In the final episode (mercifully) of the inexplicably popular Netflix series“The Queen’s Gambit,” an announcer delivering chess commentary while the show’s annoying fictional heroine, portrayed by Anya Taylor-Joy (above right), competes in a climactic tournament in Moscow says,“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.”
That wasn’t true. Nona Gaprindashvili, the first woman to be named a grandmaster, faced and defeated many male players. Now 80 years old and living in Tbilisi, Georgia, Nona is furious about the false representation of her career. She’s suing Netflix in Federal District Court in Los Angeles, seeking millions of dollars in damages for what her lawyers claim is a “devastating falsehood, undermining and degrading her accomplishments before an audience of many millions.”
“They were trying to do this fictional character who was blazing the trail for other women, when in reality I had already blazed the trail and inspired generations,” Gaprindashvili said in a recent interview. In addition to monetary damages, she is calling for the line about her not facing men to be removed. This comes close to that rarity, a real frivolous lawsuit, which would be a violation of legal ethics rule 3.1 for an American lawyer to persuade a client to file it. Close, not close enough.
“The Queen’s Gambit” is fiction, and while I believe and have written here and elsewhere more than once that negatively misrepresenting the lives, character and conduct of real people living or dead in order to further a fictional narrative is unethical, successfully suing because a fictional story includes a falsehood about a living person is rarer than female chess champions. In this case, it’s an especially weak complaint: “The Queen’s Gambit” doesn’t say that Gaprindashvili was a traitor, child molester or serial killer, just that she wasn’t the ground-breaking figure its fictional (and annoying) heroine is. The case law suggests that a successful defamation action based on a fictional account has to be a lot more negative than that, but the number of relevant cases is small.
The obvious flaw with Gaprindashvili’s suit is that audiences know the story is fiction, and thus are not to be assumed to believe anything in it. At least for American audiences, it is unlikely that all but a handful suspected that the female chessmaster mentioned was a real person. Even assuming that Gaprindashvili has a case, what would be the damages?
Netflix responded to the suit by saying in part, “We believe this claim has no merit and will vigorously defend the case.” I assume they are laying the groundwork for a non-monetary settlement of some kind. The writers and producers of “The Queen’s Gambit” were absurdly careless. There was no need to use the real Russian chess player’s name: they could have used a made-up name and the story would have taken place in a universe where Gaprindashvili never existed. Did the creators of the show think she was dead? It’s virtually impossible to libel a dead person, especially one who has been a public figure. The false representation of Gaprindashvili’s career was completely unnecessary and gratuitous, as well as inexplicable. Did they not check the facts? Did they know what the show had the announcer saying was wrong, and leave the line in anyway? Why would they do that?
At very least, Netflix owes her an apology and the removal of the untrue statement from the series.