Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

A Chess Trailblazer Is Suing Netflix Over Her Portrayal In 'The Queen's Gambit'

Georgian chess champion Nona Gaprindashvili plays at the International Chess Congress in London on Dec. 30, 1964. She is suing Netflix for defamation and invasion of privacy over its series <em>The Queen's Gambit.</em>
Georgian chess champion Nona Gaprindashvili plays at the International Chess Congress in London on Dec. 30, 1964. She is suing Netflix for defamation and invasion of privacy over its series <em>The Queen's Gambit.</em>

The Queen's Gambit on Netflix won over tens of millions of viewers last year, triggering a national run on chess sets and making an instant icon out of its fictional protagonist.

And that's not all it did, according to one real-life champion. Georgian chess legend Nona Gaprindashvili — who made history as the world's first female grandmaster — alleges the show belittled her career and damaged her reputation with a single sentence.

Gaprindashvili is now suing Netflix for defamation and invasion of privacy, according to a 25-page complaint filed in a federal district court in California on Thursday. The case focuses on a scene toward the end of the show's final episode.

In it, brainy heroine Beth Harmon is facing off against a Russian grandmaster at the Moscow International (both characters are fictional). A radio commentator remarks that she is not considered an important player by her male competitors:

"The only unusual thing about her, 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," he says, as the camera passes briefly over a female audience member watching the chess match.

The real Gaprindashvili, now 80, and her legal team call this line "manifestly false ... grossly sexist and belittling." They write in the complaint that by 1968, the year in which this episode is set, she had competed against at least 59 male chess players — including 28 of them simultaneously in one game.

Also, they note, Gaprindashvili is Georgian, not Russian — a misrepresentation they say is made worse by the fact that Georgians suffered "under Russian domination" during and after the Soviet Union era.

The complaint accuses Netflix of disparaging Gaprindashvili's achievements to make for a more dramatic story and dismissing her earlier allegation of defamation without issuing a public apology or retraction.

It seeks at least $5 million in damages, arguing that the false statement caused Gaprindashvili "personal humiliation, distress, and anguish, as well as damages to her profits and earnings, and her ongoing capacity to engage in her professional livelihood in the world of chess."

"We think it's a very shabby thing of them to have done," Alexander Rufus-Isaacs, one of Gaprindashvili's attorneys, told NPR in a phone interview. "This whole program, The Queen's Gambit, is aimed to show that women can succeed, and how their heroine overcame prejudice. But in doing so, they trashed the real person who had really been the trailblazer."

Gaprindashvili declined to comment through her attorneys in Georgia.

Netflix said in a written statement that it believes her case is without a legal basis. "Netflix has only the utmost respect for Ms. Gaprindashvili and her illustrious career, but we believe this claim has no merit and will vigorously defend the case," wrote a spokesperson.

Who is Nona Gaprindashvili?

Gaprindashvili has made a career of breaking barriers in the male-dominated world of chess.

She was born in 1941 in the Republic of Georgia ("where chess is a very big deal," Rufus-Isaacs says) and started playing professionally at the age of 13. She became female world champion at age 20 and held that title until 1978.

Over the decades, she has picked up 25 Chess Olympiad medals, held positions in Georgia's parliament and received the Georgia Order of Excellence. The Tbilisi Chess Palace is dedicated to her, the complaint notes. And she continues to participate in senior tournaments, winning the world championship title among players 65 and up as recently as 2019.

Gaprindashvili started competing against (and defeating) men in 1962, and has spoken and written about the difficulties she faced in countering the stereotype that female chess players were inferior to men.

"She overcame a great deal of prejudice," Rufus-Isaacs said. "The male players in the '60s were not the most progressive bunch of guys, and they took it very personally when they were being competed against by a young girl. And Nona found that a lot of them ... would go to great lengths to avoid the embarrassment they saw as being beaten by a woman."

Gaprindashvili was known for her aggressive style. The complaint mentions one legendary tournament in which she and her opponent only agreed to a draw when there were "virtually no pieces left on the board." The Soviet Chess Federation later declared the match the best chess game of the year, and the complaint says it took such a psychological toll on Gaprindashvili's opponent that he did not participate in tournaments for the next year.

The case and its allegations

Gaprindashvili's accomplishments made headlines during the 20th century, the complaint says, and many social media users and news organizations took issue with Netflix's framing of her career after The Queen's Gambit came out last October.

Gaprindashvili had reached out to Netflix to communicate her concerns through a previous legal team, according to Rufus-Isaacs. He said Netflix dismissed the line in question as "innocuous," rather than offering acknowledgement or a remedy.

The television series is based on a 1983 novel by Walter Tevis, which references Gaprindashvili but says she had "met all these Russian Grandmasters many times before."

Rufus-Isaacs said Netflix should have preserved the novel's original wording or used a fictional name.

A spokesperson for the company has not responded to an email asking for comment on specific aspects of the complaint.

Netflix said 62 million households had streamed the seven-episode series within a month of its release. It went on to become the first series in history to top Nielsen's streaming rankings for three straight weeks and is up for 18 Emmy awards on Sunday.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.