SciSys and Novag : The Early Years
Novag Logo 20x20
Hong Kong Logo 150x150

Elsewhere on the Internet you will find an abundance of information about Fidelity and Mephisto chess computers, the two largest manufacturers of the 1980s.There is much less information available on the chess computers produced by two other major players, the Hong Kong companies SciSys-W Ltd (later Saitek) and Novag. Information on SciSys is in particularly short supply, which is why I am devoting a part of my website to this manufacturers chess computers. Hopefully this will become a useful resource for those looking for pictures and information about SciSys machines. But first one cannot begin to tell the SciSys story without acknowledgement of the part played by Novag in its early years.

The Hong Kong chess computer industry owes its beginnings to the Auge family, toy makers from Nuremburg, Germany. After the Second World War Hong Kong developed as the toy manufacturing mecca of the world. Having emigrated and set up a toy distribution business in Montreal, Canada, Peter Auge (right) was eventually drawn to Hong Kong to conduct his business in 1964. In the 1970s Hong Kong also became a boom town for the electronics industry. With the development of the microchip the circumstances were ripe for combining toys, electronics and computing power.

The real Peter Auge 2 70x70

So it was in early 1978 that Peter Auge became interested in the idea of developing his own chess computer. To help him do so he turned to Swiss electronics expert Eric Winkler. Winklers background was in physics. He was not a programmer or a chess player, but he had done electronics research for a trading company in Hong Kong. Winkler explained the beginning like this. ‘Auge came to my office and said, “Eric, build me a chess computer”. And he sent round a microchip as an example of what could provide the means for constructing one.’ The technological challenge interested Winkler, and when Auge assured him that he would find someone to program the computer, once it was built, the project began to take shape. Winkler dealt with the technical development initially through his father’s company Winkler & Co. Auge looked after other matters, such as packaging and distribution, and the program?
So Auge and Winkler were briefly partners in the venture. During which time they produced three machines. The Novag Chess Champion Mk I, which appeared in September 1978. This was followed in 1979 by the Chess Champion Mk II (in two versions) and the Chess Champion System III. Despite commercial success, 180,000 of the Chess Champion Mk 1 were sold, it has been reported that Winkler and Auge found the edges of each others personality a little too sharp for comfort and therefore they decided to part company in late 1979. Winkler had already formed his own company SciSys-W Ltd. Auge continued with Novag.

Possibly a Winkler / Auge personality clash was not the main issue which led to the split? In 1977 Data Cash Systems Inc. had released their chess computer CompuChess. This was just months after Fidelity’s pioneering Chess Challenger. The Novag Chess Champion Mk I was released late in 1978. It was sold in the USA by a company called JS&A, and was known there as the JS&A Chess Computer. Early in 1979 Data Cash Systems took legal action against JS&A for breach of copyright (links to ->case notes and ->appeal notes). It transpired that the ROM in the JS&A (below) and therefore in the Novag Chess Champion Mk I was identical to the ROM in CompuChess. The legal action failed because Data Cash Systems copyright was deemed not have been adequately protected in terms of USA law, which had not yet developed in the area of computer program copyright protection. In fact the case precipitated a change in US law with the Computer Software Copyright Act 1980.

JS&A Advert
JS&A 1 15 x 15
Novag Mk I Inside 50x50

You can find the story of how Karpov came to endorse the Novag Chess Champion Mk I in “The Adweek Copywriting Handbook” by Joseph Sugarman of JS&A (link see Pages 72-74). One can speculate that these sales methods, the court case, and the quest for programs for their chess computers may have produced stresses in the partnership between Auge and Winkler. Some sources suggest that the CompuChess program (and therefore the first Novag program) which is attributed to David B Goodrich & Associates, may have been partly developed by David Levy? With programmers Mark Taylor, Mike Johnson and others it was Levy who later went on to produce a number of programs for SciSys. The box of the next Novag, the Chess Champion Mk II, proclaims the Mk II program to be the work of Peter Jennings (well known for his Microchess program). Obviously a need was felt to make the program origin crystal clear.

