Despite his pedigree, Ralph Blasek didn't do too good a job of thinking ahead. Today, the professional chess player, and leader of Europe's largest known software counterfeiting network, was sentenced by a German court to five-and-a-half years in prison without probation.

"This is checkmate to you Blasek," the judge proclaimed, getting into the spirit of things. "The court wants to see your king fall."

Blasek was convicted of fraud for selling illegal software to customers. But the case centered on alleged tampering of Microsoft education software. According to the software giant, Blasek obtained legitimate Microsoft software sold to schools and educational facilities at a discounted rate and then resold it as full versions to non-educational customers for well over the discounted price.

He manipulated the software and its packaging to create counterfeit versions and sell the licenses, a Microsoft representative said. Microsoft suffered €4.5 million in damages due to Blasek's activities, the court spokesman said.

Blasek is believed to be the brains behind a sophisticated international software counterfeiting ring involving hundreds of front companies with bank accounts around the world. Set up in the early 1990s, and believed to be generating over $100 million worth of counterfeit software in just the last few years, it is even thought to have using a legitimate music-industry CD manufacturing plant to knock out illegal copies.

His sentencing followed an investigation by Germany's Bundeskriminalamt - equivalent to the US' CIA - and local police and comes at the end of a 10-week trial. Blasek's five-and-a-half-year sentence comes without probation or the possibility of appeal, and is on top of the eight months he has already spent in jail since his arrest last November.

According to sources, Blasek was a smooth operator - he kept very little software on-site and moved the discs very quickly. The judge issued the tough sentence in part because the defendant was undercutting legitimate Microsoft channel resellers. The judge billed him as a "real criminal personality and not an entrepreneur gone off the tracks."

Microsoft applauded the sentencing in a statement from Laurent Delaporte, its European head for small buisnesses. "Today's sentence sends an important message to many resellers, distributors and system builders who are threatened every day by illegal software sales and criminal counterfeiting. This is a positive step forward to protect their business."

John Blau in Düsseldorf contributed to this report.