The popularity of chess goes through ebbs and flows over the decades, but there’s something universal about the game that ensures it will never go away.
Right now, chess is going through something of a pop culture resurgence thanks to the popularity of the Netflix series The Queen’s Gambit, a show that won eleven Emmy Awards just this weekend.
The show depicts the journey of fictional chess player Beth Harmon. As Beth rises to prominence, she gains the attention of the world through her masterful playing style while dealing with a secret dependence on drugs.
Beth is a fictional character, but she’s often navigating the historical record of the actual chess world, one steeped in pride and impressive accomplishments by men and women alike.
And one of those women takes umbrage at how she has been depicted in the show.
Meet Nona Gaprindashvili, the fifth women’s world chess champion, and the first woman to be named Grandmaster by the International Chess Federation. This Soviet and Georgian woman played in the Women’s Chess Olympiads across four decades (from the 1960s through the 1990s), winning numerous championships, and having success against both male and female opponents.
Not only did the show misidentify her as Russian, but she was said to have never played against men, unlike the fictional Beth who regularly competes against men.
Gaprindashvili considers the comment grossly sexist, and claims in her lawsuit that by 1968 — the year depicted in the series — she had already defeated many male players, including ten grandmasters. Gaprindashvili herself pointed out in an interview with The New York Times the cruel irony in the show celebrating a fictional trailblazer by disregarding an actual trailblazer.
She is suing Netflix for false light invasion of privacy and defamation, seeking $5 million dollars in damages.
Netflix seems optimistic that the lawsuit has no merit, and they may be right, but it is amazing how easily this could have been avoided. You could have simply not mentioned Gaprindashvili at all, or focused on making Beth’s accomplishment a huge achievement for American women at the time.
Some fans of the show are twisting themselves in knots trying to ignore the contradiction, some saying that since this is a fictionalized story, they have a fictional version of Gaprindashvili in the show who DIDN’T accomplish what she did in real life. This is arguably more insulting than the show’s treatment of the Georgian grandmaster.
It will be interesting to see how things proceed from here. If nothing else, it will hopefully give more attention to the genuine accomplishments of a legendary female chess player who certainly deserves some of the spotlight.
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