Chess Champion Super System III  13 20x20
Super System III Manuals 20x20

The Novag / SciSys split happened at about the time that the Chess System III (left) was released. However Auge and Winkler seem to have reached agreement that the machines being developed at that time should be shared between them, at least initially. So you will find both Novag and SciSys examples of the Chess Champion Chess System III, the Chess Champion Pocket Chess, Chess Champion Delta-1 and the Chess Partner 2000. Whether these machines were all built and distributed from the same facility I do not know. There is no clear pattern of, for instance, Novag or SciSys manufacturing the chess computer unit and the other company producing the boxes, chess pieces and manuals.

Of around 30 various System III components, manuals and boxes that I have seen the maker marks for Novag, SciSys, and with no maker specified, are in roughly equal proportions. The picture to the left illustrates the point. Of the three System III manuals shown one originates from Novag, one from SciSys and the other is a Novag manual with a SciSys sticker added.

However after the early sales period different SciSys and Novag versions of the System III emerged. In the photograph (below) the Chess System III is the early version, the Chessmaster is a later SciSys version, and the Chess Champion Super System III is the later Novag version.

Super System III  3  30 x 30

With the Chess Partner 2000, released in December 1980, the two companies can be seen to be going further along their separate paths. Whereas the SciSys and Novag computer units are identical, the boxes are different. The Novag box as printed acknowledges the “programmer” David Levy then the acknowledgement is covered with a sticker. As far as I am aware the sticker was added to all Novag boxes, which suggests that Novag were at first proclaiming the source (and legitimacy) of their program, then distancing themselves from the now SciSys programmer. The CompuChess appeal against the court’s copyright decision had recently been decided. The pictures below show the boxes, including the Novag version with the sticker in place and with the sticker removed by me. By this time both companies had located to the Admiralty Centre in the Hong Kong central business district.

Chess Partner 2000 8 20x20 Chess Partner 2000 9 20x20
Chess Partner 2000 7 Sliced 90x90

In 1980 the governing body of world chess, FIDE, agreed to endorse SciSys chess computers. A controversial move. The first to bear the official seal of approval was the Executive Chess, shown in the advertisement to the right. The FIDE logo was to appear on SciSys products for five years.

Also in 1980 SciSys manufactured the Intelligent Chess, an innovative chess computer, which could be used as a teaching and demonstrating device as well. This machine was designed and developed by Philidor Software, a UK company formed by David Levy and Kevin O’Connell. Its successor company, Intelligent Software emerged in 1981 after the release of the SciSys Chess Champion Super System IV in May 1981.

That machine was quickly superseded by the SciSys Chess Champion Mark V. The picture below shows the Mark V Prototype which appeared in tournaments and demonstrations prior to the Mark V winning the World Microcomputer Championship in September 1981. It is signed by Grandmasters Botvinnik, Pachman & Pfleger and you can read all about it here (link). For SciSys, 1981 was a year of hectic activity with eight new models released.

Chess Champion Mark V Prototype 4 20x20

For an insight into chess computer manufacture in Hong Kong click on this link to a 90 minute youtube video of the film
‘Kein Leben ist perfekt’ (No Life Is Perfect), 1980.
The film is mainly in German and Chinese and shows the life of electronics factory workers, the German ex-pat community and Peter Auge himself. Two of Novag’s most outstanding but flawed products of the time, the Robot Adversary and a working Savant make appearances.

Novag followed a completely separate path from SciSys in 1981. Peter Auge hired American programmer David Kittinger* and it was his Mychess program which went into the Novag Microchess, Super Sensor IV and Savant, all released that year. The emphasis was on innovation, perhaps partly because of direct competition and rivalry with SciSys. The Savant was years ahead of its time using an LCD chessboard with touch screen technology. Later the marvellous Novag Robot Adversary appeared after prolonged prototype problems. Auge must have learnt some harsh lessons trying to turn the innovative Robot Adversary and Savant into reliable consumer products. History shows that he failed in this and, possibly with the exception of the Super Constellation, Novag has barely released a “state of the art” chess computer in the twenty five years since. Perhaps it is this conservatism, which Novag and SciSys/Saitek have shared since the early 1980s, which helped their survival, whilst others failed. Novag did have one other advantage. Thanks to Gabrielle Auge, Novag excelled at that time with its build quality, appearance and the  packaging of its products. Sales went particularly well in Germany, France, and some other European countries too. However Novag sold relatively few chess computers in the UK until 1983, when Paul Cohen of Eureka Electronics acquired the distribution rights.

