Last year saw the Netflix series The Queen's Gambi (opens in new tab)t become something of a lockdown hit: the show, based on a 1981 novel by the same name, follows chess prodigy Beth Harmon on her journey from playing in basements to playing the world's best in the Soviet Union. The show is a work of fiction. In portraying the journey of a young woman player in an 'authentic' 1960s chess scene, however, the show now stands accused of denigrating the history of a woman who actually did it.
In the show's final episode hero Beth, played by Anya Taylor-Joy, takes part in a high-level tournament in Moscow (then the epicentre of the chess world). An in-universe commentator says the following over the match at one point: "The only unusual thing about [Beth], really, is her sex, and even that’s not unique in Russia. There’s Nona Gaprindashvili, but she’s the female world champion and has never faced men."
Nona Gaprindashvili was indeed the female world champion, as well as the first woman to be named an International Chess Grandmaster by FIDE (1978), and she not only faced plenty of men but beat them handily. She competed in men's tournaments in the 60s, and won them outright (opens in new tab). Gaprindashvili, now aged 80 and living in Tbilisi, Georgia, is not impressed that a fictional chess show has overwritten her achievements.
Last week Gaprindashvili launched legal action against Netflix in Los Angeles, as reported by the New York Times (opens in new tab), seeking millions in damages for a "devastating falsehood, undermining and degrading her accomplishments before an audience of many millions." The complaint notes that the Queen's Gambit was viewed in 62 million households in the first month after release.
The Queen's Gambit "brazenly and deliberately lied about Gaprindashvili’s achievements for the cheap and cynical purpose of 'heightening the drama' by making it appear that its fictional hero had managed to do what no other woman, including Gaprindashvili, had done [...] Netflix humiliated the one real woman trail blazer who had actually faced and defeated men on the world stage in the same era."
The suit goes on to detail Gaprindashvili's history of playing against male champions, including that she had done so before the date of the fictional tournament in the show. Thus the claim she had "never faced men", so Gaprindashvili's complaint says, has caused professional harm to someone who still competes in the chess scene.
Finally, it notes that the line in the Netflix series has been changed from the line in the original novel, which is: "There was Nona Gaprindashvili, not up to the level of this tournament, but a player who had met all these Russian Grandmasters many times before."
Gaprindashvili spoke to the New York Times (opens in new tab) about the suit: "This was an insulting experience. This is my entire life that has been crossed out, as though it is not important."
"It took a year of fighting to get accepted. Whenever they saw me as a small, short, young girl, they would tell me to get in line—to play next time, but not now. But I always asserted my place."
If you're thinking that Gaprindashvili sounds like a bit of a badass you'd be right, and purely on public perception alone this is a fight that Netflix should gracefully concede. The streaming giant may have a technically robust argument that, after all, the show is fiction: but it's impossible to ignore the irony of a show about a woman breaking into a male-dominated field misrepresenting the history of one of the real women who did it. The decent thing here would be to remove or change the line, apologise, and settle.
Not least because, y'know, I think Netflix's suits may be making a mistake if they underestimate Nona Gaprindashvili.
"It is already part of my legacy that women chess players are accepted and becoming grandmasters. This [lawsuit] is also a big part of it. It is a fight I began, and it is a fight I am continuing."