At CES 2019, Square Off is robotic chess with Harry Potter-like magic
It's alive... kind of.
Patrick HollandManaging Editor
Patrick Holland has been a phone reviewer for CNET since 2016. He is a former theater director who occasionally makes short films. Patrick has an eye for photography and a passion for everything mobile. He is a colorful raconteur who will guide you through the ever-changing, fast-paced world of phones, especially the iPhone and iOS. He used to co-host CNET's I'm So Obsessed podcast and interviewed guests like Jeff Goldblum, Alfre Woodard, Stephen Merchant, Sam Jay, Edgar Wright and Roy Wood Jr.
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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.
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.
Watch this: A chess board that can move its own pieces wows at CES 2019
The most surprising revelation when I interviewed GZA from Wu-Tang Clan last year was that his favorite game was chess. "It's the best board game ever. Monopoly doesn't compare, and checkers is not in its league," said GZA aka The Genius. "It's a game of life."
After years away from chess, GZA's words inspired me to play online. But my virtual obsession felt a bit off. The convenience of playing chess on my phone came at the cost of using a screen as the board. I missed the feel of an actual chessboard and picking up pieces.
With the help of robotics, magnets and AI, the Mumbai-based Indian company Infivention made Square Off, a physical chessboard designed to be played online. It is nothing short of magical.
At first glance, Square Off looks exactly like any other chessboard albeit a bit thick. That thickness houses rechargeable batteries, a processor, Bluetooth and robotic arms with magnets -- all of which give the board its special sauce.
You press a button on the side to start a game. When you move a piece, you tap it once on its current square and tap it again on the square you're moving it to. An audio beep confirms your move.
Now here's where things get magical. When your online opponent moves a piece on their board, the move is mirrored by pieces gliding across on your board all on their own. There is a Wizards Chess from Harry Potter quality seeing a wooden knight glide across the board all by itself.
Square Off connects to your phone via Bluetooth. You can play with anyone who has the Square Off app or, what seems more appealing, with someone else who has their own Square Off board.
You can even play against the board itself, which has 20 different levels of competition. If you want to develop more as a player, you can review moves from previous games via the app.
At CES, the company also 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.
If you are a serious chess player and want the benefits of both online play and a physical board, it's worth a look. After all, it is a game of life. (Disclaimer: CNET may get a share of revenue from the sale of products featured on this page.)
First published Jan. 6 at 5 a.m. PT. Update, Jan. 8 at 3:15 p.m. PT: Includes hands-on experiences with the device.