An Interview with Howard Burton


Table of Contents

Chessable’s Chief Science Officer Alexey Root interviewed Howard Burton, a filmmaker and author. Burton’s recently-completed projects are about chess. He created a four-part docuseries and wrote a book about chess.

Burton is also the co-founder of the award-winning multimedia initiative Ideas Roadshow. Burton holds a PhD in theoretical physics and an MA in philosophy and was the Founding Director of Canada’s Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics. He lives in France.

Why did you choose chess as a project?

“Chess is an ideal choice to explore many intriguing aspects of culture and societies, given its unique combination of a long and diverse history, remarkable internationalism and strong presence across so many different domains of human activity (art, literature, political allegories, psychology, sports and entertainment, computer science, etc.).”

What surprised you the most on your chess journey?

“Perhaps the most surprising thing was the sheer extent of chess-related societal impact across different times and places (as per above). The closer I looked, the more I saw. I never would have thought at the outset that there was enough material for four separate films on chess’s cultural impact, as turned out to be the case. Another surprising thing for me was the extent of chess’s diversity. Before I began this project I was only familiar with a few common ‘chess variants’ (such as Fischer Random/Chess 960), but now I have a much deeper sense of the remarkably broad variability of both ‘standard chess’ and ‘chess-like games’ (i.e. shogi, xiangqi, makruk, etc.) throughout the world, as detailed at the end of Part 1 of the docuseries. A third thing that surprised me was the very odd mix of attitudes within the chess world. The chess international community is often, in my view, remarkably insular, oversensitive, rigidly hierarchical, and clique-riddled, while at the same time somehow managing to manifest unparalleled amounts of kindness, generosity of spirit, genuine camaraderie, and openness. It is an odd synthesis of many opposite qualities—which makes it quite intriguing in its own right. I explicitly mentioned this as well in Chessays, particularly towards the end of the fourth essay.”

“Lastly, I was very surprised to discover the extent and efficacy of chess as a tool for personal empowerment, particularly among the economically and socially disadvantaged. This struck me as both extremely important and almost universally underappreciated, which is why I made it a prime focal point of the conclusion of the final film (Part 4) in the series”

What types of societies ban chess and why do they ban it?

“Well, I am hardly an expert on this. What I would say, after having looked at this question now and then throughout my inquiries, is that chess has been banned several times throughout its long history in both Christian and Muslim societies, primarily because it was viewed by the governing powers as a pernicious distraction from other activities that were generally considered more morally appropriate (or essential), typically involving religious beliefs. Often this involved explicit concerns about gambling (directly or indirectly associated with the game), while sometimes the concern was a more general reflection of the stronghold the game tended to produce on its dedicated adherents. But to truly understand the situation, one must look at things in a larger context—i.e. rather than singling out chess per se, one should look at the nature of any society where the ruling class feels that they are in a position of banning any activity. That is, in my view the key issue here—as relevant to today’s Taliban as pockets of the medieval Christian world—is to investigate the way certain societies are structured and why. In other words, it is not really a chess issue, per se, in my view.”

Is it a waste of time to become a grandmaster?

“Whether or not something is a waste of time is clearly a subjective judgement and there can be no one universal, objective answer. What particularly interests me is to what extent such judgements change over different times and places and why, and chess (like many other activities) is one particularly interesting way of addressing that issue, I think.”

Do annual rankings in sports, such as in tennis, increase fans’ interest and could annual rankings in chess likewise raise interest?

“I don’t think the essential issue is ‘annual rankings’ per se. While many sports, like tennis, do have year-end rankings (and even awards given to those who ‘finish the year at No. 1’), for the most part, the impact of the rankings is through their universal acknowledgment of being real-time assessments of the best players at any given moment. In Chessays, I talk at some length about how, from the perspective of sporting culture, chess does many things very badly and should change (particularly in essays 3-5). Indeed, several aspects are changing/improving, but it’s got a long way to go yet, and in my view, making a few obvious necessary adjustments would enormously benefit both the players and the fans.”

What do you think of the trend in the top chess engine championships of Stockfish, which previously lost to Leela Chess Zero (a neural network developed similarly to AlphaZero) defeating Leela Chess Zero in five recent superfinals?

“Well, the first thing that should be said here is that I have no domain expertise here whatsoever, so if I were you I wouldn’t listen to anything I might say about this specific issue. I think it is an interesting question in computer science—or at least might be—to understand which chess program is doing better and why. For all I know, there might well be many machine-learning components in the current version of Stockfish. Again, I think (like most people) that chess is a wonderful testing ground to get a deeper understanding of these sorts of issues. It is clearly not the only testing ground, and might not even be the best testing ground (i.e. compared to Go or shogi or whatever), but is obviously one to investigate. While some are naturally drawn to examining the more general issue of computational processing efficiency or the question of what is the most fruitful path towards developing a deeper chess understanding, my personal interests, as highlighted in the eighth ‘chessay’ lie more along the lines of taking a close look at the manifold possible societal benefits of AI—an issue which I believe has often been obscured by nonsensical hype and scare-mongering promulgated by a superficial media in search of a sufficiently captivating headline. The link to chess here is mostly historical, through chess’s longstanding influence on computer science from Babbage to Deep Blue to AlphaZero.”

What does chess mean to you personally?

“Before I began this project, I would have said that chess is an activity that I have long been captivated by, deeply impressed by its singular beauty and artistry, a game that has often provoked me to wonder what, exactly, it is about chess that makes it so unique. At this point, however, after having spent the better part of a year plunging deeply into all aspects of the chess world, chess represents something quite different and more personal: a subject for a deep exploration filled with many intriguing nuances and discoveries that culminated in four films and an accompanying book and led me to directly encounter a wide range of different and interesting people.”

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