This article was originally featured in our All Rise newsletter on September 27, 2021. Follow the link to subscribe.
It was the kind of unexpected hit no one could have predicted. Tens of millions of people stuck at home in pandemic quarantine were suddenly riveted by the fictional story of a young female chess player.
But a real chess champion from the Republic of Georgia, Nona Gaprindashvili—the first female grandmaster ever—says the Netflix series, The Queen’s Gambit, used her real name to defame and belittle her.
In the series’ final episode, the fictional female chess player takes on a male opponent as a radio commentator narrates in the background. He goes on to say that Nona Gaprindashvili never played men.
The only problem is that in real life, contrary to the script, she had competed with men—scores of them, in fact.
According to a suit filed recently in a federal court in California on behalf of the now-80-year-old Nona, “the professional reputation and brand of Gaprindashvili was inextricably bound up with her courageous efforts to face and defeat estimable male opponents when chess was overwhelmingly a man’s world.” She is seeking $5 million in compensatory damages, plus punitive damages and a permanent injunction against Netflix.
Her lawyer, British-born, Los Angeles-based Alexander Rufus-Isaacs, argues that it was all so unnecessary. “The Queen’s Gambit is a fictional series,” he said in an interview. “Most of the characters in the series are fictional. And they could have easily used the name of some fictional female chess player instead of mentioning my client’s name. They could have achieved the same dramatic effect, and it would not have defamed her.”
This case seems to be part of a larger trend of prominent female public figures trying to reclaim control of their life story. The singer Taylor Swift has waged a public campaign to reclaim ownership of her music, which has been sold against her will. And the former American student Amanda Knox, once convicted of murder in Italy but later exonerated, has bitterly complained that the Hollywood movie Stillwater took inappropriate liberties with her life story.
Whatever the specifics of those cases, The Queen’s Gambit case seems a more straightforward invasion of the principal’s legal rights. Her lawyer, who has been filing and winning defamation cases in U.S. courts since 1998, seems more than a little confident. “The majority of my cases settle, and those settlements are confidential.”
Alexander Rufus-Isaacs is listed in Best Lawyers for 2022 in Copyright Law.
John Ettorre is an Emmy-award-winning writer, based in Cleveland. His work has appeared in more than 100 publications, including the New York Times and the Christian Science Monitor.