Lone Sentence in Popular Series Could Cost Netflix a Cool $5 Million

September 16, 2021 by Dan McCue
Lone Sentence in Popular Series Could Cost Netflix a Cool $5 Million
Anya Taylor-Joy as chess phenom Elizabeth Harmon in Netflix's "The Queen's Gambit." (Photo: Charlie Gray/Netflix)

LOS ANGELES, Calif. – A single line in Netflix sensation “The Queen’s Gambit,” which is expected to rake in the statues at this weekend’s 73rd Primetime Emmy Awards, could wind up costing the streaming giant a cool $5 million thanks to a defamation lawsuit filed Thursday morning.

The plaintiff in the case is Soviet-era chess icon Nona Gaprindashvili, who began her career in 1961, at the age of 20, and went on to become a five-time Soviet women’s champion, and ultimately became the first woman to be named a grandmaster by the World Chess Federation.

Among other honors, Gaprindashvili won the world’s women’s senior championship seven times and the European senior championship five times.

And throughout her long career, Gaprindashvili has successfully competed in men’s tournaments, winning amongst others the Hastings Challengers tournament in 1963 and 1964. 

And that later fact is at the heart of the 100-page complaint filed in Los Angeles by attorney Alexander Rufus-Isaacs, of Beverly Hills.

Based on a 1983 novel by author Walter Tevis, “The Queen’s Gambit” tells the story of a fictional American young woman named Elizabeth Harmon, also known as Beth, mostly set in the 1960’s. 

Harmon, played by the actress Anya Taylor-Joy, is an orphan who rises from humble beginnings to become a great chess player despite prejudice against female players. The novel’s final chapter is set at a prestigious chess tournament in Moscow called the Moscow Invitational where she dramatically defeats several top male players, including a Russian who was the world champion.

While the main characters are fictional, the novel and the limited Netflix series made from it references a number of real chess players from the era, including Gaprindashvili.

“Although Gaprindashvili is mentioned in the novel only in passing, Harmon’s character plainly draws on her achievements,” the complaint says. “Harmon is in many respects an Americanized and fictionalized version of the real-life female Georgian prodigy who was the first to break gender barriers in international chess in the 1960’s by competing with and defeating top male players.”

But what really upset Gaprindashvili, the complaint makes clear, is a single incorrect statement made in the “End Game,” the finale of the limited series, that compares her real life accomplishments to that of the fictional Beth Harmon.

“The only unusual thing about her, really, is her sex, and even that’s not unique in Russia,” a commentator jokes as Harmon plays fictional Russian Grandmaster called Viktor Laev in what amounts to the most critical match of her life in the Moscow tournament. “There’s Nona Gaprindashvili, but she’s the female world champion and has never faced men.”

The lawsuit states that the “allegation that Gaprindashvili ‘has never faced men’ is manifestly false, as well as being grossly sexist and belittling.”

By 1968, the year in which this episode is set, the complaint says, Gaprindashvili had competed against at least 59 male chess players (28 of them simultaneously in one game), including at least ten Grandmasters of that time.

“These facts were well known to Netflix, both from the novel which stated that she had ‘met all these Russian Grandmasters many times before,’ and because it had hired two of the world’s leading chess authorities as consultants for the series: the legendary Garry Kasparov, a Russian former world champion, and American national master Bruce Pandolfini, considered to be America’s most experienced chess teacher.” 

“Netflix 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,” the complaint says. “Thus, in a story that was supposed to inspire women by showing a young woman competing with men at the highest levels of world chess, Netflix humiliated the one real woman trailblazer who had actually faced and defeated men on the world stage in the same era.”

In addition to the $5 million in actual or presumed damages, the lawsuit also seeks punitive damages to be determined by the court.

In a statement Netflix said it “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.”

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