Building Chess.com: Part 1 - Getting Started

Building Chess.com: Part 1 - Getting Started

erik
erik
Aug 7, 2007, 5:00 PM |
47 | Editorials

A lot of people have asked about how Chess.com got started, how it is doing now, and where it is going, so I thought I would share some of the inside story :)

Chess.com as an online chess community was an idea I conceived a few years ago. I enjoyed some of the chess sites on the internet - places to play, places to look at games, places to find some information - but there was no place where I felt at HOME. I imagined a place where people could build a chess home online: find friends, store games, tell their chess story, share ideas, play in a safe and friendly environment, and learn from each other.

I thought, "where should this online chess community be built?" - Chess.com of course! More than a year later I ended up buying the domain name (in Jan 2006). I put up a simple page that said that we would create an online chess community and let people put in their email addresses to be notified when we launched (maybe some of you found the site that way!?). I then started putting together the plan of what the site would actually be. I basically conceptualized this whole site in Microsoft Word, building out pages of feature specs and actual wireframes for pages!

Using that document I first looked to glue together a few plain off-the-shelf community components like vbulletin and such. But getting those programs to work together was a nightmare. Next I decided to try a few of the open-source "instant community" platforms. I had a team in India integrate it, and it was a disaster (thanks for trying though, guys!). I then turned to a few US developers to build Chess.com using this general platform. And it just didn't feel right. "I want to be able to insert diagrams and games EVERYWHERE" I would tell them. And it just wasn't working.

Finally I decided that Jay and I, just the two of us, could build a better chess-specific community from scratch than whole other teams could if trying to use generic stuff. And so we roled up our sleeves and got started in September 2006. I was doing the HTML/CSS and he was doing all the heaving lifting of PHP/MYSQL. We were fortunate to have Igor the server guru donate his incredibly deep experience and valuable time to help build and configure our systems. About that same time we came across Piotr (from Poland) and hired him to work on the chess-playing Javascript part. What a lucky find! He is a genius. 

Things were moving along pretty well, but just not fast enough. I was still in school (MBA program), Jay was coding all night long because he had a fulltime job during the day, and Piotr was also working nights. But we slaved away as fast as we could. Finally in early 2007 Piotr commited to more hours. Then in April 2007 I was able to get Jay to quit his job and focus triple-time on Chess.com (I think he really does work 100 hours a week...)! And once I graduated I decided to turn down a bunch of lucrative opportunities to focus on my true love - Chess.com. 

In early May 2007 we launched early private invite-only access to the site to test for bugs and such. We also started looking around to see who would be interested in being an active participant in the site. That is how we found the amazing BillWall and the ever-present and helpful SonOfPearl, along with other great members. 

At the end of May 2007 we nervously opened up the new Chess.com to the world. We were missing a lot of features - you couldn't play against others, limited forum tools, etc. But many people just caught the vision of building their online chess home here. To our surprise people started signing up and sharing! We picked up more amazing and helpful members like BatGirl and ChessIQ along with others who contributed a lot of the great content you read.  

Things were cruising along nicely. More and more people signed up. We were working on getting Online Chess working, but it was still a little ways off. And then one morning I woke up and found that we were featured on TechCrunch! Suddely our peaceful little chess site was stormed with traffic and visitors! Recognizing the opportunity of having so many people on our site, I felt bad that Online Chess was not ready and so we all turned on the afterburners to finish the member-vs.-member play! 

In the month that has followed we have been adding hundreds of new members a day. We have been rolling out both new features (Chessopedia, etc) and refining existing features (forum updates, comments on videos, etc). And we are working on many more new and exciting features like Live Chess and interactive training tools.

Every day working on Chess.com is exciting! It is a pleasure to interact with so many people with whom I share a love of the game. It can get kind of stressful thinking of how much there is to do, how little resources we have to do it all, and the weight of knowing that I have the responsibility of making the best chess website possible - one that is worthy of the "chess.com" name and one that the members will love and enjoy. But then I sit back and feel so lucky to have this opportunity to do what I love and to be working with such a great team.

What's next? Well, we're going to raise a little debt or equity money so that we can add more hardware, a few more programmers, and so that my wife and Jay's wife don't panic watching our bank accounts drain. Then we're going to figure out exactly how we're going to make money in the long-term. We're pretty sure it will be a mix of premium subscription tools (unlimited game storage, POP email, more customizability, etc), premium content/lessons (live lessons with top players, interactive tutorials), and maybe a little ad revenue (in just a few spots and only tasteful - no stupid mortgage ads plastered everywhere). Don't worry - everything that is currently free will STAY free (there will be NO limit on #s of games you can play, etc), and Live Chess will also be free with ratings, etc (not some lame handicapped account).   

That's where we are today. We'll keep building and I'll keep you posted as we more forward. As always, we look forward to your questions, input, and ideas. I hope you all feel that you are as much in charge of the destiny of this site as I am!

- Erik 

 

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