This is going to be a quick one today. I just wanted to write about something I became aware of yesterday—that Nona Gaprindashvili, the Georgian chess grandmaster and former women’s world champion, is suing Netflix over their representation of her in The Queen’s Gambit.
The only thing that surprises me about this news is that it took this long. You may remember that I wrote a lengthy (over 12,000 words) entry on The Queen’s Gambit back in March (at which time the series was already nearly five months old). I mentioned Gaprindashvili in that entry, and how Netflix had done her dirty. Since I don’t want to rehash what I’ve already written, and I don’t want you to have to go back and read that entire entry just for this tiny bit, I’ll quote it here:
There is a brief moment during the final tournament in Moscow where an announcer—in the usual role of stand-in for the authorial voice of the book—mentions that a Georgian player named Nona Gaprindashvili is in the audience, and he says something to the effect of, “She is the women’s world champion, but she has never faced men.” Here’s the thing, though: Gaprindashvili is a real chess player who not only was the women’s world champion at the time (she was champion from 1962 to 1978), she had also “faced men” many, many times. In fact, she was the only woman to enter the field of 48 at the 1977 Lone Pine tournament—a field that included Pal Benko and Samuel Reshevsky, among others—and she finished in a tie for first place. Her performance in this tournament was so strong that she became the first woman to be awarded the Grandmaster title the following year.
Why is this such a big deal? Again, I’ll quote from my original entry:
The point I want to make here is that I heard a lot of people talking about how refreshing it was to see a chess story feature a woman as a hero who rises up through the ranks and comes out on top in a male-dominated world. But I think it is important to remember that Beth is a fictional character. I’m not saying that fictional characters can’t be inspirational, but when you start erasing the accomplishments of actual women like Gaprindashvili in order to make your protagonist look better, something has gone incredibly wrong. When I finally got to read the book, this was one passage I was very eager to check. I found it hard to believe that the author, who had taken such pains to get his chess right, would write something so blatantly false. When I finally did get to that passage toward the end of the book, this is what I read: “There was Nona Gaprindashvili, not up to the level of this tournament, but a player who had met these Russian grandmasters many times before.” I was flabbergasted. The author had not written something blatantly false, which means that the series writer deliberately changed this, deciding that it was worth distorting the truth and insulting a legendary chess player to pump up the fictional protagonist.
Of course, I was not the only person to mention this issue at the time—in fact, I learned most of what I know about Gaprindashvili after seeing the discrepancy between book and series and doing some research online, where I found a number of articles and blog posts discussing her (such as a Calvert Journal article from November 2020, which I also linked to in my original entry).
So, what will happen with this lawsuit? I have no idea. Netflix has said that they “believe this claim has no merit and will vigorously defend the case” (this from the NYT article I linked to at the top). I’m not sure where they get this idea from, because they are very obviously in the wrong here. I can only imagine that they intend to argue that the amount they are being sued for is unreasonable. But I don’t know. What I do know is that I am hoping for a number of things to happen. Firstly, I hope Gaprindashvili wins the case. Secondly, I hope that Netflix is forced to either change the line (it is said in voice over in the series, so it should be an easy fix) or at the very least append a notice to the end of the episode that sets the record straight. Thirdly, and most importantly, I hope that people learn more about Gaprindashvili and the many women who have succeeded and continue to succeed in the male-dominated world of chess. Being a boy’s club is not the way for chess to move forward, and the sooner we start overcoming some of these long-held prejudices, the better.