On Thursday, a California judge refused to dismiss the defamation lawsuit brought by chess grandmaster Nona Gaprindashvili against Netflix in September over what she said was a “manifestly false” reference to her in the finale of “The Queen’s Gambit.”
In the episode, as the fictional chess prodigy played by Anya-Taylor Joy prepares to face off with a male opponent, Gaprindashvili is referred to by a commentator as a “female world champion [who] has never faced men.” The lawsuit calls the comment “manifestly false, as well as being grossly sexist and belittling.”
“By 1968, the year in which this episode is set, she had competed against at least 59 male chess players (28 of them simultaneously in one game), including at least ten Grandmasters of that time,” Gaprindashvili’s attorneys argue.
U.S. District Judge Virginia A. Phillips ruled that Gaprindashvili’s claim had merit and that works of fiction are not immune from defamation lawsuits if they disparage real people.
“Netflix does not cite, and the Court is not aware, of any cases precluding defamation claims for the portrayal of real persons in otherwise fictional works. The fact that the Series was a fictional work does not insulate Netflix from liability for defamation if all the elements of defamation are otherwise present, Phillips wrote in her decision.
In the newly filed court documents, it’s noted that Netflix concedes the line is inaccurate, “but argues that the Line is fiction and thus not understood to be conveying a fact. Netflix additionally argues for a substantial truth defense because the difference between having faced men by 1963 versus 1968 amounts to only a minor inaccuracy.”
The hit series, which is based on Walter Tevis’ 1983 novel of the same name, is fictional, but does reference several real-life events and figures of the 1950s and 1960s, including Gaprindashvili.
According to the lawsuit, the novel references her career correctly and Netflix’s multiple chess consultants should have caught the error.
“Netflix had no need to use Gaprindashvili’s name and to disparage her achievements for dramatic purposes. It could have used a fictional character instead; or it could have referred to her by name, but not told the lie that she had never competed against men. Instead, Netflix deliberately eschewed these non-defamatory alternatives because it believed that the lie made for a more dramatic story,” the suit reads.
In September, a spokesperson for Netflix stated, “Netflix 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.”
Gaprindashvili sued Netflix for portraying her in a false light, invasion of privacy and defamation and is seeking $5 million plus punitive damages.
She also took issue with being described as a Russian player when she is from Georgia, a country that “had suffered under Russian domination when part of the Soviet Union, and had been bullied and invaded by Russia thereafter.”
Georgian-born Gaprindashvili was among the greatest chess players to come out of the Soviet Union and in 1978 became the first woman ever awarded the title Grandmaster.
Variety first reported the story.