Photo by Olga Komissarova

By Irena Burton, Co-Founder of Ideas Roadshow

We recently released Through the Mirror of Chess: A Cultural Exploration, a 4-part documentary series. It is about the fascinating history and remarkable impact of chess on culture, art, science, sport, social empowerment and much more.

As long as there have been human societies of any form, games have played a hugely significant role in how people interact with each other and, more generally, how we live our lives. Wherever we have looked, from ancient Egypt, to Mesopotamia, to China, to India, to sub-Saharan Africa, to pre-National Master Evan Rabin with 153rd Podcast Guest International Master Carlos Perdomo at the US Pavilion at World Expo 2020 in Dubai!Columbian America, we find evidence of people playing games but what makes chess so unique?

This was a wonderful challenge that we’ve taken upon ourselves to explore. Our comprehensive documentary takes the viewer on an exhilarating journey across a wide range of times and places touching on cultural history, the nature of competitiveness, AI, psychology, game theory, chess variants, art, literature, genius, gender issues, education, social empowerment, prison reform, and much more to comprehensively address this question.

What motivated us to produce this documentary is strongly inspired by award-winning filmmaker Howard Burton‘s teaching experiences before he started his PhD in theoretical physics (Howard later became the Founding Executive Director of Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Canada). Howard spent a few years teaching physics in an underprivileged school where he took the initiative to introduce chess into the classroom to try to break down barriers and engage the students in a playful, meaningful manner with an activity outside the standard curriculum.Chess Class at The Grace Church Middle School

Those students lived without exception under extremely difficult circumstances where nobody most likely had ever taken the time to play a game with them, let alone give them any support or encouragement to do well in school. It took quite a while to get the students’ trust and get them involved but it was striking to see how this changed the dynamics and how empowering the game was in providing students with a changed mindset.

Instead of feeling worthless and unmotivated, it gave them a sense of calmness and focus and encouraged the development of a growth mindset: if they lost a game, perhaps they had just not won “yet”. They learned that through sheer hard work and grit, even players of apparently modest abilities can acquire significant chess-playing skills which translated into more confidence and better results in general with the standard curriculum in their school.

We worked with several experts and top chess players to highlight the many benefits of chess, including how chess can be used as a resilience tool, how it can foster an appreciation of risk-taking, how it stimulates a growth mindset, and how it increases social empowerment and personal leadership.

The films offer an experience of cinematic storytelling at it’s best with an engaging narrative and exciting visuals. They are suitable for all ages and are in fact very inspiring for young chess players as well to watch with their parents or teachers. Young players will be intrigued to learn about the long and colorful history of chess, the different myths and tales of how chess began, the importance of games in different societies across the centuries and how the shapes of the pieces and the rules of the game evolved over time during its journey from India to Medieval Europe.

Viewers will also be exposed to the notable scientific influence of chess which started as something that wasn’t actually science at all, but was either a clever hoax or a prescient harbinger of things to come. Chess has played a significant role in the development of the computer and the emergence of artificial intelligence, which will give young players a real-world sense of the applicability of chess beyond the 64 squares.

After all the research we have done for this documentary, we can safely say that no other game has had so much impact around the world. The final leg of our long journey turns out to be the most remarkable one of all: its unique combination of offering internationally-recognized status through rigorous, age-independent intellectual engagement enables chess to be one of the single greatest tools imaginable for personal empowerment and connection across an increasingly unequal world.

We’ve worked with a wide range of experts and top chess players to highlight the wonderful potential of chess to add value for both the individual player and society as a whole beyond the simple joy of the game. Chess has the capacity to make us see, like virtually nothing else, the remarkable human potential that is in all of us. That is the true gift of chess, and it has never been more evident than it is right now. The stage is set for a virtuous circle of achievement, pride and confidence that anyone can participate in to at least some degree to make this world a better place for all of us.


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