The History of ICSes

"We made 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" - Eric Peterson

Purpose

To educate those unfamiliar with the history of ICSes.  If you are unfamiliar with what an ICS is, please go and read the ICS page first.

Part 1: The term of an "ICS" and how that came about

   ICS: n. 1: an acronym for Internet Chess Server  2: the original chess server [syn: {ICC}]  3: an UNIX server that provides telnet access to ASCII resources via the Internet  4: term used to label any kind of Internet resource that allows humans to play chess on-line with other humans [incorrectly]  5: A command line prompt  [plural -- ICSes]

In the late 1980's and early 1990's a band of volunteers worked together to create the FIRST ever "ICS" for fun.  Players logged on via telnet and the board was displayed as ASCII text.  Bugs were rampant in the server code as ever is in any piece of complex software ever written.  For example, one could capture rooks en passant.  Over time, this small community of players and coders alike worked together to improve the software of the server itself while reaping the benefits of this close-knit community.  More features were added to the server, such as ELO ratings.  No timeseal existed in those days and people would play time controls such as 10 12 with their ASCII boards, typing in their moves.  For those that do not know what telnet is, it is basically a network protocol that allows computers to talk to each other.

Up until Windows Vista, telnet was a program automatically included with your Windows installation (and if you're using Linux, you're probably chuckling to yourself right now and skipping several pages ahead to get to "the good stuff").  Mac users have to acquire a telnet program on their own as far as I recall, but that probably has changed if they switched their OS bases.  It's been several years since I last used a Mac, almost a decade ago by the time I'm revising these pages (2009).

Most ICSes have an ASCII art login prompt - Some of the other servers that want their users to not learn the basics of computing have turned to removing everything but the bare essentials to their login screens such as USCL did back in around 2003:

This is basically a bare minimum at best for a login screen, compared to ICC, which still retains its ASCII art login screen.  The USCL interface basically prompted you for your username and password and then made its GUI slap down the answers for you while hiding the entire login screen from you - so most users never saw this screen if they were using the USCL interface.

Part 2: Well, what did happen to that first ICS after all?

The first ICS was a global effort, the "Internet Chess Server" open and free to all.  In the fall of 1992, a professor of computer science at Carnegie-Mellon University - Daniel Sleator became involved with the ICS project.  From his own comments, when he first found the ICS, it was being run by a couple of Carnegie-Mellon students.  Sleator involved himself with the project and gradually took control of the ICS.  Over the next few years, as code was written and rewritten, features added and dropped, the ICS evolved into the forefather of the current chess server we are familiar with.  With the amount of bandwidth being used by the ever-expanding membership, the ICS had to change hosts (servers that are willing to host the code and the massive number of players connecting to it) several times until in 1995 it finally reached a commercial site and its current home at chess.lm.com 5000.  According to this article by Brad Stone, Sleator copyrighted the ICS in his own name in 1994.  There were many objections to this and the ICS eventually was steered into a different direction by Sleator.  It still exists today:

The ICC was created on March 1, 1995 when Daniel Sleator announced that day that the ICS had become the ICC.  People were given a "grace period" of approximately 6 months to continue to play free and after that to continue to play, they would have to begin payment to continue to play on the site.  When this was done, outrage amongst the chess community including former administrators and programmers of the ICS queried whether or not this action was legal, much less ethical.

The creation of ICC introduced a new concept, that of a proprietary interface.  The ICS had relied on telnet, which led to the creation of an "interface" or two, such as ZIICS and GIICS (see my interface page for some more information).  Now, those interfaces allowed you to connect to any server you wanted to as long as you knew the hostname and port.  This has to be stopped by people that have a self-interest in having people only know about their service and thus BlitzIn was born:

(above is Blitzin 2.34, the most recent version of Blitzin at the time this article was originally written - Bonus points for eagle-eyed readers - you can view a finger of one of my old ICC accounts in the picture)

When you open BlitzIn, it pops up a connection dialog:

Now, as you can see the only default choices are all ICC servers.  They now allow you to actually type in the name of the host and the port number.  The problem is that there is a special protocol known as "timestamp" for the ICC.  This "timestamp" prevents you from losing time on your moves due to "lag" and the transmission time.  It adjusts the server clocks based on responses from your computer.  There is no option to NOT have timestamp used with BlitzIn.  It's a neat way to sidestep the issue of trying to engineer the interface to not allow you to connect elsewhere.  For example, I tried to connect to FICS (see Part III) using BlitzIn and failed.

The timestamp process has to be approved before you can actually log in anywhere with Blitzin.  As ICC is the only server that implements said timestamp process, it is logical to say that you can only use Blitzin with ICC.  This is what is known as a "proprietary" interface -- an interface that only allows you to connect to one (1) server and eschew all other servers.

Nowadays, the ICC continues to be the "flagship" of the ICSes that still remain in existence.  Most users like the ICC because of several factors, however the most often mislabeled factor is oftentimes this:

    "I like the server, how the buttons are laid out.  I don't like FICS because their server sucks.  I don't understand it."

They are referring to the interface not the server itself.  All the ICS servers have code in common and only have minor cosmetic differences from each other.  Some in fact may actually be running the same code.  The ICC is still running ICS code, albeit evolved over the years from the original into the current form it maintains.

Continue on to Part 3: What is FICS and how did it come about? and Part 4: The chess.net Scandal


Entire site Nick Long 1998-2003. All rights reserved.
[Last original modified: 25 January 2003]
[Last revised modified: 20 May 2009]