chess Championship at Dallas in 1986, and in the 7th WMCC in Rome in 1987 where it was second to Richard Lang’s Psion program beating Plymate (Ulf Rathsman) and Mephisto X (Ed Schroder) amongst others.

In 1987 Newcrest Technology (CXG) released the CXG Chess 3000 with a Richard Lang program, and the CXG Sphinx 40 and Sphinx 50 with Mark Taylor programs. During the late 80s/early 90s there was a close association between Ken Cohen of CXG and Sid Samole of Fidelity resulting in a number of Mark Taylor programs finding their way into Fidelity products. The Fidelity Micro Chess Challenger which arrived in 1987 and the CXG Sphinx / Fidelity Chess Card in 1989, were notable products containing his programs. The Chess Card was marketed under a number of brand names.

Mark Taylor, K O'Connell and DLevy 2 90 x 92

Newcrest Technology went bankrupt in 1991, following the collapse of the BCCI bank, but Eric White was soon involved once again with chess computer manufacture and marketing, through a company called Krypton Ltd, then Timorite Ltd, and subsequently other Hong Kong companies, with Levy as the source of his programs. Chess computers were designed in Hong Kong, manufactured in China, and then marketed under various brand names including Krypton, Schneider and Systema. In 1998 in partnership with Tiger Toys they produced the Tiger Grenadier and Tiger Voice Master. Chess computers were also manufactured for Excalibur and Millennium. Levy was the source of programs for all these cheaper models, using Sunplus (now Generalplus) 8-bit chips.

It is a far cry from the 1980s Golden Age of chess computers but the story continues.

 

Postscript

Putting together a feature such as this is akin to chess computer archaeology. It involves a lot of digging about.  Written material is sparse and suitable photographs even harder to find.

If anybody has additional material and better photos, which are not subject to commercial copyright, I would be only too pleased to include them, with acknowledgement given to the contributor.

 

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