( * Click this link for an interview of David Kittinger by Bryan Whitby )

SciSys, in contrast to Novag, aimed most of its chess computers at the mass market, and distributed worldwide sometimes using marketing subsidiaries (eg Acetronic) or partners (eg Tandy/Radio Shack). A contributor to its success was the development of reliable LCD chessboards. The Super System III LCD chessboard (right) suffered because of difficulties in meeting the exacting production tolerances required for this technology. Improvement was achieved in the Senator and Executive models, and again in the Mark V. Later Saitek continued to make good use of the technology with the Simultano, Renaissance and Chess Shadow whereas Fidelity and Mephisto never attempted it, and it took Novag until 2003 to try something similar again, only to fail dismally with the Star Sapphire display. CXG patented an improved LCD chessboard in 1989 (link) but did not use it in a product, at the time.

Chess Champion Super System III  5 20x20
Chess Champion Mark V (English) 3 20x20

Looking back the Mark V was SciSys’s most important contribution to chess computer innovation and development. Firstly it had a striking design. This was by the design studio of Iain Sinclair, brother of inventor and entrepreneur Sir Clive Sinclair (ZX80, ZX81, ZX Spectrum, C5 electric vehicle etc), which later designed the SciSys Explorer and Superstar also. The Mark V used the LCD chessboard to good effect combining it with an LCD message display. There were other new and useful features for club chess players including the ability to retain up to 12 games in memory, recall and display them on the LCD chessboard, with replay and analysis features. Also there were infinitely adjustable time controls and strong problem solving capabilities. A Sensor Board peripheral for this machine was another innovation, but this was badly delayed in development, and flawed in its released form. Ultimately the Mark V, Mark VI and Sensor Board were a disappointment. Without the strength of chess program required to compete with Fidelity, and later Mephisto, SciSys fell back into selling mainly inexpensive entry or mid-range machines for the mass market. Winkler hired Julio Kaplan as his main programmer in 1982, as Intelligent Software loosened its ties with SciSys, taking on projects such as the Milton Bradley and La Regence.

Garry Kasparov with Concord and Explorer 70x70

In December 1983 SciSys achieved a major coup by signing Garry Kasparov to endorse SciSys products and to appear in advertisements. The deal was made when Kasparov was in London to play Viktor Korchnoi in the World Championship semi-final. Kasparov also agreed to collaborate in production of an openings module. The Kasparov Selected Openings module for the Superstar 36K and Turbostar 432 was released in 1985. Luckily for SciSys Kasparov became the youngest ever World Chess Champion in November 1985 when, at the age of 22, he defeated Anatoly Karpov. The connection between SciSys and Garry Kasparov was strengthened to the extent that all SciSys chess computers carried the Kasparov name from late 1985 onwards.

Throughout this period Novag rivalled the output of SciSys making 100,000 chess computers a year as this article from May 1986 describes (link).

Express 16K 7 25x25 sliced
Saitek Logo x2
Express 16K 5 20x20 sliced

SciSys created a subsidiary company called Saitek in 1986, switching chess computer operations to it. Production continued as before so that models, such as the Turbo 16K and Express 16K, which had long production runs, can be found in either SciSys or  Saitek form.

Below Garry Kasparov signals the switch of name to Saitek and opposite another extract from the Companion III manual introduces the new SciSys subsidiary company Saitek Ltd.

Rear Page of Manual2
Kasparov foreword

From then on the SciSys name is seen less and less on newly released chess computers and that is where this particular story ends.

Go to my SciSys 1979-1986 webpage for pictures and a complete list of all SciSys chess computers.


Saitek continued as the most successful chess computer manufacturer through the next 20 years taking over Hegener + Glaser’s Mephisto brand in 1994, shortly after Hegener + Glaser themselves had concluded their disastrous purchase of Fidelity. Saitek was sold to American PC peripherals company Mad Catz in November 2007 and they continue to sell chess computers but with a shrinking model range. Eric Winkler’s company, now called Ryder Industries (link), no longer makes chess computers.

Novag was sold to a company called Solar Wide Industrial Ltd in 2009. Novag c
ontinues to manufacture chess computers but the flow of new models has slowed to a trickle. The last was the 2Robot, a throwback to the Golden Age of the 1980s, which appeared in late 2008. The latest news from Bryan Whitby in Summer 2009 was that Solar Wide intended to continue with its chess computer manufacture and to develop new models. Let’s hope so.

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