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At CES 2019, a magical Harry Potter chessboard comes to life

The SquareOff chessboard is smart enough to play you on its own.

Roger Cheng Former Executive Editor / Head of News
Roger Cheng (he/him/his) was the executive editor in charge of CNET News, managing everything from daily breaking news to in-depth investigative packages. Prior to this, he was on the telecommunications beat and wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal for nearly a decade and got his start writing and laying out pages at a local paper in Southern California. He's a devoted Trojan alum and thinks sleep is the perfect -- if unattainable -- hobby for a parent.
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  • SABEW Best in Business 2011 Award for Breaking News Coverage, Eddie Award in 2020 for 5G coverage, runner-up National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Award for culture analysis.
Roger Cheng
3 min read

The SquareOff chessboard doesn't need a human to beat you.


My eyes widened with awe the first time a pawn piece advanced a square.

I'm staring at the SquareOff Grand Kingdom set chessboard, tucked away in a tiny booth near the rear of the Sands Convention Center, part of the Tech West side of CES 2019. The physical chessboard set is smart enough to move the pieces by itself, and I watched with wonder as it automatically followed my moves.

When its knight took my pawn, the pawn was smart enough to move to the side into a designated spot.

Watch this: A chess board that can move its own pieces wows at CES 2019

In a show known for massive televisions and flashy press conferences, this was one of the most subtly fascinating demonstrations of technology. The chessboard can run on its own artificial intelligence with 20 difficulty levels. But it can also connect to other human opponents, who can play with you remotely through an app or online.

The player on the other end can make a move on the website, and you'll see the move replicated on your board. This can help connect family members from remote distances or allow players with physical disabilities who can't move the pieces but can swipe a smartphone touchscreen to participate in a full-fledged, physical game of chess.  

While the board seems haunted, underneath it is a robotic arm with a magnetic that pilots the wooden pieces, which each have their own magnet too. To play, you need to press down on a piece, which elicits a quiet beep, make your move and press down a second time to confirm the position. When you put your arms around the board, you can feel the rumbling of the arm as it moves the chess pieces around.

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SquareOff is a Mumbai-based startup that initially kicked things off with a chessboard on Kickstarter in 2016. The boards launched for retail in April. The larger Grand Kingdom set, with designated spots for pieces to go when they're killed, costs $449, while the smaller Kingdom set costs $369. They're available on Amazon.

The board runs on batteries, allowing you to take it around. The Grand Kingdom set can last 30 games on a single charge, while the Kingdom set can last 15 games. The Grand Kingdom set also has a "reset mode" that moves all of the pieces back to the original starting positions. It's fun to watch them all scatter back into place.

At CES, the company showed off a special all-black version of the Grand Kingdom set, also $449, and said that it's partnered with Chess.com to allow its board to work with the website. That means you can challenge a base of 24 million potential users around the world.

It instantly brings to mind the famous chessboard scene in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, where Ron commands gigantic chess pieces, only to see the invisible opponent magically counter his moves on its own.

But the SquareOff set doesn't require admission into a magical academy.

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