Gaprindashvili's Defamation Lawsuit Against Netflix Can Proceed
Nona Gaprindashvili in 1975. Photo: Hans Peters/Dutch National Archives.

Gaprindashvili's Defamation Lawsuit Against Netflix Can Proceed

| 129 | Chess Players

A judge on Thursday refused to dismiss GM Nona Gaprindashvili's defamation lawsuit against Netflix, meaning the suit can proceed. The streaming and production company had claimed that because The Queen's Gambit is a work of fiction, it would be immune from defamation suits, but the judge disagreed.

Now 80 years old, Gaprindashvili is the fifth women's world chess champion and the first female player ever to gain the "general" grandmaster title. She sued Netflix in September of last year for "false light invasion of privacy" and defamation after a line in the hit series The Queen's Gambit falsely stated that she "never faced men" at the chessboard. In reality, the Georgian chess legend faced many men in her career, including three world champions: GMs Mikhail Tal, Boris Spassky, and Viswanathan Anand.

Netflix wanted to have the suit dismissed, arguing that the series is a work of fiction. However, U.S. District Judge Virginia A. Phillips disagreed and noted that Gaprindashvili had made a plausible argument that she was defamed in The Queen's Gambit. In what might prove to be significant case law in the future, Phillips made the point that works of fiction are not immune from defamation suits if they disparage real people.

The ruling includes: "As an initial matter, 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. On the contrary, 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."

The full text of the ruling.

Netflix also claimed that, even if believed, the line that says Gaprindashvili "never faced men" is not defamatory. The company argued that for reasonable viewers of the series this line would not carry an implication of Gaprindashvili's inferiority, but merely showcase the structural barriers that impeded women's advancement in elite chess in the 1960s. The judge disagreed here as well and said the average viewer could easily see the line as disparaging.

Her reasoning: "Here, the Line in context discusses why a male Russian chess master underestimated Beth Harmon. The commentator delivering the Line explains that Harmon's gender is her most noteworthy characteristic but adds: 'even [her gender is] not unique in Russia. There's Nona Gaprindashvili, but she's the female world champion and has never faced men. My guess is Laev was expecting an easy win...' The line clearly conveys an import to the very feat of playing chess against men—not only because men were believed to be better at chess, but also because it was a monumental achievement to break into that world. Breaking these gender barriers is a primary theme of the Series, which celebrates Harmon for doing just that. The line also uses [Gaprindashvili] as a comparison point to Harmon, one with lesser achievements."

The 1983 novel The Queen's Gambit by Walter Tevis, on which the series was largely based, does not state that Gaprindashvili had never faced men. In fact, the book reads: "There was Nona Gaprindashvili, not up to the level of this tournament, but a player who had met all these Russian Grandmasters many times before." Judge Philips noted: "Netflix's own evidence demonstrates knowledge of the truth in its choice to deviate from the text of the Novel."

Launched in October 2020, The Queen's Gambit was watched by over 62 million households in just the first month after its release. It won two Golden Globes and 11 Primetime Emmy Awards, including Outstanding Limited or Anthology Series.

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