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Female Grandmaster's Defamation Suit Against Netflix's The Queen's Gambit Can Proceed

By Joseph Fawbush, Esq. | Last updated on

The popular Netflix series "The Queen's Gambit" depicts the life of a trailblazing chess prodigy named Beth Harmon. While the character and story are fiction, the struggles and prejudice the female protagonist in the series faced would have been very real. In the world of chess in the 1950s and 60s, it was widely assumed that to be among the best chess players in the world, you had to be a man. Women competed separately.

Nona Gaprindashvili, a Georgian woman who grew up in the USSR, disagreed. Throughout the 1960s she competed against many of the best male (and female) players in the world. She was the first woman to hold an International Chess Grandmaster rank among men.

One Line Leads to Lawsuit

The fictional Beth Harmon follows a similar path in the series, although her experience in the chess world is loosely based on Bobby Fischer, not Nona Gaprindashvili. In the series finale, Harmon plays against some of the best Russian players in an invitational tournament and does extraordinarily well. In reflecting on one of her wins, an announcer for the match says that:

"Elizabeth Harmon's not at all an important player by their standards. 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. My guess is [Harmon's opponent] Laev was expecting an easy win, and not at all the 27-move thrashing Beth Harmon just gave him."

Nona Gaprindashvili took issue with reference to her, as she had faced many men by 1968, the year depicted in the show, including against Boris Spassky, the famous Russian World Chess Champion. She filed a lawsuit in the United States District Court for the Central District of California, claiming false light invasion of privacy or defamation per se in the alternative. She is seeking $5 million in damages.

Does It Matter That It Is a Work of Fiction?

Netflix subsequently filed a motion to dismiss, claiming that Gaprindashvili does not satisfy the elements of these claims under California law, arguing (among other things) that:

  • A reasonable viewer would not believe that the line was meant to convey an objective fact since the show is fiction
  • The line contains no defamatory implication

On January 27, U.S. District Judge Virginia Phillips denied the motion to dismiss. In moving the case forward, Judge Phillips wrote that "[d]espite the presence of fiction surrounding the Line . . . the Series does reference real people and events and most importantly, the Line identifies a real person, Plaintiff, by name, references her real career, and then shows an actor sitting in the audience who resembles Plaintiff." Despite the usual disclaimer the show used alerting the audience that it was a work of fiction, the district court held that the historical setting and details was enough context, when used with a real name and a real person, to make a reasonable viewer think the show was conveying a fact.

Read the district court order and thousands more with a free trial of Westlaw Edge.

Despite Netflix's argument that the line was intended to be complementary to Gaprindashvili and simply provide context for why Harmon's fictional journey to grandmaster was so impressive, Judge Phillips also held that a viewer could interpret the line as disparaging. Judge Phillips noted that the show frames the protagonist Harmon as doing something that Gaprindashvili could not - namely, break into the male-dominated world of chess. Since Gaprindashvili is still famous for her role as a pioneer in the chess world, it is enough to harm her reputation.

What's Next?

It is not yet clear if Netflix will appeal to the 9th Circuit or continue to argue the merits of the case in lower court. Either way, the case is far from over, absent a settlement between the parties. If Gaprindashvili is ultimately successful, either by getting a settlement or winning in a jury trial, movie and television producers will need to be wary about including historical details even in fictional works.

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