Now Streaming - Through the Mirror of Chess: A Cultural Exploration
Photo: Open Agenda Publishing Inc. © 2023

Now Streaming - Through the Mirror of Chess: A Cultural Exploration

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Finding your next series to stream can be more frustrating than facing the London System. Fortunately, a new documentary produced by Ideas Roadshow, Through the Mirror of Chess: A Cultural Exploration, solves your Saturday night dilemma.

Physicist-turned filmmaker Howard Burton takes viewers on a fascinating journey through the 1,500 year history of chess. The sprawling 4-part docuseries examines the remarkable impact of chess on culture, art, science, and sport.

Many top chess players participated in the series, including: GM Daniel Gormally, IM Jovanka Houska, GM Larry Kaufman, GM Elshan Moradiabadi, GM Elisabeth Pähtz, NM Bruce Pandolfini, IM Daniel Rensch, GM David Smerdon, and GM Hou Yifan.

Part 1 - Uniqueness

In Part 1, Burton discusses the "historical and societal importance of games, what chess is and isn’t, and why it’s an ideal vehicle to explore the captivating link between games and culture." He does so through the lens of Dutch historian and cultural theorist Johan Huizinga’s work Homo Ludens.

The brilliantly edited segment “Hollywood Chess” is well worth the price of admission. All chess players will get a laugh seeing how absurdly movies have portrayed the Royal Game. After decades of Hollywood blunders, The Queen's Gambit finally got the chess right.

Photo: The Queen's Gambit/Netflix

Part 2 - The First Millennium

Part 2 examines the game's "intriguing trajectory from Ancient India to the Sasanian Empire to the Golden Age of Islam to Medieval Europe, highlighting its many influences on art, literature and politics throughout a broad range of very different societies."

Everyone–even grand masters–will learn something new about chess history. I came away eager to play the early forms of chess, and would love to see Chaturanga and Shatranj as playable variants on

Shatranj set from the 12th century.
Photo: Zereshk, CC via Wikimedia Commons

Part 3 - Art, Science, and Sport

Part 3 conducts a "detailed investigation of chess’ remarkable cultural impact from the late 15th century to the present day, from the birth of the modern game to Renaissance dialogues to artificial intelligence."

This includes the birth of “mad chess” when the queen, bishop, and pawn gained their present powers. As well as the rise of chess engines, Alpha Zero, and machine learning. It is remarkable how resilient chess has been in the face of various threats.

Part 4 - Contemporary Impact

Finally, Part 4 considers "how the chess world reveals key aspects of our current beliefs and values, along with an exploration of several specific chess-related programs, from schools to prisons to personal empowerment.” Chess is an incredibly powerful tool to address societal issues.

Tom Dart has run chess programs in Chicago jails for over ten years.
Photo: Chi Hack Night, CC via Wikimedia Commons

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart explains how chess has drastically reduced recidivism rates and forged new relationships between incarcerated men and their estranged children. Chess in Slums CEO Tunde Onakoya uses the game to provide African children intellectual identity and dignity by shining a spotlight on their enormous potential.

Chessays: Travels Through the World of Chess

If a 4-hour documentary doesn't satisfy your insatiable thirst for chess knowledge, Burton also wrote an accompanying book entitled Chessays: Travels Through the World of Chess. It's collection of "thought-provoking essays on a wide range of chess-related issues which he encountered while being a “tourist” in the chess world during production."

Photo: Open Agenda Publishing Inc. © 2023

How to Watch

The series is now available on the Ideas Roadshow app (available through the App Store and Google Play) and on Vimeo On Demand. Rent the full series for 1 week for $9.99 or purchase the full series for $19.99. Here is the films page for further details:

You may also purchase the book Chessays: Travels Through the World of Chess or read a free excerpt by visiting the Ideas Roadshow site here.

Disclaimer: Ideas Roadshow did not compensate me to write this blog post; however, I did receive a voucher from them to rent the documentary for 1 week.