Keith Duggan: The battle between Netflix and a female Georgian chess grandmaster

Nona Gaprindashvili has taken issue with a reference made in The Queen’s Gambit

Anya Taylor as Beth Harmon in The Queen’s Gambit. Photograph:  Charlie Gray/Netflix © 2020

Anya Taylor as Beth Harmon in The Queen’s Gambit. Photograph: Charlie Gray/Netflix © 2020

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One of the greatest confidence tricks perpetrated by Netflix, even as it pulls the threadbare red carpet from beneath the stars of Old Hollywood, has been to convince the world that it’s something more than just a very bad video shop. Still, through smart pricing, the format – a full month of old and mostly terrible films and occasionally excellent big-budget television shows all for the price of a McDonald’s large meal – is one of the great wheezes of the digital age.

So we all know who to root for in the legal battle between the streaming giant and an octogenarian grandmother chess grandmaster from Tbilisi.

Nona Gaprindashvili was one of the real chess prodigies referenced in The Queen’s Gambit, the lush and quietly gripping portrait of a young woman’s lightning ascent through the obscure and male-dominated world of 1950s and 1960s elite chess.

The Netflix show was perfect television and one of the saving graces of the pandemic lockdown. It presented colour-saturated mid-century city life scenes through which the young cast sauntered moodily while preoccupied with reading, with playing the smartest boardgame of them all and every so often getting bombed on hard liquor benders worthy of Richard Burton.

Gaprindashvili has taken exception to a brief reference, where a character in the show incorrectly states that, unlike the fictional heroine Beth Harmon, she had never taken on any of the male grand masters.

The truth was anything but: Gaprindashvili was an absolute pioneer: the first woman to achieve the status of grandmaster in 1978, after she notably beat a series of high-ranking male players in her career – which has not ended yet.

There’s a photograph of her competing against 28 players at a competition in Dorset, England, in 1965 – she had won her first women’s world championship three years earlier. Her brilliance afforded her rare privilege within the Soviet Union – international travel and a degree of adulation in her homeland, particularly among young women.

She was an original influencer: on her return from her maiden world championship win the crowds gathered at the railway stations just to cheer her as she passed through.

More complex

All of that is, of course, ancient history for Netflix, which has issued a brisk and cheery legal statement asserting absolute respect for Gaprindashvili, along with a certainty that the “claim has no merit” and vowing to “vigorously defend the case.” There is something about the tone that suggests that if the Netflix executives could have simply issued the instruction “chill” they would have done. For Gaprindashvili, the issue is more complex and heartfelt.

Because of the phenomenal reach of Netflix, 62 million people watched The Queen’s Gambit in the first month of its release. It made chess look chic again: chess set sales soared. Everyone wanted to learn how to play – at least until they encountered its complexity, its requirement for lengthy commitments of intense concentration and, perhaps also, the bleak discovery that the Insta potential was limited at best – who wants to take a selfie while scowling at a devious bishop?

Whether the claim merits the millions in damages listed in the case is not really the point. It seems unlikely that Gaprindashvili has been biding her time while disguising a streak of litigious opportunism for 80 years. More likely, she believes herself catastrophically misrepresented on a television show that has repositioned chess under a spotlight it has not enjoyed for decades.

“This is my entire life that has been crossed out as if it is not important,” Gaprindashvili said this week in a New York Times interview, held by video-conference where she spoke from her home in Tbilisi.

And it was. The International Chess Federation estimates that becoming a chess master demands about 12,480 hours of practice – or three hours per day, 365 days of the year, for 11 years, provided you start before the age of 10 and possess the kind of mental acrobatics suited to the game.

Standoff

But this curious standoff between a child of Stalin’s Russia and the legal wing of Netflix contains an echo of the period when chess became the preferred battle-format (rather than total global obliteration) for an edge in intellectual supremacy – basically the chance to boast – between the USA and the Soviet Union.

Next year marks the 50th anniversary of the totemic world championship chess match between Bobby Fischer, an eccentric New Yorker, and defending champion Boris Spassky, which ended the USSR’s 24-year domination of the prize. It was an elemental contest which gripped the world purely because it showed an American and a Russian sitting down and engaging in what is, ultimately, a past time, with the honour and brain power of both superpowers on the line.

This was the male environment through which Gaprindashvili moved, which was one of the underlying themes of The Queen’s Gambit. She prospered too, inflicting defeats on some male opponents, losing narrowly against others and forcing an acknowledgement of true respect from a chess culture that was just as drenched in chauvinism as every other facet of life in the 1970s.

Women’s world chess champion Nona Gaprindashvili of the Soviet Union at the International Chess Congress in London in 1964. Photograph: Stanley Sherman/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Women’s world chess champion Nona Gaprindashvili of the Soviet Union at the International Chess Congress in London in 1964. Photograph: Stanley Sherman/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Georgia has a curiously rich tradition in chess and provided a disproportionate number of women chess players to Soviet teams through the decades. What remains a rarefied pursuit across the world is a central element to Georgian culture.

Gaprindashvili is a revered figure in her country. The erroneous reference in The Queen’s Gambit is almost certainly down to a peculiar lack of research or care. But would a fictional TV series with a football theme include a line stating that Diego Maradona had never beaten England?

Dishonoured

There’s another interview with Gaprindashvili in the Calvert Journal, which includes the fabulous detail that she had just finished watching Judd Trump, her favourite snooker player, qualify for the semi-finals of the Northern Ireland Open.

It took place in November 2020 and she articulated her sense not of upset but of feeling dishonoured in how she was represented. There is plenty of fire left: frustrated that the pandemic had led to a shutdown of local and national chess tournaments, she intended to resume competition as soon as possible. “After all, chess is what fills my life with energy,” she said.

It sounds as though the “streaming giant” to which we all subscribe has its hands full. Anyone wishing to discover more about Gaprindashvili only has to watch Glory to the Queen, a documentary about the phenomenal popularity and devotion to chess among Georgian women.

It’s not on Netflix.

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