Review: Through the Mirror of Chess

Chess lovers rejoice - well-known documentary maker, Ideas Roadshow, recently released a four-part documentary series on chess.

What they've produced is possibly one of the deepest investigations and undertakings into chess ever done. Anyone passionate about the history, culture, and community around the game will be interested in watching this series.

The host, Howard Burton, expertly navigates the documentary in both depth and packing. There’s no need to be a chess pro or to have a deep knowledge of chess to get far more than the price of admission for the series. Insights are provided in abundance from multiple experts in the series, both from professional chess players and from figures within the chess community and online chess servers.

The documentary series begins by setting out the history and importance of games generally. We follow the invention of modern chess’s ancestor, chaturanga, from India, and the evolution of modern chess and its cousins (Shogi, Janggi, and other regional or national variants).

Chess fans will particularly gratifying a segment on "Hollywood chess" - an exploration of the many times chess has been used as a key metaphor or plot device within film - but where the film has set up the board wrongly or made other basic errors.

(As an aside, the author is particularly frustrated by 1. d4 being described as the “Queen’s Gambit” in the popular Netflix show, “The Queen’s Gambit”. It’s only the name of the show! Although even that of course wasn’t the most egregious error...)

Episode two charts out the specific influences of the “game of kings” with impacts on art, literature and politics, from the Golden Age of Islam to Medieval Europe. This also includes some of the etymology of pieces, how the Arabic names for pieces remained for centuries, if not until the present day.

Episode three takes us from the Renaissance to the present day, looking at the role of France in modern chess history - which was the epicentre of chess for 200 years. The “Mechanical Turk” is also introduced, as well as the increasing role of machines and chess. We go from Babbage, believing a machine will one day play equally, if not better than a human, to Deep Blue - which eventually triumphed over Kasparov.

Episode four is perhaps the most interesting and insightful to those already knowledgeable about chess history and culture.

Looking particularly at the contemporary world, episode four considers “how the chess world reveals key aspects of our current beliefs and values”. Given this focus on community, in addition to representation from Lichess, and chess in prisons, the deeply topical and important topic of the chess environment for women is thoroughly investigated with first hand accounts from multiple top women chess players, such as GM Hou Yifan, GM Elisabeth Paehtz, IM Jovanka Houska, and IM Irene Sukander.

While the documentary is pay to watch, the devotion and work put into the documentary is clear, and it would not be an exaggeration call it one of the most detailed assessments of chess ever done. The documentary can be found here.

(The author received a time-limited free copy of the review, but neither Lichess nor the author received any other incentive to produce this review)