“The Queen’s Gambit” Gambit

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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.

3 thoughts on ““The Queen’s Gambit” Gambit

  1. I liked the series more than you did. Beyond that, we agree.
    The writing was certainly marred by lazy research and implausibilities that may have made for cute moments but weren’t necessary to the plot. I didn’t know about this particular issue until reading about it yesterday, but this one is especially problematic.

    • I may have been influenced by my wife, who hated it so much I only could finish it while she was asleep. Having captained chess teams in my youth, including a few in which my sister was the only female player in the league (she slaughtered nearly every male player she faced), I sympathized with the theme and wanted to like the series. I have problems when protagonists are self-indulgent, self-destructive and dislikable, and who keep making terrible choices. The character arcs in streamed series just strain my patience—Jeez, woman, grow up already!

      • I was actually OK with all that. Given her background, her youth, her fame… I’ll buy the self-indulgent and self-destructive behavior. There were the usual plot contrivances and implausible coincidences, and let’s say the climax didn’t exactly come as a surprise. But I was able to treat it as the absolute fiction it was, and my wife and I both enjoyed it.
        What bothered me more were the little things: our heroine listening to a song on the radio in 1967 that wasn’t released until ’69, and above all the absurd behavior of the State Department handler at the end.
        I haven’t played chess in decades, and was never terribly good… okay, but nowhere near competition quality. I did have a friend in college who was co-champion in an international tournament featuring at least a couple grand masters… while still an undergrad. Needless to say, he clobbered me the couple times we played. (I could hold my own against him in bridge, though.) He’s a multi-billionaire now. I should have stayed in better touch!

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