In 1997, after I was laid off from NetCentric as VP of Engineering, I decided to go back to programming.
The assignment I gave myself was to develop an online website for playing Chinese chess, also known as xiangqi. I first learned xiangqi at UMASS Boston, from Trung Dung and Thang Trang. I wrote the game in Java, and Karl Berry wrote all the server admin code for xiangqi in Perl, /bin/sh and other scripting languages on GNU/Linux.
Over the year, as the site became more and more developed, we ended up remotely installing xiangqi servers in seven countries, and we attracted over 100,000 unique member accounts.
Each xiangqi member got a xiangqi.com email address, and a member page on the xiangqi website where you could study and replay any of their prior games.
At one point, Yahoo contacted me to explore acquiring the site, and asked me to take over and run Yahoo Games. I went to California and met with David Filo, who then decided that he would like me in California. I was married at the time, and my wife didn't want us to move, so I turned down the offer. (I believe the stock part of the compensation was 50,000 Yahoo shares in 1997. I've always been curious what that would have been worth during the height of Yahoo.)
After not working for a salary for one year, and having two young kids at home, I decided that I needed to create a real company with greater revenue potential. Due to incredible luck, I stumbled into a contract to build ecommerce capabilities on Boston.com, and I thus created the company Boston Light Software.
Because I then got busy with BLS, I handed my xiangqi.com website over to one of my graduate students to maintain. In trying to add a new feature, he ended up breaking the site, and I never had time to go back and fix it.
I wonder to this day how many xiangqi players I would have if I had simply maintained the site for all these years. Having 100,000 players in China in 1997 was a big deal, since the Internet had not yet exploded in China.
In 2019, I decided to redesign xiangqi.com from scratch, and to relaunch it. I worked with Chris Sweet on the design, and the coding was done at Arbisoft in Pakistan, a long term development partner of mine from Kayak and Lola.
The site is currently in Beta form. The team logs in every Saturday at 9am ET (9pm China) to play, please join us and we can teach you the game. The official launch will be in January 2021, with a PR tour in China in April 2021.
The goal of the new xiangqi.com website is to become the #1 Chinese chess site in the world for international players, and to use xiangqi as a way to develop new friendships across different countries.
Separately, I've written a detailed proposal for a documentary to be called Secret Inside the Orange, named after a famous xiangqi book from the 17th century. I will film this in Chinatown in New York City.
Please visit xiangqi.com to play Chinese chess right now. Since we are in pre-launch Beta, you will need to arrange to login with a friend so you can play each other.
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